Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

The big turn off

Declining audiences is a big problem for journalism

Artillery Row

August is the cruellest month of the year for journalists and reporters. Having presided over the usual apocalyptic smorgasbord of forest fires, Trump melodrama and geopolitical tension, hacks find themselves in a state of disquiet as the next bout of spiralling doom lurks ahead. This year, running through the boardrooms and corridors of big news outlets is an ever growing concern amongst the anointed few who write our first draft of history: the industry is facing its own quiet apocalypse.

One of the stranger paradoxes of our time is that the worse the world seems to get, the less people want to know about it. The number of people taking a “strong interest” in the news has dropped by around a quarter in the last six years to 48 per cent, according to the Reuters institute. A third of people worldwide report that they actively avoid the news. Broadcast television news, that old bipartisan staple, is turning into a dodo headed for extinction — kept alive only by philanthropic donors and an ageing audience.

Those who do still follow the news trust it less and less. Just four in ten people say they trust the news “most of the time”. Even organisations that boast of being the “most trusted” still face a poor prognosis. Trust in the BBC, for example, has fallen from 75 per cent to 55 per cent in the space of just four years. The start of the pandemic briefly commanded a large, bipartisan audience, but as the event progressed that consensus once more fell apart. For some brands such as Sky News, the freefall seemed to accelerate.

Perhaps the biggest story of our decade is the news itself

Since Citizen Kane, audiences have always engaged with the agenda setting powers of the news media industry with a sort of detached cynicism. This ongoing loss of trust, accompanied by a spectacular rise in apathy, is nonetheless a phenomenon unique to our age of permacrisis. The accompanying story is the rise of its alternative media, there to remedy the ills of an industry blamed for so much: the YouTube channels, media startups, Twitter accounts and Substacks that preach the idyll of information free from bias, be it corporate, government, liberal or conservative.

The problem is, these disruptive categories are still a minority. They resemble little other than a shaman for the tribe. If you’re reading this article, it’s likely you belong to this fractured class of people who gorge on an overproduction of digital takes, articles and news. The digital revolution has not replaced the age of big bipartisan, consensus audiences, but overseen a fractured, divided set of audiences whose monetization is dependent on polarisation, extremes and issues based news. You couldn’t make Citizen Kane today. Scour the west for an outlet worth its authority and influence, and you might never stop looking.

Perhaps the biggest story of our decade is, therefore, the news itself. We are, as Andrey Mir has written, living in an age of post-journalism. The digital news revolution has upended the old advertising model, hollowed out the reputation of legacy institutions and allowed alternative media to exert a soft, disruptive power on the old consensus. It has forced that elite caste of hacks, opinion makers and reporters to do that most undignified thing: sell their product directly to the consumer.

More recently, AI has been toyed with as an acceleration of this trend, with Francesco Marconi citing the technology in his book Newsmakers — Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Journalism as a means to trawl through reader responses and social media to better understand audience priorities and interests. News is fast becoming one of the most consumer oriented products of the 21st century.

This, as Mir points out, is largely a choice demanded by economics, but it has also found a convenient purpose in our age of discord. The New York Times and GB News may exist on different planets, but they linger on under the same strategy of cultivating and playing to a base on a moral mission. Media executives are now less interested in who you vote for and what you buy. They want to know which version of the apocalypse you believe in. Are you more of a climate breakdown, or a death of Western civilization kind of guy?

Well into the age of post-journalism, the liberal left likes to tell itself a comforting bedtime story. Prior to 2012, when smartphone ownership soared and social media took over as the dominant disseminator of news, there was a sensible consensus of credentialed journalists and media operators whose authority was upended by a subsequent decade of fake news, “misinformation” and sensationalist conspiracy grifters. The obsession with this simplification has led to a conspiracy theory in itself, where the population is now at the whim of clicks and likes. Neil Oliver has somehow become the new Rupert Murdoch.

