2016 was one of the most shocking years for decades. We saw Donald Trump win an unexpected election victory, the UK voted to leave Europe, and it seemed that every popular celebrity died. It seemed that rather than adverts between news programs there should have been soothing music and pictures of baby animals, just to make sure the world didn’t keel over from a nervous breakdown. This made it one of the most important years for journalism as, alongside trying to capture the grief at the deaths of people like David Bowie, Muhammed Ali, and Prince, the industry also needed to cover historic elections, referendums, and everything else the world threw at us in 2016.
At the same time, newspaper readership figures were diminishing at an alarming speed, with annual circulation figures dropping by double digits in many cases. Although online publishing has made up for some of this decline in ad revenue, it has still left a considerable hole in the ability to cover the issues that really matter. It has meant that some of the biggest stories of the year have been something that those on social media knew well before any journalist. Take the example of six members of Donald Trump’s White House team using private email servers - this is something that was widely known on Twitter weeks before anything was reported in the mass media. It is understandable that this took longer to confirm because the burden of proof is so much higher, but this kind of story would have been confirmed considerably more quickly if there had been more resources to notice the whispers and investigate them more fully.
This decline in journalists numbers has hit home at some of the world’s largest and oldest institutions, too. The New York Times had 5,363 employees in 2012 compared to 3,710 in 2016 and The Guardian in the UK has lost several hundred employees in the last two years to help balance the books.
This doesn’t just mean that there are fewer journalists to find stories, but that the stories themselves are of less value. According to the Press Gazette, there were 64,000 UK journalists, but 55,000 UK PR professionals in 2015, meaning that there is were 1.1 journalists for every PR person trying to push news stories or particular slants on a story. With the constraints on time for regular journalists and an increased number of press relation officers, the ‘news’ is often simply a regurgitation of press releases. In fact one story in the Daily Mail studied by Churnalism.com was 98% the same as the press release sent about it, so it had essentially been copied and pasted as ’news’. With this level of outside influence setting the news agenda, it is little surprise that some of the things that are most impacting people are simply not being covered.
In addition to this new PR driven dialogue, the necessity for media organizations to make money has drawn them towards the most shocking, funny, or scandalous stories rather than those that need to have the most coverage despite them not being the most interesting. A prime example of this is the weekend of September 23 & 24 2017, where there were huge news stories that were largely glossed over for one scandal. Over this weekend North Korea said the US had declared war via Donald Trump’s tweets, it was found that multiple White House employees had used private email servers for government business, and Puerto Rico has been flooded and cut off after a huge hurricane, to name just three. However, they were all usurped because Donald Trump called African American athletes who kneeled during the national anthem at NFL matches ‘Sons of bitches’. There is no doubt that this is a disgusting thing for a President to say and there are clear racial dogwhistles, but ultimately this is not as important as the other three stories in terms of actually running the country. However, because it was the most scandalous, it had considerably more coverage than any other story.
The past few years has also seen the issue of fake news and the willingness of public figures to openly lie, which has created polarized readerships who are willing to believe a person over clear facts. Take the UK’s decision to vote to leave the EU, which has widely been seen as a campaign based on mistruths, false assumptions, and lies. The biggest single claim that the Leave campaign used was that the UK paid £350 million to the EU every week and that could be used to fund the NHS. However, this was shown to be a willing misrepresentation of statistics, as it doesn’t take into account the UK rebate, grants given to various institutions in the UK, and most importantly doesn’t take into consideration the amount of money that comes in because of the open trade with the EU that membership provides. Despite this, in a poll taken a week before the referendum vote, Ipsos MORI found that 47% of the UK population believed that it was still true. It was then repeated consistently by The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Daily Telegraph, 3 of the 5 most read publications in the UK. As these companies all employ trained journalists, they know how to fact check and it is therefore clear that they deliberately misled their readers to support a political cause, something that is increasingly happening in publications across the world.
At the same time as this upheaval in traditional media, there are huge numbers of news outlets, such as Breitbart and Infowars who have consistently pedalled untruths in the search of profit, with them variously saying that Hillary Clinton murdered people, that certain areas of the UK have been overtaken by Sharia law, that there is a secret conspiracy surrounding a murdered Democratic party worker etc. It sews huge seeds of doubt across the journalism industry and the damage that untruths and the smears on other organizations who are attempting to be objective and truthful does is massive, in fact readers of the sites have often completely lost touch with ‘mass media’ because they don’t believe anything outside of their bubble. This is little surprise, as many of these organizations rely on social media platforms to spread their message, so the more controversial they can be, the more ad revenue they will get.
All of these developments, the largely unchallenged spreading of lies, the decreasing numbers of journalists, the increasing power of social media shares, and the domination of scandal over substance, has meant that the way that people consume news is crying out to be disrupted again. There have been several attempts already, with things like newsletters, clipping services, news collection tools, and apps all attempting to do so, but with little real impact. The difficulty in the situation is that modern society only wants to interact with things it cares about, rather than the things it needs to know about.
Whether there is a solution is yet to be seen, but the reality is that the news industry is ripe for innovation and needs to be changed quickly. There are disruptors who’s disruption has made the service ineffective, incumbents who are unable to perform to the standards many expect, and a service that every person wants, it’s just a case of finding somebody with the right idea to exploit it.