Traditional Media Overwhelmed by Tsunami of Social Media

If the question why people have been losing interest and faith in traditional media affected only journalists, it would be solely a matter for their concern. The trouble is that what we have witnessed over the past few years is a gradual transformation not only of the media landscape but also of all of society in the West. Traditional media have been vanishing virtually in front of our eyes, losing viewers, readers, and listeners, and thus also their influence. This has been caused by three mutually interconnected factors. The first is the economic impact: as their revenues decrease, traditional media struggle to survive, often despite being able to attract online readers.

Next, there is the technological impact: anyone can become a player on the media scene these days, a trend that undoubtedly enhances democratization but also lowers quality, as small online media lack the financial and human resources necessary to ensure (and be held accountable for) consistent research and quality control.

Last but not least, there is the political and social factor: many media outlets do not even strive for high quality and verifiable information, being under pressure to deliver on both covert and overt political goals. These media outlets are often directly linked to political actors, as was obvious in the recent US presidential election campaign. The fragmentation and atomization of the media is reflected in the fragmentation and atomization of society. The role of traditional media as a platform for honing views—itself a precondition of arriving at a basic consensus—has declined, and that, in turn, has led to the increasing polarization of views in society.

Paradoxically, the media space has expanded and opened up to an unprecedented degree, while, at the same time, agreed rules are being abandoned. This new media age is increasingly dominated by online media, most recently social media, which typically produce an incessant stream of a motley mix of facts and blatant fabrications, speculation and deliberate lies. Emotions are much more effective than verifiable facts. In this world truth is not what can be proven but whatever the author says or wishes to be the truth.

We shall soon have a chance to see what kind of danger journalism poses to liberal democracy, as on January 20, 2017, following Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, Stephen Bannon, head of Breibart News, will become one of the two most influential people on the new White House staff in his capacity as the president’s chief adviser. This is not to say that in the country where freedom of information is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, past presidents never had dealings with the media and had never used them to influence public opinion. This time, however, the boss of an influential media organization—which in the course of the election campaign distinguished itself by its exceptional aggressiveness, frequently disseminating what was quite evidently not just half-truths but outright fabrications—will assume a key post in the new administration. In contrast, while links between the White House and certain media may have been common knowledge in the past, whenever such links could be demonstrated it was regarded as a major failure.

Why is this no longer the case? Technological changes are the key factor. Running the traditional media incurred relatively high regular expenditure in order to cover the cost of printing, radio or TV production, and distribution. Among other results this used to have the effect of impeding access to the market and limiting the distribution of profits. In other words, revenues were higher because they were not accessible to all.

With the advent of the Internet the cost of disseminating media content of any kind, i.e. not only information, plummeted. At the same time, traditional media lost the revenues they used to rely on to be able to employ dozens of staff, which made it possible, indeed necessary, for individual journalists to specialize and follow major political, economic, or social stories continuously over long periods of time.

What is the situation today? In mid-2016 its financial losses forced the British daily The Guardian to lay off over 250 journalists, and more layoffs are likely to follow even though the online version of the liberal left-of-center paper is doing very well. In the UK, US, and Australia, its web pages receive over 40 million hits per month. The slump in advertising revenues, however, has been dramatic. Thirty years ago the Australian daily Sydney Morning Herald and its sister company Agem made an annual profit of roughly 100 million dollars. Nowadays, in spite of major cuts, the best they can hope for is to avoid making a loss. Nor have digital media been immune to the slump in advertising revenues. Whereas seven or eight years ago an advert seen by a thousand website visitors earned them between 40 and 50 US dollars, these days it yields only a tenth of that amount.

A brand new phenomenon has been the rise of news and information aggregators such as Facebook and Google. Their share of the advertising market linked to dissemination of information amounts to 80 percent, while their share of the cost of generating content is almost negligible. The Financial Times has estimated that out of every new dollar the US digital media earned in the first quarter of 2016, about 85 cents was made by Facebook and Google.

This highly disproportionate distribution of revenues puts additional economic pressure on those media that generate content and, naturally, also on quality. An experienced Czech journalist of the middle generation has aptly summarized the current state of affairs: compared with the situation of five years ago, what he sees in the present-day newsroom is half the staff, half as old, working for half the salary. The question is whether it is possible to carry on through the changes, as attempted by the publishers in Germany. It is conceivable, but only in the unlikely case that Facebook and Google end up crowding out so many news outlets that there won’t be enough left of those whose news they could carry in the way they are doing now.

None of this inspires much optimism. Nevertheless, people still do draw a distinction, if only subconsciously, between superficial and quality journalism, as surveys focusing on the popularity of print, radio, and TV in the Czech Republic have shown. This aspect becomes most obvious in moments of crisis, such as natural disasters, when people need high quality, reliable information.

In terms of Central Europe the current crisis of traditional media is more dramatically apparent in smaller countries because of their closed markets. This increases the importance and role of public media that do not generate their own revenue but are financed rather by license fees. And, as recent developments in Hungary and Poland have demonstrated, this also stresses the importance of editorial independence.

There is one key European country that provides a graphic illustration of the value and importance of traditional media. The term “Lügenpresse,” which had been coined in Germany and is currently used indiscriminately to label traditional media accused of distorted political correctness, was dropped the minute Hitler took power.

Adam Černý

Adam Černý is a journalist and chairman of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists, his commentaries appear in Hospodářské noviny and in Český rozhlas. He used to write commentaries for Týden weekly, worked in the foreign news section in Česká televize, and directed the foreign news section of Lidové noviny daily. His specialty is European and security politics. He was awarded the Ferdinand Peroutka Prize for outstanding journalists in 2006.

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