This story is part of our special coverage, The News in Crisis.
The news media is in trouble. The advertising-driven business model is on the brink of collapse. Trust in the press is at an all-time low. And now those two long-brewing concerns have been joined by an even larger existential crisis. In a post-fact era of fake news and filter bubbles, in which audiences cherry-pick the information and sources that match their own biases and dismiss the rest, the news media seems to have lost its power to shape public opinion.
It’s worth remembering, though, that as recently as 30 years ago, people worried that the press had entirely too much power. In 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published a book called Manufacturing Consent, which argued that the US media puts a straitjacket on national discussion. The news, they argued, was determined by the small handful of media corporations capable of reaching a mass audience—a huge barrier to entry that kept smaller, independent voices out of the conversation. The corporations’ business model relied on national-brand advertisers, which tended to not support publications or stories they found controversial or distasteful. And journalists relied on the cooperation of high-ranking sources, a symbiotic relationship that prevented the press from publishing anything too oppositional. As a result, Chomsky and Herman wrote, “the raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print.” The result was a false national consensus, one that ignored outlying facts, voices, and ideas.
In the three decades since Herman and Chomsky leveled their critique, almost every aspect of the news industry has changed. National-brand advertising has given way to automated exchanges that place ads across thousands of sites, regardless of their content. Politicians no longer need to rely on journalists to reach their audiences but instead can speak to voters directly on Twitter. In fact, the ability to reach a national audience now belongs to everyone. There is nothing to prevent fringe ideas and arguments from entering the informational bloodstream—and nothing to stop them from spreading.
These developments have upended the business logic that once pushed journalists toward middle-of-the-road consensus. When there were only three national news broadcasts, each competed to attract the broadest audience and alienate as few potential viewers as possible. But with infinite news sources, audiences follow the outlets that speak most uniquely to their interests, beliefs, and emotions. Instead of appealing to the broad center of American political opinion, more news outlets are chasing passionate niches. As media theorist Clay Shirky says, they can’t rely on captive viewers but always have to hunt down new ones, “recruiting audiences rather than inheriting them.”
These trends have been in place since the dawn of the internet, but they were supercharged over the past couple of years as social media—and especially Facebook—emerged as a major news source. Media professionals’ already-eroding power to steer the national conversation has largely vanished. Before social media, a newspaper editor had the final say as to which stories were published and where they appeared. Today, readers have usurped that role. An editor can publish a story, but if nobody shares it, it might as well never have been written.
The Decline in News Jobs
If readers are the new publishers, the best way to get them to share a story is by appealing to their feelings—usually not the good ones. A recent paper in Human Communication Research found that anger was the “key mediating mechanism” determining whether someone shared information on Facebook; the more partisan and enraged someone was, the more likely they were to share political news online. And the stories they shared tended to make the people who read them even more furious. “You need to be radical in order to gain market share,” says Sam Lessin, a former vice president of product management at Facebook. “Reasonableness gets you no points.”
In other words, we have gone from a business model that manufactures consent to one that manufactures dissent—a system that pumps up conflict and outrage rather than watering it down.
This sounds dire. Heck, it is dire. But the answer is not to pine for the days when a handful of publications defined the limits of public discourse. That’s never coming back, and we shouldn’t want it to. Instead, smart news operations, like the ones profiled in these pages, are finding new ways to listen and respond to their audiences—rather than just telling people what to think. They’re using technology to create a fuller portrait of the world and figuring out how to get people to pay for good work. And the best of them are indeed creating really, really good work. As the past 30 years of press history shows, everything changes. Great journalism helps us understand how and why things change, and we need that now more than ever.
Jason Tanz (@jasontanz) is editor at large at WIRED.
This article appears in the March issue. Subscribe now.