Misunderstanding media

The traditional media failed the American people this past election in several specific ways:

  • The media failed spectacularly in its job of predicting the outcome of the election;
  • The media failed to report on Donald Trump’s character and policies in a meaningful way, preferring instead to poke fun at him;
  • The media failed to report on the underlying cultural tension that led to Trump’s victory, preferring instead to report on fringe characters in order to portray all of his supporters as a basket of deplorables.

These failures were a direct result of changes in the media landscape in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that have been fundamentally misunderstood by the great institutions of American journalism.

For the past 25 years the means of media production and distribution have been democratizing. I believe that the process of democratization is now essentially complete. Smartphones and social media have turned every individual in the developed world (and many in the developing world) into media agents.

The traditional media have interpreted this sort of media democratization as a fundamental threat to their existence. Before democratization they’d understood their role in society to be as the collectors, packagers and distributors of facts. Of Truth. Opinion was for the op-ed pages. It was second to facts.

Democratization threatened to make facts commodity. If everyone in the world could capture the facts on a smartphone and distribute it instantly to everyone in the world, what was the purpose of CNN? Of the New York Times? What value was a “paper of record” that printed only every twenty-four hours?

The media decided to get out of the fact business. They decided to get into the opinion business.

The New York Times didn’t cover the 2016 election as the “paper of record.” They didn’t live up to their bold slogan of “all the news that’s fit to print.” They didn’t seek out Trump voters and try to explain who they were and why they were voting for him.

The New York Times instead decided to play into the coastal elite’s stereotypes of Trump voters with sensationalist, scare-mongering, liberal-baiting stories like A Militia Gets Battle Ready for a ‘Gun-Grabbing’ Clinton Presidency:

When Mr. Trump says he wants to make America great again, a message that has appealed to a broad segment of the electorate, Mr. Hill and his roughly 50 local militiamen are particularly enthralled. They long for an America they believe has been stolen from them by liberals, immigrants and “the P.C. crowd.” Their America is one where Christianity is taught in schools, abortion is illegal and immigrants hail from Europe, not faraway Muslim lands.

This changing approach to journalism was a conscious reaction to what the Times perceived to be a changing landscape.

A Times strategy memo from February described it this way:

The digital news marketplace nudges us away from covering incremental developments — readers can find those anywhere in a seemingly endless online landscape. Instead, it favors hard-hitting “only-in-The New York Times” coverage: authoritative journalism and information readers can use to navigate their lives.

Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times, talked about this in terms of “contextual reporting.” The New Yorker profiled her and quoted a paragraph from her review of Game Change, in which Abramson criticizes the authors for just reporting facts:

Woodward is famous for his flat, just-the-facts-ma’am style, if one can call it that. It is the old-fashioned newspaperman’s credo of show, don’t tell. He rarely pauses in his narratives to synthesize or analyze, let alone to judge his powerful subjects, especially those who have been his sources. He has only one angle, the close-up.

It’s a revealing paragraph. It tells you everything you need to know about how the media viewed itself in an age of digital transformation. The facts don’t matter anymore. Interpretation does. The Times’ job is not to report facts, anyone can do that! The Times’ job is to teach you how to think!

Sulzberger hired Abramson as Executive Editor to transform the Times for the age of social:

Unlike Howell Raines, who wanted to transform the newsroom, Abramson preached newsroom continuity. She would create a new leadership team with “some new people.” But her real innovations, she vowed, would be digital.

That’s what Sulzberger wanted to hear. He told me that he needed an editor who understood “the move from search to social and what that means for us. Increasingly, people are learning where they want to go, what they want to consume, how they want to engage with news or games or a variety of different things from each other.”

Abramson did what she was asked.  She designed and built a newspaper for the age of the filter bubble.

And as the Times went, so did CNN. And MSNBC. And everyone else. They became part of the problem. Divided media talking to a divided country. So that they could get more clicks.

The Times went so far as to give the entire newsroom real-time feedback on how their stories were performing by building a real-time analytics dashboard called Stela.

Nieman reports:

Stela pulls in data from the Times’ desktop and mobile websites, as well as all of the Times’ mobile apps (though not articles hosted off-platform, such as on Facebook’s Instant Articles). In addition to elementary metrics like pageviews and referrals (a section of the dashboard helpfully titled “How did readers find this story?”), Stela breaks down other data points such as the percentage of readers coming to each story from different countries (Nick Kristof uses it to see where readers of his international columns are coming from) and how many readers are subscribers, registered users, or anonymous traffic. It also pulls top comments and shows the social posts that are doing best, so that editors can see which Facebook or Twitter posts have been shared or retweeted most widely. Social media editors monitor Stela and can reuse language from the posts that have performed best, rather than trying to eyeball various Twitter or Facebook accounts for what appear to be popular posts.

It isn’t just used to change headlines, although it’s used for that a lot. It’s used for new story ideas too:

“We’re excited to be hearing that this tool can be used to help develop story ideas,” Mayne said. “Often times, we’ll do a story and there will be a lot of comments, a lot of interest, and before you might have to pay attention to separate Twitter feeds or to the article comments. Stela highlights them for you, and editors can use that to think about whether they want to do a sidebar or a followup story.”

So the New York Times now edits itself based on its readers. Who find it based on ranking algorithms. Who read it because it tells them what they want to hear. All so that it can survive and thrive in a digital, democratized, social age. So much for All the news that’s fit to print. So much for the paper of record.

The Times has been turning itself into Buzzfeed.

This is tragic because the true mission of the Times in an increasingly digital and democratized world should be to tell fact from fiction. It should have embraced its role as the paper of record and constantly and consistently sought to report the truth and the facts. Just as it had before. The “incremental developments” it refers to are not incremental and they are not commodity. They are the facts. And the mainstream media decided to abandon its commitment to facts.

They were wrong. It turns out that the true impact of a democratized media isn’t a commoditization of facts, but exactly the opposite. Democratization gives everyone a platform to peddle lies and half-truths. Info Wars and The Huffington Post and Drudge Report and Buzzfeed and FOXNews and Little Green Footballs and worse. They don’t deserve the italics. They don’t report facts. They don’t compete with the old Times. They lie to people and make it hard to sort the fact from the fiction.

And now that the Times and its peers have decided to become Buzzfeed, there’s almost nowhere to turn for real news. These days the only place you can go to get facts are in the financial press. Bloomberg News and The Financial Times are still good for facts because their reporting either makes or loses people money. People who use information to make a living still care about the facts. But everyone else cares more about their filter bubble.

Facts have become a luxury good, only available to the global elite who value them because they’re highly-leveraged means to a financial end. The proleteriat — the electorate — have been left with Buzzfeed and The New York Times trying to be Buzzfeed and FOXNews and CNN and MSNBC trying to be FOXNews.

This is the media story of Coming Apart. This is the failure of the media. This is part of the reason why America can’t have good presidents. Because our news media has failed us.

[This is part of a series. The first post was Coming Apart, which was about a decades’ worth of warnings that Trump would win. This post is about the media’s coverage and editorial process. I think my next post will be about the collapse of America’s social fabric and how technology of increasing richness — from radio to broadcast television to cable television to the Web to social media to Call of Duty — has eroded America’s cultural institutions and sense of civic space and responsibility.]