Observations of an ex pat: A media world

The world’s media is rapidly changing. And as it changes it plays a sad role in helping to divide society.

The irony is that the press in all its forms has never been freer, more competitive and offered a greater array of opinion and facts.

The number of traditional print platforms has markedly declined, and the ones that remain are only just staying in business with slashed circulation figures.

The print business, however is being rapidly replaced with news websites. As of the start of this year there were an estimated 100 million news websites worldwide. This compares to about 18,000 daily newspapers.

To understand the impact of these figures it is important to realise a basic truism about the vast majority of the media. It exists to make a profit. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule such as state-owned broadcasters or magazines and newspapers published by pressure groups.

The benefit of a profit-oriented media is that profits keep the press free. Without profits journalists quickly became mouthpieces for whomever is stumping up the cash to pay their bills. Alternatively, they become more outrageous in their news coverage in a desperate bid to maintain circulation figures. This is often as true of what is referred to the mainstream media, quality or broadsheet newspapers as it is of the tabloid scandal sheets. Desperate times induce desperate measures.

Of course, it can be argued that the internet is also an opportunity for the traditional media. Before it came along newspapers were restricted to how far their delivery vans could travel. The New York Times was sold mainly in the greater New York area, the New Indian Express didn’t travel far beyond the boundaries of Chennai and The Glasgow Herald was read almost exclusively in Scotland.

The Worldwide Web provided a virtually free global distribution network. But who were the readers? This is an important question for newspaper editors. The identity of the readership determines the nature of the advertising and the direction of the editorial policy. “Know Thy Reader” is engraved on almost every editor’s heart.

Since 1851 the New York Times reader had been clearly identified as—first and foremost—a New Yorker. If the New York Times was going to succeed as a global product it had to identify a new market to represent, and rejig its editorial policies to reflect the interests of that market. It decided to become the world’s liberal newspaper.

It was an easy decision. The newspaper has a long history of espousing liberal causes and anti-establishment investigative journalism. But it has become even more so, at times, stridently so. The result is their web circulation among the world’s liberals has rapidly climbed, but they have been shunned by conservative-minded readers who had looked to the New York Times for a dispassionate report on the day’s news.

Previously the conservatives turned a blind eye towards the paper’s liberal bias. Its place in the media firmament made it required reading for all and sundry. But the internet—with its low entry threshold and global distribution—also enabled conservative websites to spring up to claim a conservaqtive market which felt unrepresented.

And the more outrageously conservative these sites were the greater the attraction for their followers. Enter the fake news outlets. As of the start of this year there were some 60 identifiable fake news websites in the US alone—almost all of them extreme right wing. One of the most notorious is Alex Jones’s Infowars which has claimed that millions voted illegally in the 2016 presidential elections, the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax and that the Democratic Party was running a sex slave ring out of a a Washington pizza restaurant.

Justin Coler, who owns several fake news ebsites, said: “When it comes to fake stuff you really want it be red meat. It doesn’t have to be offensive. It doesn’t have to be outrageous. It doesn’t have to be anything other than giving them what they already wanted to hear.”

And that is one of the main reasons they believe it. They want to believe it. It reinforces preconceived fears and opinions, just as the increasingly liberal traditional press reinforces the beliefs of the liberal-minded market. It is not surprising that society is increasingly divided.

* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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One Comment

  • I am sorry for the demise of newspapers. I am of the generation that buys and reads them (for me the Times and the i). At least I am sure that they are penned by different people and I get to read opinions I disagree with.
    The smart phone has changed all that. I watch my children’s generation and am fearful. They have set up their newsfeeds to effectively only hear one point of view and when they aim to get ‘both’ they feed from neo-Nazi web sites (which they despise but use as evidence) and Antifa websites. I try and point out that, conceivably, the same person could act as under a hundred different user names and completely mislead them as to how prevalent a particular view is. In fact the same person could post on entirely contrary sites promoting extreme views, simultaneously in both directions.
    Social media has frightening power to generate a narrative that is easily believed by those who have cut themselves off from other frames of reference and who can not see how it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous (on either end of the political spectrum).

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