- - Wednesday, February 24, 2021

In 1976, moviegoers were treated to two great, though radically different, films about the news business.

All the President’s Men helped immortalize Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their dogged work investigating Watergate. It depicted journalism at its best. Network, on the other hand, foretold the race to the bottom.

A fictitious tale about a TV news anchor whose ratings were in the toilet, Network prophesied a ratings-at-all-costs style of broadcasting where the aim of fueling shock, anger and resentment replaced the nobler objectives of educating and informing.

Fast forward a half-century after the release of these two films: Local newspapers are shuttering, ad revenue is evaporating for all but the largest publications, public trust is cratering, influential TV news personalities embrace far-fetched conspiracy theories, and the rise of click-bait and social media algorithms are distorting the lens through which we view the world.

Although it is debatable whether there ever was a golden age of journalism, the industry today, especially daily newspapers, is in a state of collapse, according to Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Democracy Without Journalism?”

Pickard argues the fundamental problem is not the perceived partisan bias on the part of news outlets. Instead, the advertising-based business model has proven unsustainable.

“We always knew we shouldn’t leave our press system entirely on the market, going back to the earliest days of the republic,” Pickard said in an interview for the latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast. “The Founding Fathers had a pretty good idea that this is something that we have to shield from the commercial market, that the marketplace of ideas can’t be reduced to a market of commodities.”

Pickard pointed to the disappearance of local newspapers as evidence the ad-based model is in terminal collapse. Every dollar of lost print advertising revenue has been replaced by pennies from Internet ads.

“For most newspapers, there simply isn’t a large enough audience to support them. The idea of paywalls… sounds intuitively fair but the evidence shows that for almost all newspapers this is simply not going to sustain them. We are seeing news deserts emerge across the country. Newspapers are shuttering or at least laying off most of their staff,” Pickard said.

Problems caused by the disappearance of small- and medium-sized newspapers have been compounded by free access to limitless amounts of information of questionable veracity on the Internet. Moreover, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have struggled to consistently police mis- and disinformation.

“The logics they use, the ways in which they design their algorithms, the ways they design which kinds of content are privileged in their news feeds, these have a tremendous impact on what we receive around the world,” Pickard said. “The underlying business model is delivering audiences to advertisers. In the case of Facebook, it is trying to collect as much information from us as possible to then sell to advertisers and third-party data brokers.”

As for possible solutions, Pickard said other democracies subsidize newspapers, radio, and TV stations to ensure a diversity of viewpoints and to reduce incentives to produce content for content’s sake. Norway, for instance, is known for offering state subsidies to both right- and left-wing newspapers.

For more on Pickard’s insights on the future of journalism, as well as an interview with Christopher Dolan, the executive editor of The Washington Times, about the changing media landscape, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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