The Coronavirus Is Decimating the Media

A vital institution is under major threat - we need to save it.

The advertisement industry has been one of the hardest hit as a result of this recent global pandemic–with the appetite for consumption at an all-time low, marketing budgets are a non-entity. Combine that with the unappealing brand association of putting your product next to reporting about the coronavirus, and it is a recipe for disaster–in a time when media is most-needed to inform the public about an ever-changing story, it is struggling to stay alive.

The institution of media has already been in freefall ever since the transition to digital–between subscriptions and reliance on advertisements, no one has quite been able to figure out the right formula for sustenance, bar for a few at the top with either gargantuan revenue, or billionaire money backing them up instead. There’s no medium between runaway success and utter desolation–in media, you either survive to become royalty, or you keep shedding cultural stock until inevitable demise.

For most media companies, the latter scenario meant they either had to shutter, or otherwise let go of a significant portion of their workforce to stay afloat. Vox Media — which has never in its history relied on reader contributions — found itself begging readers for money, but that ultimately didn’t prevent it from furloughing 9% of its workforce. The Atlantic went through similar withdrawals, though puzzlingly, it had subscriptions to bolster its revenue on top of traditional advertising–so if both models are failing to provide for media, what can?

The answer to this necessitates a complete rethinking of media’s role in the public sphere–if the media is supposed to be the public’s guiding light in tenebrous times, it has to be severed from profit-generation as its main incentive. The reason that terms like “clickbait” and “listicles” came to be coined at all, is due to the media’s constant fighting for even the smallest slice of the attention economy–in the digital age, there’s very little of the old committance to a specific newspaper as a sign of reader loyalty, so eye-grabbing material is of the essence.

While that doesn’t taint much of the media’s actual produce, many have come to see it as a sign of degradation–for large swaths of the public, the media is viewed as this mythical entity that once was saint-like, and is now fully at the behest of shareholder interest rather than serving the public good. It doesn’t help that Donald Trump keeps repeatedly calling the media “the enemy of the people”, and in true authoritarian fashion, pats on the back only the organizations that pay him compliments like the alternative news network One America News, and the far-right’s other funnels for mis-and-disinformation.

What you have is a space where the incentives for creating good journalism are much less enticing than its lousy counterpart–this is further exacerbated by social media platforms giving preference to which that amplifies conflict, handing the likes of Breitbart and the lot of far-right outlets a natural advantage. There’s nothing inherently wrong about approaching news stories from a right-wing perspective — as the Wall Street Journal proves you could — but the fault lies in their inability to stick to a consistent standard of journalistic rigor, relegating most at the very best to tabloid status.

If advertisements, subscriptions and even philanthropy can’t save journalism, is there a way it can ever hope to recover after the pandemic? Momentum is building behind what seems like a novel idea, but is in many ways a return to basics–Victor Pickard, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the only way out of this is through public funding. “To lose the local newspaper is to lose an institution that’s vitally important to the health, culture, and democratic promise of our towns and cities,” he writes for Jacobin. “They are a social necessity, and we must rescue them from the ravages of the market.”

It can’t be said enough that the media functions at its worst when it abides by the rules of the free market–oftentimes stories most crucial, aren’t the ones to recoup their investment for lack of appeal. What this ensures is a decimation of local news–since they don’t possess the same editorial wherewithal as their national counterparts to output at the same level, they’ve become the first casualties of the ad business collapse. Alt-weeklies and other niche magazines have also met the same fate.

Elsewhere, the attention turned instead to mandating that Google and Facebook — online advertising giants and content aggregators — pay back the media what they’re owed, with some caution. “One straightforward way to solve this, if we assume that news media’s continued existence is important, is to get internet companies to pay them for their content,” writes OneZero’s Will Oremus. “While they won’t say it outright, both seem more than willing to keep doling out finite sums to handpicked media partners if it means avoiding onerous regulations.”

That’s ultimately what the effort to get media back on its feet is about–getting a largely complacent legislature to acknowledge media’s role as a net benefit to society, and act accordingly by providing it the funding it needs to survive, especially in a time where financial hardship seems rather to be the norm, not the exception.

The early promise of the internet was to make knowledge so easily accessible, that it’d make the average citizen a better-oiled cog for the machine of democracy. What we’ve gotten instead is rather the opposite–that openness to new experiences we thought was inherent to internet users, very rapidly morphed into a further entrenchment of pre-existing societal fissures, prompting a global-wide revival of some of the worst in conspiratorial thinking, along with all that is antithetical to healthy civic participation.

For an industry to have been potentially the easiest to financially support, most-vital to a society’s well-function, and yet still at the mercy of ruthless market dynamics, is a testament to how broken governance has become since the purported end of history. As it turns out, our world has a lot more stories to tell, and it’s unfortunate that far fewer people will be there to tell them, unless we act quickly and swiftly to restore media to its erstwhile glory.