May 28, 2017

News Analysis: What We’ve Learned About the Media Industry During This Election

The digital social networks, meanwhile, attracted many millions of users to old and new forms of news coverage, as predicted. Their rise to prominence was not overstated. But, as companies, they have either failed to reckon with their new medialike roles — as hosts, gatekeepers and de facto editors — or rejected them outright. “We are a tech company, not a media company,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, emphasized at a conference in August.

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In media business terms, it is now clear, the 2016 election could not have arrived at a more precarious moment, as industries defined by their futures struggled to handle what was happening in the present. A new business model had not replaced an old one — not yet. There was, for the duration of the campaign, effectively no model at all.

Through this lens, some of the defining narratives about the media and the election start to make a little more sense. Major news organizations, household names trusted for decades, lost a great deal of ownership over audiences. The organizations exist among many contributors in infinite feeds. Their news stories could be more easily brushed aside and ignored as a product of bias or motivated reporting. Once privileged with the leverage to shape narratives, or declare stories important, they now found themselves competing with rivals shaped by new incentives.

It seemed that readers and viewers had been prompted, all at once, to ask news outlets: Who are you to assume we trust you?

The suspicions arrived in links above an article; by a video below it; by the friend or family member whose utterly unfamiliar media bubble bounced into yours. But it extended beyond that, too: by the delivery of your news in an entirely new way, complete with new and obliterating signifiers of authority and truth; by constant confirmation that, yes, the media really is just people saying things; and, finally, by opportunistic insinuations that the level of deception by news organizations knows no bounds.

It is a mistake, of course, to minimize the role played by the social networks that helped create this situation, and the companies that benefit from it.

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A voter read The Philadelphia Inquirer as he waited outside a polling station in Phoenixville, Pa. While facing financial headwinds, established media outlets still broke election-defining stories. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

Twitter, the service, which has supplanted cable news as the center of the real-time political conversation, is rotten with abuse, harassment and disinformation. Twitter, the company, failed to fix these widely reported problems before the election, only to appear impotent as they blossomed into crises in 2016. Rampant gender-based and racial harassment was a defining characteristic of Twitter’s relationship to the 2016 campaigns. A recent Anti-Defamation League report tallied tens of thousands of vividly anti-Semitic tweets directed at journalists in the last year alone.

Yet the Facebook situation may be the clearest expression of what a transitional media environment actually feels like, and how disorienting it can be. In February, nearly half of Americans said they consumed news on the site — a figure that is most likely higher now. But the company has been widely criticized for the level of misinformation propagated through its service. In the weeks before Election Day, one of Facebook’s most visible functions was as a distributor of so-called fake news.

It is surely not desirable, by any reasonable standard, to have over a million people share a falsified presidential endorsement of Mr. Trump by the pope. But that happened this year. So, too, did the sharing by millions of people of a falsified quotation attributed to Mr. Trump in which he was said to call his future supporters “the dumbest possible group.” The story, first popularized on a left-leaning Facebook page, was convincing enough that its debunking is now being met with conspiracy theories.

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But calls for Facebook to fix the problem — presumably through some sort of new editorial filtering, or prioritization — misunderstand the company and its situation. While asking Facebook to fix it is reasonable, it is probably equally unrealistic. In many ways, the company has already moved on to the future.

The fake news problem, as it has been identified, is occurring on what the company, based on its public statements and actions, would consider an old version of the network, one it seems determined to abandon. In this version, people post links to outside websites, and those websites make money from advertising. This is the Facebook most users probably know best — but it is also increasingly on the margins.

Facebook would rather keep people inside its walls, and the company has already taken major steps to achieve that. In March 2015, it teamed up with more traditional media companies, including The New York Times Company, to host articles directly on the platform, then opened up applications to all news sites. The feature, called Instant Articles, speeds up viewing for readers and makes sharing within the site easier.

Mr. Zuckerberg has also made clear that he considers video to be central to the company’s future. Video-based Facebook, which is beginning to take shape, will have to deal with similar issues, but it may also be structurally different. It may end up more organized, with an emphasis on official partnerships that more clearly select winners and losers. Maybe it is less newsy in general; maybe it duplicates, in some ways, television news.

Of course, this future version of Facebook has not fully arrived, and its predecessor is not yet gone. But the site on which the false report of the pope’s endorsement originated, WTOE 5 News — which describes itself openly as “a fantasy news website” — is not part of any social media platform’s grand plans for the future. The proliferation of fake news links on Facebook, in other words, is probably a problem that will be forgotten before it is fixed — and that might have peaked just as Americans chose their next president.

But it is likewise a mistake — a grave and common one — to underestimate just how liberating these last years have felt for audiences. Facebook and Twitter, the cycle’s most mature and influential platforms, may be profoundly centralized. But they explicitly place the individual at the center of his or her media universe, recording, amplifying and perpetuating their preferences into complete, customized media experiences that no traditional news provider can rival.

The beginning of this shift in power represented a chance to personally right wrongs, long felt and often credible, stemming from legacy media’s presumptions of power and authority. Old media could be held to account for its cozy relationships, its disclosure failures, its hiring practices and its blinkered or slanted coverage — real or perceived. But it also, necessarily, represented a chance to punish ideological opponents, or to exact revenge. And it presented an opportunity, for those so motivated, to sow doubt about the entire project of journalism. .

It will be clear, in retrospect, that this was an election experienced from the bottom of a media trough. Votes were cast from the valley between a collapsing media that was, at one time, at least nominally trusted, and a new media that is not yet ready for the responsibilities it is inheriting.

It is a moment that is less a referendum on the media or the systems that are superseding it, or a sign of where either one might end up, than it is a snapshot of messy change in progress. For all the attempts to understand or explain this year’s endless shocks and surprises, this story — one that connects so many others — will have been a product of unfortunate timing. Elections arrive every four years. Industry sets its own pace.

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Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/business/media/what-weve-learned-about-the-media-industry-during-this-election.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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