The question “Leadership Across the Political Divide: Do Facts Matter?” was posed to panelists at an event hosted by the NYU Leadership Initiative on Thursday. Despite the talk’s implicit focus on this subject, panelists Michael Gerson, Linda Douglass and Jay Rosen spent very little time answering the prompt question.
Instead, the panelists meandered from point to point and discussed broader topics including fake news, the post-truth era and business models for media organizations.
The talk was emblematic of a lot that is wrong with journalism today. The event featured three rich white people — Douglass, global head of communications for Bloomberg Media; Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post and NYU Journalism Professor Rosen — led by a fancy leadership initiative and co-sponsored by an increasingly obsolete institution, the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.
The trio talked aimlessly about various trends in the media — I apologize for using this somewhat lazy term. They failed to acknowledge the stark cultural divides between the people creating journalism and the people journalism is supposedly for.
Their discussion consisted mostly of surface-level observations and generic elite outrage at the fact that people no longer take the truth seriously. They didn’t delve into why people might believe fake news and didn’t address why someone might drive from North Carolina to a D.C. pizzeria armed with a rifle to save children from a fictitious sex ring.
Events like these are why trust in mass media reached an all time low in September, according to a Gallup poll. Only 32 percent of Americans trusted the mass media last fall and trust might be the least of the industry’s issues.
The bigger problem traditional news companies face is that people just don’t like the product that much. The New York Times, which has seen their subscription growth surge as Donald Trump has publicly criticized the publication, currently has about 3 million digital subscribers. The Wall Street Journal weekend edition has about 1.4 million subscribers. In contrast, Netflix has over 49 million subscribers in the United States alone. Elite journalism has become a luxury good made by people who share values with their small group of readers.
In the spring of 2016, researchers Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel and Justin Rao published a study about how people consume news. The researchers started with the browsing history of 1.2 million readers located in the U.S. but ended up studying just 50,000 of them. The reason? Only four percent of the sample read 10 serious news articles — which excludes sports, entertainment and other soft news — and two opinion pieces in a three-month time period. Flaxman, Goel and Rao’s research shows that just a small fraction of people actually read hard news.
The evidence is clear. People don’t really have an appetite for reading what newspapers are selling. People aren’t willing to pay $15 a month for access to the New York Times.
The remedy to journalism’s problems lies in a revolution of the stories covered. This means not covering Hillary Clinton’s email server for over a year and a half. It means not running a front page story on Clinton’s email server that turned out to be a non-story 10 days before the election. It means not hanging onto Donald Trump’s every tweet. It means giving less attention to the petty side of politics and focusing on the life-altering impact policies can have.
Newspapers and cable news channels need to focus on what matters to people. The Washington Post and New York Times’ coverage of the American Health Care Act — a piece of legislation that would have increased the number of uninsured Americans by 24 million by 2026 — was exemplary. Polls show that the Affordable Care Act became more popular around the same time that news organizations ramped up their coverage of healthcare policy.
Coverage of the consequences of policy decisions will be crucial for attracting readers. And there’s evidence that Americans have an appetite for content like Vox’s explanatory journalism. Vox saw their YouTube subscriptions grow by over 400% last year.
Where does student media fit into all of this? The Washington Square News, NYU Local and yes, even The Tab, need to be laser focused on the policy decisions made by President Andrew Hamilton and his administration. Hamilton needs to be held to the promises he made regarding the protection of undocumented students by student media.
Publications are going to have to adapt or remain unread.
Email Sayer Devlin at [email protected]