Can, or should quality news outlets survive in our algorithmic ‘post-truth’ society?

Paresseux Scribouillard
May 7 · 9 min read
The ‘Good old times’ according to some, I’m sure :) Monk at a scriptorium, public domain from Wikimedia

The concept of quality news outlets in 2019 can seem like the talk of a few academics not very in touch with the economics of news in our current environment.

There is a bevy of articles, such as this one from Sean Dodson discussing the harm that clickbait does to journalism as a whole.

With the price of online advertising in free fall over the last years, news organization have been left with “new media pennies” instead of “old media dollars” as clearly explained by Jones and Salter in “Digital Journalism”.

To add to the severity of that crisis, Ireland (as well as other European countries) unlike the US don’t seem to have benevolent billionaires that could fund news endeavours.

That can be by actively defining what is the message. In the USA, one very stark example would be the case of Robert Mercer. Its company Sinclair Media owns a number of local television stations in the US and had a pro Trump script read by dozens of anchor, with exactly the same words.

CREEPY with a capital C — Video from Deadspin’s Youtube Channel

It can also be by defining what is not going in the media. By litigating your way out of the media, to stay outside of coverage, as is the case of Denis O’Brien in Ireland.

It results in a blind spot in the Irish media landscape, like when he successfully tried to silence the majority of Irish media in 2016. Multiple respectable publications have recently shone light on the issue of media concentration in Ireland.

Our boy Denis ! Image from this wonderful article in the Irish Times

It’s such an issue in Ireland in fact, that it was raised in the European Parliament recently.

With that in mind can we expect quality news outlet to survive the market?

I actually do expect quality news outlets not only to survive, but to actually expand and thrive in the years to come. But first, let’s rewind a bit.

The loss of a monopoly

To provide any meaningful answer to the survival of quality news outlets, we have to turn to what it is still often viewed as the harbinger of journalism : the Internet. And few suspected anything in the 1990s.

So innocent, they don’t know that Google and Facebook will eat their entire business ❤ Image from the very informative “History of the New York Times timeline

At that time, more and more people had an access to Internet and it we were at the height of the dotcom bubble. A time where finding a tangible business plan was not the issue. As noted in 2015 by Ben Geier, during that era, anyone with an idea could make money.

But after more than 5 years of insane and unchecked growth on the stock markets, late 2000 saw the index combining 280 “Internet” companies losing almost 2 trillion dollars in value.

Image from the CNN Money article linked just above

Even that event would just be a setback. Internet giants would emerge from that era and news organizations relied on them more and more.

So much so that Internet giants such as Google have established themselves as a place to find and access news, as noted by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen in a process called “Infomediation”.

Maybe it was because executives in news organizations didn’t see any value into understanding the mechanics of the web, deemed too technical and unworthy of journalists time.

Or maybe it was because it allowed to reduce budgets, instead of investing in the technology projects and the talent needed.

Either way the result was the same. At the start of this decade, even major news organizations realized how much they were dependent, almost addicted to Google and Facebook. The “duopoly” now controlled the flow of readers, as well as the advertising market.

Facebook to Google : Are we the baddies? Image from the industry website PressGazette

As covered recently by the Columbia School of Journalism, news organization woke up extremely late to the new reality that even if they did outstanding work, if it wasn’t referenced on Google and promoted on Facebook, it was almost as if it did not exist.

During the first decade of that century, news companies never stopped to ask questions on the relationship with the reader they were losing.

People just “Googling the news” without knowing from where it came from was the new normal.

That state of mind is probably a translation of the print mentality : content is king and all things being equal on the news stand, the best content gets bought by the readers.

While the content is still crucially important, it’s not king anymore, rather it is the discoverability of said content, on various platforms that is king now.

Even if you produce the best content in the world, if you have to know the exact URL to access the website, or if there is no promotion for it on Twitter / Facebook, you’re probably missing on a large potential readership.

Disruption in the market of knowledge

What has been happening to news companies and the journalism industry as a whole might of concern, but it’s not new.

In fact what is happening to big media organizations is a removal of their monopoly, or oligopoly in the market of knowledge.

It might be comparable to what happened to monks after the invention of the modern printing press by Gutenberg. In a matter of years, there was a tremendous shift in the way information could be shared.

The original disruptor in the market of knowledge1 Image from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin

The analogy between the Gutenberg and the Internet was the subject of numerous studies in the end of the 1990s and the start of 2000s, such as “A distant mirror? the Internet and the printing press” by Bawden and Robinson.

Or from another angle with Donna Hoffman in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Introduction to the Special Issue on Marketing Science and the Internet”.

Gil-Scott Heron, author of this song, based upon “a slogan that was popular among the 1960s Black Power movements in the United States.” according to Wikipedia — Image from “The Graffiti Wall Project

But since, it seems that particular comparison has gone out of favour with academics, and few in the media are asking what would be the consequences of the shift from a minority controlling media creation, to a much more open and wild environment.

