Journalism for good

Published May 14, 2023
The writer researches newsroom culture.
The writer researches newsroom culture.

IF you remember Facebook when it started, you’ll remember the excitement of connecting with old friends and family in faraway places. Over the years, the platform grew to a place where folks consumed and shared media content. No outlet better epitomised this time than Buzzfeed, which created engaging and profitable content which had the viral touch. The company decided to go public in Dec 2021 and was heralded as the future of digital media. Its news division, Buzzfeed News, grew and won Pulitzers for its reporting. But then, last month, Buzzfeed announced the closure of Buzzfeed News after the company’s shares fell 95 per cent since going public.

Heavyweights in the US media have been busy writing obituaries, and not just for Buzzfeed News, these past few months. Gawker shut down again, after first closing in 2016. Vice News announced last month it was reorganising its news division and cutting jobs, but two weeks later, it was reportedly filing for bankruptcy.

What does the demise of such outlets, in just a tad over a decade, tell us about the ability of profit-driven media to sustain quality journalism? Media owners, often backed by Big Money, don’t seem to believe in journalism as an important component of democracy. So they jumped on social media platforms to build their business because that is where audiences were. Journalism driven by the market has always needed eyeballs to show to advertisers, but in the digital era, it’s been dependent on algorithms, which change at their will and take audiences elsewhere. Big Tech has shown it cannot be the media’s ally — today it does not need news content to keep going.

We’ve seen a hint of this as Big Money pours money into AI. Buzzfeed has said it is “leaning in” to AI to propel the site forward following the closure of its news division. Others are expanding AI generated content in the hope it will be the next Big Thing in journalism. I think it’s going to be a Big Disaster.

Can profit-driven media sustain quality journalism?

While these hugely popular media outlets couldn’t create a sustainable business model, they did connect with newer audiences that did not see themselves in mainstream media at the time.

As Maria Bustillos noted in The Nation, “For many younger readers, news itself now means something different, something more elastic, more intimate, and less distantly institutional, because of BuzzFeed.”

And it worked. Outlets like Buzzfeed and Vice were trusted by their audiences. But their owners sided with Big Tech and when the first signs of a slowdown began to show — like Facebook pivoting away from news following the 2016 US elections — these outlets found themselves in deep trouble.

Big Money is looking to invest in new outlets which promise big returns. But what good is it if they go down the same route of big investments and then bigger closures because they didn’t see something coming?

Nobody can predict what journalism will look like in the next few years, but calls for it to be seen as a public good must be amplified.

Maybe owners need to return to investing in journalism that is profitable and serves the public.

Several studies in the US have shown how quality journalism “can counter divisive national narratives that aim to stoke polarisation” according to the Democracy Fund. A research paper by academics in three American universities found that by consuming more local information, “people are more likely to be concerned with issues that affect them locally and elect leaders using these criteria rather than relying on national partisan rhe-toric or cues to choose leaders”. This can create stronger democratic systems.

I won’t pret­e­­nd metrics have­n’t ever played a role in the type of content one sees in media, but when that responsibility to generate traffic came into the hands of journalists — as opposed to the marketing department — things went awry. As Leah Finnegan wrote about journalists worshipping at the altar of trafficin The Baffler last week: “Journalism, at its core, is incompatible with traffic; pursuing both at once is a fool’s errand.”

Journalists must return to their core job, which is reporting fairly on issues they deem fit, focusing on local over national issues, and ensuring all communities are represented accurately. This will help them regain their credibility, lost because of all the strange alliances made with political parties and non-state actors. Give readers an opportunity to support journalism by giving them quality reporting (not content!) that does its job of informing audiences. There are plenty of examples of outlets that are working, like Politico in the US, or Newslaundry in India. I am confident readers will be willing to pay for journalism by subscribing to papers like this one, or digital outlets like Profit.

The writer researches newsroom culture.
Twitter: @LedeingLady

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2023

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