Facts Aren’t Dead. Yet.
If you can look past the hysteria, you’ll discover a new, global journalism ecosystem that’s more diverse, leaner, and healthier
It’s been 18 months since “post-truth” was announced as Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries, but the sentiment continues to resonate throughout the world, and in particular, in English-speaking countries. The Anglophone media sphere is still in the throes of a sustained collective freakout.
Every day, our journalists wonder out loud whether the facts are still sacred, worry that shady foreign entities are manipulating political debate, and fret that Facebook has left the outrage levels permanently dialled up to ten. Orwell and Huxley it seems, were right all along.
Bear in mind, this has all come off the back of a sustained period of unprecedented disruption to the world of news. For half a century, global media empires were built off a stable and very lucrative business model. You captured a mass audience through a combination of radio, television or print, charged advertisers for the privilege of speaking to them (without the audience’s consent), and got drunk at awards dinners congratulating yourselves for being the moral conscience of the free world.
Then the internet arrived, and in the space of 20 years we went from classified ads and predictable cashflows, to paywalls, fake news, pivot-to-video, The News Feed and anchors reading prepared speeches on local television stations. Is it any wonder many journalists and large sections of the news media have been left reeling?
The web sucked all the oxygen out of the old ecosystem and once the tide receded, a bunch of old, big fish were left lying on the beach gasping for air. The old revenue streams dried up. Advertising spend was swallowed by the new tech platforms, who became the new masters of content, and everyone was left playing catchup.
The internet however, did far more than disrupt traditional media business models. As Branko Milanovic points out (in one of my favourite articles of 2018) the internet levelled the playing field for control over the narrative. In the “good old days” he argues, a relatively small number of gatekeepers determined what was reported, about whom and when. From the 1950s through to the mid 1990s, the Western media had no competitors, which meant they were able to operate largely uncontested in their own countries, as well as abroad. That gave editors incredible control over what people thought not just in Anglophone countries, but around the world. They had a monopoly, and they weren’t afraid to use it.
The honeymoon ended abruptly once the ‘others’ realised that they too could go global. First came Al Jazeera, and then state-sponsored news channels in Turkey, Russia, China and Latin America. Then came a shared, online media space and with it, blogs, cheap websites, Twitter, cameras on phones, Youtube, social media, Facebook, Reddit, and podcasts. In the space of a few years, the range of opinions available to the average person exploded, and that meant that people could suddenly choose their own news adventure.
Confirmation bias, it turns out, is a hell of a drug — and the pharmacy was suddenly open for business.
That, says Milanovic, is why we are now going through a phase of hysterical reaction to fake news. It’s the first time that Western media outlets have had to compete for the narrative not only on the global stage, but also at home. They’ve received a very rude shock; since when do foreigners get to tell you what’s happening in your own backyard? (the rest of the world of course, has been dealing with that problem for decades).
It’s been a double whammy. The internet destroyed the Western media’s business models, and globalisation destroyed their monopoly over the narrative; and as we all know, the biggest kids cry the hardest when you take their toys away.
So does that mean fact-based journalism is dead?
Should we all just give up, and resign ourselves to some kind of endless Foucaldian nightmare?
Bear in mind that the people writing about the death of journalism and the end of truth tend to be the same people who lost their steady jobs at established news organisations. The complaints of the incumbents are predictable (and they’ve still got big loudspeakers).
It’s what happens every time we invent a new technology medium. The monks complained about the printing presses, the publishing houses complained about cheap daily newspapers, the wireless scared everyone into thinking the Martians were coming, televisions destroyed an entire MTV generation, the internet ended truth as we know it, and the smartphone ruined the teenagers. Apparently.
Yes, there’s a lot less old-fashioned journalism. But what’s left is better quality. Those English speaking newspapers that were quick and nimble enough to move into the modern era are seeing new opportunities open up. Following the tumult of the search and social media years, most of them have now settled on a new business model — digital subscriptions. Many, such as the New York Times, The Guardian, The Times and The Wall Street Journal have newly reliable revenue streams, and renewed journalistic independence, allowing them to continue to produce quality reporting. They’re entering the most exciting period of digital journalism yet, the stories as a service era, where journalism is paid for not by the advertisers, but by readers, for readers.
Fact based reporting is also still very much alive. People aren’t stupid. They might like bias, but most are able to separate it from bullshit.
In Europe for example, trust levels in written, broadcast and radio media have increased in the last five years. In the United States, the most trusted publications, in order, are The Economist, public television, Reuters, the BBC, National Public Radio, The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal. In Australia, trust in traditional news media and journalism has rebounded from 46% in 2017 to 61% in 2018. And according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2018, there has been an overall global increase in trust in traditional media, reaching levels not seen since 2012.
There are also incredible new mediums made available by the digital revolution, and they’re breathing new life not just into English language journalism, but to journalism around the world. Independent reporters have found new, niche audiences via email newsletters, Youtube, Twitter, podcasts, and new blogging platforms such as this one.
There’s been an explosion of new, high quality online publications in every imaginable area (if you’re a science junkie like me, the past few years alone have given us Nautilus, Aeon, Undark, and Quanta). If diversity is the sign of a healthy ecosystem then it’s looking pretty good out there. Or, as I’m fond of reminding my friends, “if you’re tired of Facebook, why not try the internet instead?”
So here’s an idea. How about, the next time someone starts lamenting the death of truth at a dinner party, challenge them to donate or subscribe to good quality journalism instead? If you need some inspiration, check out the finalists from the most recent Shining Light Awards for investigative journalism around the world. If you’re in the United States, consider supporting the amazing work being done by ProPublica and the Centre for Public Integrity, both winners of Pulitzer Prizes in recent years.
If you’re a lefty snowflake then how about finally giving in to the endless pleas from The Guardian? Their reporting on the Panama Papers and Mossack Fonseca are surely worth a few dollars a month alone. South Africans, you all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to #GuptaLeaks and the amaBhungane. Perhaps it’s time to consider how much their impact on the future of the country is worth to you, and give them a corresponding gift?
Consider this an invitation to do some of your own research and finally put down a few dollars a month on supporting quality journalism.
The best things in life aren’t free. Good journalism doesn’t happen by magic. Perhaps it’s time to go spend a little of your money on things that really matter?
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