The digital environment is not a threat - the lack of credibility is
Dec 17, 2012
The erosion of credibility in traditional media threatens its survival in the digital age as newspapers prioritize revenue over journalistic integrity.
Publications born in traditional media today face an internal war: how to maintain the structures (of power and production) created in a mono-media environment when anyone with a smartphone can become a potential competitor? This question drains a significant part of these organizations' resources, although it's not always so clear (usually, the question asked openly is "how to prevent digital from draining our revenue"?). The real problem, however, lies elsewhere. Increasingly, the public trusts less in what newspapers and magazines headline, and the trump card that could be used by major news corporations - credibility - has been deteriorating along with their ad revenues in print and TV.
The finding is a result of a Pew Institute research and it's not surprising. To a large extent, centuries-old news titles have surrendered to the search for revenue, ceasing to treat the reader as a reader and starting to treat them as a customer. Although the notion is similar for many people, there is a profound distinction between the two. The reader, sometimes, needs to be confronted with uncomfortable truths; the customer always needs to be pleased.
The result is a significant weakening of journalistic capacity to swim against the tide that has always marked the major newspapers. The model that subsidized quality journalism with advertising is being eroded by the digital revolution and it seems to me that it will not be able to be saved. Major newspapers and magazines today have increased the percentage of their infotainment to a point of becoming digital grocery stores. You can see this on the cover of most portals that today are cluttered with endless advertising. But it is in sports journalism that the issue is most clearly seen.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300"] (http://thinking.media/?attachment_id=2360 "rel=“attachment wp-att-2360) Gazzetta's homepage in November 2012[/caption]
Gazzetta Dello Sport is one of the most important sports publications in Europe and the world. It was founded in 1896 and is an excellent example of how digital has changed the face of publications. In just a decade, Gazzetta's homepage went from a sober digital version of the newspaper to an unrecognizable advertising frontispiece - to the point of forcing the reader to use the scroll down to be able to read the main headline. In ten years, Gazzetta's circulation has roughly halved and its editorial spin has gone from a critical newspaper often challenging the reader's will to a typical infotainment medium, where the stories are always in line with the reader's mood - praising or stoning the club, according to its performance; making articles that raised players to myths when they were doing well and demoting them to the level of zebus the next day. The amount of advertising on the front page is not a problem in itself, but in this case, a sign that the publication's primary values could be compromised.
And they were. Not by chance, Gazzetta - and sports journalism in general - has shifted from doing entertainment journalism to pure entertainment. In the last three sports scandals of the decade - the Calciocaos of 2006, its 2009 sequel and the most recent betting scandal - the newspaper only made headlines when the police brought the case to light. The investigative role that the newspaper always played was left aside. Instead of setting the agenda, Gazzetta began to follow the power agenda in Italian football and never questioned the established power, even when there was visibly something wrong happening.
The digression into sports journalism in this text serves only to illustrate a movement that occurs with most journalistic media. With declining sales, companies increasingly adopt a sensationalist or populist tone so as not to displease the reader - or rather, the customer - for fear of losing even more ground. In this vein, equivalents of Gazzetta's slips in not anticipating the authorities to denounce the scandals in Italian football, the world press also increasingly prefers the sweet side of the news and thus, watched an outsider like Henry Markopolos denounce Bernie Maddoff's fraud, was shocked when the largest energy company in the U.S., Enron, apparently went bankrupt overnight and left a legion of creditors and gave no advance warning about the Housing Bubble, which cost American taxpayers a debt of almost $10 trillion.
The transition from traditional media is, in itself, traumatic for large journalistic corporations, but could be much less distressing if the newspapers themselves had not corroded their own credibility in previous decades. In a book that I have mentioned more than once, Flat Earth News, journalist Nick Davies illustrates how journalism has been compromised for at least two decades because of increased pressure for financial results, paid for with the decrease of several journalistic principles: time, maintenance of experienced journalists, independence in investigations and especially the ability to tell the truth even against the reader's mood. The decrease in the number of readers now is just a formality. It was decided when the agenda started to be decided by the reader's mood. At that moment, he became a customer. From that moment on, "credibility" turned to dust and newspapers feel it more and more.