Dissenters to this narrative all too often play an elaborate game of whataboutery, obsessing over the legacy media’s past mistakes whilst getting their own “facts” wrong. At its worst excesses, the libertarian right likes to pretend that it is building some sort of master platform of information, in which the free flow of information, innocent of censorship and liberal bias, will crystallise around the truth. In this gnostic fantasy, all legacy journalists are corrupt, idiotic and misguided. Anyone with a blue tick, a big audience and blessing from Elon Musk is telling you the unfiltered truth.

The Big Turn off suggests that both are wrong. The problem with news media now runs far deeper, somewhere between these two great distracting post-journalist myths. We have, thanks to both technology and our society’s newfound interest in catastrophe, sleepwalked into a dysfunctional media landscape breeding only mistrust, confusion and ultimately apathy amongst the population at large.

BBC Verify recently crowned a decade of misguided audience strategies

The biggest piece of “misinformation” that has spread over the past decade is that the news must bend to the apparent apocalyptic whim of the population. People are frightened. They are looking for answers in dangerous places. They fear climate change, pestilence, a world dominated by tech. The victorious post-1989 tenets of the free world — its markets, democracy and stable information systems — are now under threat. Journalists must act and restore the lost consensus that existed pre-2012. They must speak truth not to power, but to disgruntled populations across the West.

In attempting to do this, however, they themselves have come to embody the worst excesses of post-journalism. BBC Verify recently crowned a decade of dumbed down and misguided audience strategies when it ended up actually introducing conspiracy theories to a group of people who had never heard of them. Issues such as immigration, the pandemic response and net zero policy were being peddled to a bemused audience via words like “the great reset” and “the great replacement”.

This was an extreme case, but a subtle form of this trend is endemic. Caught between a series of divisive echo-chambers fraught with hate and misinformation, the media class has ended up going native amongst the trolls. The post-journalist turn has led to an issues based diet of news, trapped in the world of alternative media it sought to transcend. Stories become simplified, opposition castigated or ignored via belittling labels or narratives forged in the terminally online world of news that the modern day journalist inevitably witnesses.

Meanwhile newsdesk journalism hobbles on into a century of crisis, understaffed and underfunded, suffering from a debilitating crisis of detail. Sensationalist outlets, on both the left and right, push moral causes at an audience weaned digitally on what it wants to hear. Conspiracy theories prosper on both sides. Even the sophisticated broadsheets, who have reinvented themselves under the post-journalism model, dabble endlessly in political gossip and scandal, turning the machinations of Westminster and the ruling class into a set of inconsequential football results for the idle middle classes to pick through with their dinner party set.

Hardcore cynics may insist that we are harking back to a prelapsarian age of news that never existed. It is an illusion that earlier ages were informed rather than guided and reigned supreme — or, as Andrey Mir puts it, when journalism navigated an audience rather than steered. News, in all its forms, has always been divisive, polarising, sensationalist. This vice has never found such an ally, however, in both a business model and an age in which an ever growing number of us believe civilization is heading for catastrophe.

“The spiral of agitation in the media may reach a critical level,” writes Mir on the logical conclusion of post-journalism, “after which the audience will cease to be triggered by whatever the media can offer.” The Big Turn Off suggests we may already be experiencing these deleterious effects from our news diet. Far from its population being mobilised, Western society is breaking down into the apathetic and the deranged. Our overproduction of news information is creating an age of apathy in which an increasing majority refuse to partake in the spectacle.

Journalists, and indeed news media, should take the time off at the end of this summer to do a little bit of self reflection. Instead of blaming the audience, it’s time they had a look at themselves. Andrey Mir’s post-journalism diagnosis is ultimately an economic consequence brought about by the digital era. It must also be recognised as a matter of agency, however, amongst a media class long renowned for believing it can do no wrong in an age of moral crisis. Rather than focusing on those who consume too much news, we should be focusing on the wisdom of those who have chosen to consume too little.

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