Is Journalism at Its Breaking Point?

Posted January 31, 2024
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This morning I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, a morning news program for those who are unfamiliar with Brian. One of his segments in particular caught my attention. His guest was Paul Farhi who was on to discuss his recently published essay in The Atlantic titled: Is American Journalism Headed Toward an ‘Extinction-Level Event’.  His essay and the segment this morning come on the heels of major layoffs at print publications in the US. Major cutbacks at publications like Time Magazine, National Geographic, Conde Nast, and The Los Angeles Times.

After the segment, I went and read the article and much of what he talks about is not new news. Newspapers losing subscriptions and in turn ad revenue, local papers shuttering, the detrimental rise of internet companies like Facebook and Google, and other complaints that have been circulating long before this recent series of cuts and layoffs. The reality is that the news business is in serious trouble and what to do about it will take a completely new approach to how the news business is run. 

The problem is what traditional print journalism and a lot of broadcast journalism offer to people is not something that they want to engage with. It’s the same boring template that has been on offer since the 1960s. Many of these outlets sit back and complain that the people they are trying to serve are the problem and that what they have always done is right. If only more people would be ‘intellectuals’ and pick up a paper once and a while they’d be saved. They are certainly right when they argue people aren’t like they used to be, but that doesn’t mean that it’s their fault. We have seen radical technological changes in the past few decades that have drastically changed human life. The problem is these outlets don’t know how to adapt to this new world.  For the past decade, I have been working with journalists from some of the biggest news companies in the world to invent a new kind of TV news that WILL resonate with people, but more on that later. 

Younger people simply don’t buy newspapers or get their news as previous generations traditionally did. Those subscriptions are never going to replenish at a sustainable level. Just yesterday The Messanger, a news start up closed after only less than a year -- and millions spent. The premise of the site was flawed. That the problem with news is that people find it too polically polarizing and want a certrist serious news outlet. This is not what people want. What people want are stories that are important to them, and are something that they enjoy consuming. People's attentions are drawn in so many directions. People need the stories they engange with to be compelling and entertaining, and the idea that news can't be compelling and entertaining is destrucctive to the business. 

Television news faces many of these same issues — particularly audience replacement. I watch 60 Minutes most Sundays, something that when I tell my friends they look at me like I’m crazy, and the advertising on the show clearly points to who most of the audience is. Every commercial break it’s one pill commercial after another — many for ailments I will hopefully not encounter for another 20 years. Now I will not sit here and tell you I am young, I don’t really understand most of what goes by me on TikTok and Instagram, but in comparison to the rest of the audience of 60 minutes I’m a baby. While I may be among a handful of people my age who still watch TV news, anyone younger than me certainly does not get their news from the TV. 

This younger group of people who are making up more and more of the population of the United States, and the world, get their news from sources on social media. While you certainly can find verified news on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, you’re far more likely to get twisted news that is partially or wholly untrue, and conspiracy theories. 

So what does journalism at large do? 

What needs to be done is a rethinking of the product. It is the product that must change. Television news, and print journalism, have largely looked and felt the same for the last 50 years. The entire way that traditional broadcasters by and large present the news is not what younger people want to watch. The idea that journalism is a voice of god coming down from on high to deliver just the facts is about as outdated as Dragnet. At its core journalism is about important stories. We as humans love stories. We have for thousands of years. The history of human civilization is a history of storytelling and is one of the core aspects of human life that technology has not changed. We will always love stories. The young people that journalistic institutions need to survive still love stories. They watch TV shows, they watch movies, and they like television (albeit mostly in a streamed watch-when-you-like format). Marrying this love of stories — particularly character-driven stories is what will bring audiences back to the news. 

We know this works. 

We have done this very thing with news organizations around the world. We have trained their journalists who have been taught that there is one way to do news and it was created in the 1960s this new way of working and not only does the new product they produce resonate with audiences, bringing most of their stations to number one in ratings and engagement overnight, but also the journalists themselves are much prouder of their work. They get to tell stories that they would enjoy watching.  

Again this requires a whole new approach to what television news is: what it looks like, what it feels like, and the impression it leaves on the viewer. The idea that people don’t want journalism anymore is absurd. What they don’t want is the same journalism that you have been offering for the better part of a century. That is the difference and one that the news organizations need to see. 

 


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