Ex-New York Times editor on the perfect storm that created journalism's 'Age of Anxiety'
Media: Merchants of Truth
Bodley Head, hardback, 544 pages, €29.30
There is much to admire in a former New York Times editor's account of the decline of traditional media and the perfect storm that created journalism's 'Age of Anxiety'.
After the shock election of Donald Trump in November 2016, the "old" and "new" media in America responded in quite different ways. At The New York Times, the venerable "grey lady" of American journalism, the publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote an open letter, admitting the paper had let its readers down by underestimating Trump's support, and pledging to rededicate the paper to its "fundamental mission" of fair reporting, "without fear or favour". Over at BuzzFeed, the rude, upstart web operation that had built its fortune on celebrity gossip and "listicles", the management responded to Trump's victory by arranging for "a small group of puppies" to be on hand in the offices to comfort staff.
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Jill Abramson's Merchants of Truth is chock-full of arresting titbits like this. The book charts what Abramson calls journalism's "Age of Anxiety" through four institutions, two old - The New York Times and The Washington Post - and two new, BuzzFeed and VICE. A former executive editor of The New York Times, Abramson describes the perfect storm that has engulfed newspapers over the past dozen years. Economic recession; an ageing and declining readership; falling advertising revenue; the arrival of the smartphone and the rise of social media - all have combined to create a world where "content" has replaced "stories", where reader metrics trump editorial judgment, where trivia has become the tail that wags the journalistic dog, and where arguments about "fake news" have undermined public trust.
It is telling that Abramson should begin this book not with BuzzFeed, the site that, more than any other, built its success by targeting a young audience that did not buy newspapers, spent hours on Facebook, and which conventional media barely knew existed. Launched in 2006 by internet entrepreneur Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed's modus operandi was to aggregate news stories from other sites and package them to emphasise sentiment and celebrity, creating "a marketplace for emotional experiences" that its audience would feel moved to share with their friends.
Peretti boasted that the biggest misconception among publishers was that "quality is all that matters". It didn't matter that much of what BuzzFeed put out was derivative; what mattered was ensuring it reached an audience - better yet, that it was about them. Grounded in the belief that web-grazers were largely composed of egomaniacs and navel-gazers, the endless "listicles" and quizzes were designed to elicit more data about readers to pitch to prospective advertisers.
As a student, Peretti had written papers such as 'Capitalism and Schizophrenia' about the vulnerabilities of consumers. Yet within a decade, Abramson notes, he "would build a billion-dollar company [$1.7bn by 2016] catering to the world's largest brands by preying on these very same vulnerabilities in consumers' collective subconscious." When a reporter put this volte-face to Peretti, he replied: "LOL."
Peretti later changed tack, establishing a separate channel dedicated to news, hoping to enlarge BuzzFeed's audience and attract more advertisers who, according to Peretti, "respect companies that do news, even if they don't want to advertise on the news content itself". Yet BuzzFeed's most successful story to date remains a fleeting internet craze over whether a dress was black and blue or white and gold, which brought 28 million people to the site within 24 hours.
While BuzzFeed targeted an audience hooked on "pizza, Netflix and Beyoncé", VICE began life as a purposely offensive lads' mag, taking a "gonzo" approach to edgy stories about taboo subjects. Occupying a grey zone between serious journalism and sensationalism, VICE went on to land significant coups with its stories about life in Raqqa under Isil, the eccentric basketball player Dennis Rodman's unilateral "peace mission" to North Korea, and the Charlottesville protests. VICE won a clutch of awards, joining "the media elite it had set out to obliterate", Abramson writes.
The old "legacy" behemoths, the Times and the Post, were slow to acknowledge the digital train hurtling towards them, and to adapt accordingly, confounded by the proliferation of internet news platforms, "citizen journalists" and the new techno-witchcraft of SEO (search engine optimisation) to drive readers to their sites. The smartphone, which could deliver constant updates like an IV drip, demanded a different approach from the traditional diurnal news cycle of newspapers, and different ways of attracting readers who were now used to getting their news for nothing.
In the face of catastrophically declining revenues, The New York Times was obliged to sell a large stake to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, while in 2013 The Washington Post was bought by Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos. In the offices where once hung the "Nixon Resigns" front page, marking the paper's Watergate glory days, there were huge flat-screens displaying real-time statistics on how many readers were looking at each story, under a Bezos mantra: "What's dangerous is not to evolve". Abramson charts that evolution in exhaustive detail. (A little too exhaustively; the book is much too long.) There is a note of regret in her voice, for the way in which the division between the "church and state" of commerce and editorial has been eroded. Abramson herself was fired from the Times in 2014 after 17 years. She says it was her unwillingness "to sacrifice my ethical moorings for business exigencies" that led to her dismissal (though her mishandling of an editorial appointment seems also to have been a factor).
Then there is Trump. His mastery of the hustings and social media - government by Twitter - with its constant drip-feed about "the lying MSM", along with the rise of right-wing sites such as Breitbart challenging the news narrative of the major papers, meant he could circumvent traditional media, creating a closed loop, as the pundit Jay Rosen observed. For a broad swathe of the electorate, "Trump becomes the major source of information about Trump, because independent sources are rejected on principle". Last year, 91pc of Republican voters cited Trump as their most trusted news source.
This presented the traditional media with a dilemma: how do you maintain the cardinal journalistic rule of objectivity when reporting on a president purposefully bent on undermining the truth? It's a dilemma Abramson admits led to some New York Times coverage being "unmistakably anti-Trump" - a suggestion Trump has gleefully seized upon, tweeting that "Ms Abramson is 100pc correct," adding, "Horrible and totally dishonest reporting on almost everything they write". Abramson tweeted back that the Times and the Post "have had superb coverage of the corruption enveloping the Trump administration, the best investigative reporting I've seen".
The irony is that Trump, in striving to delegitimise established news organisations, has actually driven up their readership - the so-called "Trump bump". Subscriptions at The New York Times swelled to more than two million after his election, leading the Columbia Journalism Review to note that "an obsessive brand promoter [Trump] has become the unofficial chief marketing officer of the hometown newspaper he professes to hate". For the mainstream US media, its prime antagonist has proved its saviour. If there is a moral here, it is the oldest one in journalism: bad news sells - no matter what platform it's on.