In a curious turn of events, one of the most recent journal article dates from 2010 in the magazine “Foreign Affairs” to make that connection. The article talks about the disruption of the established players in the game and comes from none other than Eric Schmidt.

From 2001 to 2011 he was the CEO of Google, and one could consider Google already a very well established player in the middle of the decade, generating more than $3 billion dollars in revenue for 2004, the year it realized its IPO.

By the time Schmidt published that article in 2010, Google generated $28 billion, almost 10 times that revenue. That same year, according to market research firm ZenithOptimedia, Google already gobbled up the Internet ad market, with 44% of the global internet ad expenditure.

That leads to various questions.

Just how did the journalism industry did not see that the rise of Google and others was a ticking time bomb?

That soon they would be dependent of those new companies, not the other way around?

Exact consequences were certainly not foreseeable, but there had already been examples of what monopoly of a (relatively) newly established player could look like.

A good example had occurred a few years before the start of the new millenia. It was Microsoft antitrust case of 1998 against the United States involving a new giant of software (Microsoft had found success in the 1980s, but its breakout moment came when it launched Windows 95 and owning a PC became synonymous with having Windows on it) disrupting a entire field, much to the dismay of established players, like IBM for instance.

How Microsoft would become a monopoly by National Geographic

Yet no news outlet seem to foresee the rise of Google and Facebook as a threat to their business model in the early 2000s.

Coming to terms with the new reality and moving onwards

For the past couple of years, the news and media industry seem to have started to really started to wake up to that new landscape, also helped by more and more scandals underlining how much power Google, Facebook and others actually held.

In experimenting with paywalls, metered or not, as well as others forms of payment, there seems to be a rediscovery of the importance of the link with the reader.

10 years after its creation, it is the lesson that Mediapart, a French independent media created by Edwy Plenel, a former editor in chief of Le Monde.

Flyer for an event in Paris (early 2018) in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Mediapart — Image from the anniversary announcement on Mediapart’s official blog

Created in late 2007, mere months after Nicolas Sarkozy became president it chose to have a paywall from the start, with no advertisers.

This was a major departure from what every publication was doing at the time, with the free model being seen as the only way at the time.

But, as Kim Willsher writes for The Guardian, it is now setting the news agenda with high profile investigations often started by Mediapart before being discussed in other media, when TV or radio decide to join.

With more than 140,000 subscribers (generating a revenue of almost €14 million), it is the living proof that yes, digital can be the way forward for quality journalism, providing the means to do long investigative pieces.

The situation is obviously more complicated for established players such as The Guardian or The New York Times.

But both of those juggernauts of the news industry seem to be well on their way to be sustainable, with The Guardian on track to break even this year.

Since originally writing that article during the course of my Masters, The Guardian has announced it is now profitable, to the surprise of many in media.

The Guardian Makes A Profit: Media in 60 Seconds, courtesy of G-Zero Media

The NYT reported that in 2017 subscriptions accounted for more than $1 billion dollars. Moreover, digital-only subscribers amounted to $340 million in that billion and has been growing 46 percent compared to 2016. It then stands to reason to think that soon, Digital will account for half of the NYT subscription revenue.

Of course, the real victims of the last decades have been in the local, regional newspapers. But there again, there might be hope. Several French regional daily newspapers have find new ways to reinvent themselves, with the help of the Internet and the advent of digital.

Take “La Voix Du Nord” for instance which has seen it circulation fall from around 300.000 in the end of the 90s to 206,374 for the year 2016–2017. At the same time it registered a huge uptick on its website and apps over the last few years, with a growth of 25% in 2016.

To support and built on those figures, the newspaper relaunched a new digital subscription in February of 2018 that allows it to have the regional editions it would have had in print in the past.

In 2017 it had 27 local editions, but aims to bring that up to 40, allowing itself to have a more in-depth cover. While it’s early days,the newspaper has announced it already has more than 10.000 subscribers and aims to bring the number of digital subscriptions to 30.000 in 3 years.

Nice-Matin, another regional newspaper, had its fair share of issues and was bought back by its staff in late 2014. In rethinking their offering, the editorial staff decided in 2016 to launch a digital subscription that would be based around what is called solutions journalism.

Image from their blog post entitled “Why Nice-Matin is renewing its commitment to solutions journalism

The promise of doing quality journalism, sometimes investigating issues for months obviously worked because at the end of 2016 the newspaper saw a 70% increase in its subscriptions.

That trend has carried through onto 2018 when the digital officer of the newspaper reported that they were now entering the 22nd month of uninterrupted growth in subscriptions after the launch of that new offer.

Both those examples bring real money, not social media pennies, and a real direct link to their readership, instead of the promise of more advertising money or some other smoke and mirrors strategy.

Paresseux Scribouillard

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Parce que des fois, j’aime écrire plus long qu’un tweet