Journalism's Next Challenge: Overcoming the Threat of Fake News
The last year has turned the United States into a country of information addicts who compulsively check the television, the smartphone and the good old-fashioned newspaper with a burning question: What fresh twist could our national election drama and its executive producer, Donald J. Trump, possibly have in store for us now?
No doubt about it: Campaign 2016 has been a smash hit.
And to the news media have gone the spoils. With Mr. Trump providing must-see TV theatrics, cable news has drawn record audiences. Newspapers have reached online readership highs that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
On Wednesday comes the reckoning.
The election news bubble that’s about to pop has blocked from plain view the expanding financial sinkhole at the center of the paper-and-ink branch of the news industry, which has recently seen a print advertising plunge that was “much more precipitous, to be honest with you, than anybody expected a year or so ago,” as The Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker told me on Friday.
Taken together, it means another rapid depletion in the nation’s ranks of traditionally trained journalists whose main mission is to root out corruption, hold the powerful accountable and sort fact from fiction for voters.
It couldn’t be happening at a worse moment in American public life. The internet-borne forces that are eating away at print advertising are enabling a host of faux-journalistic players to pollute the democracy with dangerously fake news items.
In the last couple of weeks, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets have exposed millions of Americans to false stories asserting that: the Clinton campaign’s pollster, Joel Benenson, wrote a secret memo detailing plans to “salvage” Hillary Clinton’s candidacy by launching a radiological attack to halt voting (merrily shared on Twitter by Roger Stone, an informal adviser to the Trump campaign); the Clinton campaign senior strategist John Podesta practiced an occult ritual involving various bodily fluids; Mrs. Clinton is paying public pollsters to skew results (shared on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr.); there is a trail of supposedly suspicious deaths of myriad Clinton foes (which The Times’s Frank Bruni heard repeated in a hotel lobby in Ohio).
As Mike Cernovich, a Twitter star, alt-right news provocateur and promoter of Clinton health conspiracies, boasted in last week’s New Yorker, “Someone like me is perceived as the new Fourth Estate.” His content can live alongside that of The Times or The Boston Globe or The Washington Post on the Facebook newsfeed and be just as well read, if not more so. On Saturday he called on a President Trump to disband the White House press corps.
He may not have to. All you have to do is look at the effect of the Gannett cuts on its Washington staff, which Politico recently likened to a “blood bath.”
Even before this year’s ad revenue drop, the number of full-time daily journalists — nearly 33,000 according to the 2015 census conducted by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University — was on the way to being half what it was in 2000.
That contraction in the reporting corps, combined with the success of disinformation this year, is making for some sleepless nights for those in Washington who will have to govern in this bifurcated, real-news-fake-news environment.
“It’s the biggest crisis facing our democracy, the failing business model of real journalism,” Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri and a longtime critic of fake news, told me on Saturday.
Ms. McCaskill said that “journalism is partly to blame” for being slow to adjust as the internet turned its business model upside down and social media opened the competitive floodgates. “Fake news got way out ahead of them,” she said.
It does not augur well for the future. Martin Baron, the Washington Post executive editor, said when we spoke last week, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning democracy?”
The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism. And how well the news media gets through its postelection hangover will have a lot to do with how the next chapter in the American political story is told.
That’s why the dire financial reports from American newsrooms are so troubling. If the national reporting corps is going to be reduced even more during such an election-driven readership boom, what are things going to look like when the circus leaves town?
I surveyed the higher precincts of the industry last week, and what I found wasn’t entirely gloomy; there was even some cause for optimism. But there’s going to be a lot of nail-biting and some bloodletting on the way to deliverance.
It’s pretty much taken as a given that the news audience will largely shrink next year, despite what is expected to be a compelling news environment.
“Is anything in 2017, politically speaking, going to be as sexy as it was in 2016? I’m not going to play poker at that table,” Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, told me on Friday.
Still, though he’s predicting a ratings fall of 30 percent or perhaps “much more” at MSNBC, he said, “I don’t have financial pressure on my bottom line.”
That’s not only because MSNBC and its competitors earned tens of millions of unexpected election-related dollars this year, but also because they still draw substantial income from cable subscriber fees.
Newspapers are the originators of that subscriber-advertising setup. But as lucrative print ads dwindle, and Facebook and Google gobble up more than two-thirds of the online advertising market, affecting digital-only outlets, too, newspapers are scrambling to build up their subscriber bases and break their reliance on print ads.
Mr. Baker of The Journal said he was confident that newspapers could make the transition but acknowledged a rough interim period that will require cuts and will be even harder to navigate or survive for smaller, regional papers (a practical invitation to municipal corruption).
The cause for relative optimism comes from the performance of some of the more ambitious, well-reported newspaper articles of the last year.
The Times article revealing Mr. Trump’s nearly $1 billion tax loss in 1995 drew some 5.5 million page views. That’s huge. The Washington Post doesn’t share its numbers, but behold the more than 13,000 online comments attached to just one of David A. Fahrenthold’s articles about how Mr. Trump ran his charity in ways that clashed with philanthropic moral conventions.
But in this new era, subscriber numbers are more important than fly-by-night readership.
Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, The Times’s newly named deputy publisher, pointed to a bright spot in last week’s earnings report. Mixed in with a 19-percent drop in print advertising revenue (!) was a 21 percent increase in digital advertising and, more important, the addition of 116,000 new digital-only subscriptions. The Times now has nearly 1.6 million subscribers to its digital-only offerings.
“It shows people are willing to pay for great, original, deeply reported and expert journalism,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “That will allow great journalism to thrive.”
It could be Pollyannaish to think so, but maybe this year’s explosion in fake news will serve to raise the value of real news. If so, it will be great journalism that saves journalism.
“People will ultimately gravitate toward sources of information that are truly reliable, and have an allegiance to telling the truth,” Mr. Baron said. “People will pay for that because they’ll realize they’ll need to have that in our society.”
As The Times’s national political correspondent Jonathan Martin wrote on Twitter last week, “Folks, subscribe to a paper. Democracy demands it.”
Or don’t. You’ll get what you pay for.