The Fourth Estate: RIP


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You can stop blaming the mainstream media. It’s dead.

Dual currents of catastrophic public-trust issues and rapidly declining advertising revenues are not cycles in the life of an industry.

They are death knells.

The last nail in an almost-sealed coffin was hammered in on Election Night 2016. Coverage of the campaign – dominated by the sleaze factor weighing against Donald Trump and in favor of Hillary Clinton, and void of any substantive, issues-based analysis – failed, to the utter shock of media elites, to move Clinton across the finish line.

Whether accurate or not, the public’s at-large conclusion is the media are incompetent, untrustworthy – and now unnecessary.

A Pew Research Center study released this year found only 6 percent of people trust the mainstream media. That was before The Presidential Reality Show swung into high gear.

In the end, neither the clearly Clinton-leaning media, nor Hollywood, nor the recording industry could affect the outcome. Cable-news networks, which valued slanderous allegations and secretly recorded private conversations over issues-based substantive coverage, may have benefited from broader audiences and resulting advertising revenues. But the gains will be short-lived.

In the final analysis, Trump used social media to blitz the mainstream media with quick-hit counterpunches to render traditional broadcast reporting and longform journalism, what’s left of it, obsolete. He stated on CBS’ 60 Minutes: “…the fact that I have so much power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., I think it helped me win all of these races…”

Not even the $700 million traditional election-advertising campaign undertaken by the Democrats could compete with Trump’s mastery of the New Fourth Estate: Social media.

ANTI-MEDIA, MEDIA
But Trump’s successful anti-media tactics, hitting them head on and hard, are only part of the story – and part of the perfect storm striking the media this fall. This new wave of media hatred hits when public trust is at historic lows and when the financial health of just about every major media company is hitting depths not seen since the 2008-09 fall of the economy.

The so-called mainstream media – print, digital and broadcast outlets largely owned by one of six mega corporations – began 2016 with guarded optimism about how merged content platforms might save dramatically declining revenue and audience.

But digital advertising and related revenue streams, while modestly growing, are not close to compensating for losses in print and other more traditional advertising. And the numbers are worsening: Second- and third-quarter revenue for all the major newspaper companies are down – dramatically.

From The New York Times to News Corp., which includes The Wall Street Journal, to Gannett, America’s biggest newspaper company, revenues are down between 12 and 18 percent.

The across-the-board bad news prompted staffing cutbacks, merged operations and reductions in space allocated for news for Gannett, News Corp., The New York Times and others.

The industry is closing in on a decade of dramatic cutbacks in reporting and editing power, which according to estimates from The American Society of News Editors and Poynter Institute, amount to about half of all newsroom jobs being eliminated in less than 10 years.

EVEN WORSE THAN IT SEEMS
Close watchers of the industry know the real picture is even more dire. Most jobs lost consisted of middle managers, copy editors, reporters and photographers. A new generation of digital-reporting positions was created, which help somewhat buffer overall declines. But these positions hardly replace the lost reporting power.

What was nearly 60,000 newsroom positions nationwide a decade ago is barely 30,000 journalists today.

Larger companies like Gannett and New Media Investment Group/GateHouse Media have stayed profitable via the ultimately self-defeating strategy of acquiring other operations, slashing costs, merging operations and boosting short-term profitability.

This practice, now several years old, has resulted in homogenized, shared content within companies. Newspapers have stayed alive this long by consolidating:

“It’s a simple formula: Buy a single newspaper or newspaper group and absorb it into an existing corporate structure. That means most customer service, national sales, marketing and IT support, as well as national and international news content, are delegated to a centralized, corporate-managed location. Gannett, for example, in about 100 different markets, offers the same national, international, business, feature/entertainment and political coverage across the country.” (Trends Journal, November 2014.)

The new generation of digital jobs propping up newsrooms today is designed to drive digital traffic by sharing, linking and aggregating bits and pieces of news. There is no new wave of investigative, in-depth or beat reporters to probe, analyze and set the agenda for public debate and discourse.

For generations, news was produced from the bottom up. Community, regional and metro newspapers covered their markets with vigor, holding public officials and institutions accountable. They connected with their communities by covering issues that mattered to readers. They set the agenda. Broadcast news traditionally followed newspapers’ lead.

Wire services, broadcast outlets and larger newspapers maintained state-capitol and Washington news bureaus. They were where news broke, where critical sources lived and worked.

NO ONE MINDING THE STORE
Today, there are virtually no news bureaus left. On the local- and state-reporting level, beat reporters – from politics and crime to education and government – are virtually non-existent. Middle managers and assigning editors? Gone. Specialty reporters, covering complex issues, are increasingly hard to find.

Instead of news created by and shaped for your interests, your local newspaper publishes canned political, national, world and business coverage provided by its corporate mothership – the same report offered in all newspapers owned by that corporate entity. The same holds true for the local website. It looks the same, feels the same and acts the same as that company’s websites in markets nationwide.

Centralized production desks make the bulk of news and presentation decisions for scores of publications – a one-dimensional, singularly focused perspective on the news, served up over and over.

Local coverage tops off the report, but it’s far more flavoring than substance.
Moreover, as traditional media began its rapid downward spiral, a generation of alternative media sources, from Breitbart to Infowars.com, took shape, chomping away at mainstream media’s audience footprint – and credibility.

Digital outlets still spring up worldwide. They fill content niches, attract audiences who share common beliefs and perceptions, and capitalize on younger generations who grew up digesting news in tiny bites, and who have never had a newspaper in their hands.

These digital outlets, fueled by a growing public view that media were biased and not to be trusted, grew their digital footprints while newspaper companies ceased investing in news and sought only to merge and acquire their way to profitability.

As we wrote two years ago:

“Some of the big newspaper companies might pitch to their shareholders that they are investing in the newsroom but, for the most part, those are code words for crafting new systems that merely streamline and package whatever meager content they are still producing across multiple platforms.” (Trends Journal, November 2014.)

Today, it’s much worse. For those who argue a biased media is their biggest concern, they may want to consider the disheartening reality that there are virtually no feet left on the beat.

The layoffs and other cost-cutting measures unfo
lding as 2016 concludes – including slashing space allocated for news in newspapers and merging or cutting sections – are taking the industry a point of no return.

Traditional newspaper readers, growing older and increasingly frustrated by scant news reports and perceived biased reporting, are no longer holding the bottom up for newspapers. And younger readers have abandoned those news sources for more expedient, aggregated-content sources that shape the substance and delivery of content to their needs and interests.

And then there’s the newly formed Era of Trump.

In the days following his victory, the post-mortem analysis from media pundits finally got it right: The president-elect took ownership of social media and won the battle on that front.

His immediate, to-the-point and often below-the-belt retorts “trumped” all other reporting. He controlled the narrative and, in the process, controlled what was perceived as fact.

And he won.  – TJ  

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