Jill Abramson, appearing at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival, shed some light on the role the internet has played in legacy media and the impact it’s had on journalism. Answering questions about her book, “Merchants of Truth: The Business of Facts and The Future of News“, Abramson addressed charges of plagiarism and factual errors in her book. She also defends the role of ethical journalism in the digital world. The discussion was an interesting and at times provocative look at how our relationship with information is changing in the 21st Century.
In “Merchants of Truth”, Abramson aims the spotlight at four icons of modern journalism. Two are established pillars of legacy media: The New York Times and the Washington Post. The other two are recent products of the digital revolution: Buzzfeed and Vice. Abramson compared these icons’ rises and falls, noting that the advent of digital platforms like Facebook and Youtube heavily disrupted the status quo of journalism’s conventional business model. In fact, the very factors that undermined the Times and Post were what enabled Buzzfeed and Vice to thrive.
According to Abramson, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti cracked the code of social media virality. He capitalised on the reach of Facebook and created content designed to be shared. Abramson called this the “bored at work network”. The idea was that Buzzfeed could reach more people than their competitors by focusing on simple and amusing content that users would enjoy sharing with their friends. It was shareable content for sharing’s sake, a phenomenon that would eventually earn the title “clickbait”.
Vice, meanwhile, had roots as a sex, drugs, and rock & roll media startup. The brainchild of Canadian Shane Smith, Vice got its foothold using Youtube, publishing a raw brand of video content. They used a sort of hard-hitting, on-the-ground style of reporting that mixed guerrilla and gonzo journalism elements. Vice recognized that Youtube offered a free publishing platform with burgeoning reach and created engaging video content that went viral.
Both Buzzfeed and Vice found ways to monetise their platforms by selling native ads. Utilising native ads is a practice that Abramson thinks undermines the credibility of journalism. However, both brands had found ways to profit off their content that were compatible with the changing media landscape. Neither began as straight news companies. They added reporting units and laid out ethical journalism standards only after they had become ubiquitous.
The Times and The Post were still relying on subscription revenue when Buzzfeed and Vice entered the seen. At the time, both entities were struggling to keep their doors open.
Native advertising is a type of online advertising disguised to look like the existing form and content on a website. For newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post, these native ads would feature as full-length reports with a flattering slant toward the brand or product sponsoring the content.
For several years, particularly following the US financial crisis in 2008, major news media like The Times and The Post struggled to generate revenue using traditional business models. The Post would eventually be sold to Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos. The Times, meanwhile, accepted a massive loan from Mexican media mogul Charles Slim.
Both The Times and The Post would eventually come to embrace the concept of native ads. Abramson, the first female managing editor at the Times, opposed the move. She now thinks this contributed to her sacking, a career setback Abramson has taken in stride. She pointed out the sexist double standard of criticism leveled at her style of leadership, and even joked of the #pushy Twitter hashtag that went viral in her defense.
Efforts by The Times and The Post to chase the success of Buzzfeed and Vice also worried her. They’d made too great an effort to go viral with relentless coverage of the Donald Trump presidency, she thought. Their coverage undermined their credibility at a time when their reputation of integrity was their greatest asset. Abramson mentioned The Post’s reliance on Chartbeat, a program that measured the virality of individual stories, as an example. She worried that concentrating on viral metrics would prioritise what social media users wanted to read over what editors and reporters considered the most significant news of the day.
Abramson notes that, in recent years, Buzzfeed and Vice are now the ones on the ropes. While Peretti and Smith may have exaggerated the net worth of their companies at their peak, both are struggling today. The Times and The Post, however, are resurgent. Abramson thinks she knows why.
Buzzfeed and Vice build their business models as hosts for digital marketing at a time when advertising was moving away from traditional media. However, Google and Facebook have so devoured the digital marketing landscape that competing in this sphere is no longer sustainable. Ultimately, even digital ad space on pages like Buzzfeed and Vice went the way of classified ads in print newspapers. Abramson mentioned SEO and Google Analytics as causes for this decline. She noted that the measurable metrics of paid Google Ads make them a more effective space for ads spend.
The Times and The Post, meanwhile, have rediscovered journalism’s most valuable asset. Quality, accurate reporting on important stories in the public interest is still the most important factor.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s opposing attitude toward the American free press has renewed public interest in legacy media, i.e. the established elite of publishing. Abramson joked that she hears another cha-chingin her head every time Trump assails the “failing New York Times” in another antagonising tweet. A digital paywall after only three or five monthly articles along with cheaper, online-only subscriptions have restored The Times and The Post to their former glory.
Ultimately, enough people still consider quality reporting worth paying for to keep these pillars of journalism in business.
Abramson drove home that accurate and ethical reporting is still – and always will be – the most vital element for any media business model.
She mentions her recent visit to the New Zealand Herald office. The NZ Herald has been pleased with the returns generated by their recent online paywall. Abramson, however, cautioned them that their model was unsustainable when coupled with what she called “commodity journalism”. They would not survive long-selling recaps of other people’s reporting.
To break truthful news in the public interest is the best path forward. Do what you do best: a lesson that applies to all goods and services.
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