17 May 2019

Truth and the changing media landscape

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 17 May 2019

The media landscape often seems like it’s in a constant state of flux, but the last ten years have really been a complete gamechanger.

The advent of social media disrupted the traditional media model and left many major institutions at a loss as to how to keep up in an era of clickbait.

In Jill Abramson’s book Merchants of Truth she speaks of the revolution that has swept the news industry over the last decade and reshaped our world.

She was the first woman to become executive editor of The New York Times before she was fired in 2014, becoming a poster-girl for working women described as "too pushy".

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Photo: Penguin Random House

New to the game in the past decade, Buzzfeed and Vice were making money hand over fist - on native advertising mostly - but were very much the envy of the old guard, says Abramson.

“The Times and the Post were struggling to become digital first operations, they were used to conducting their news gathering and publishing according to the rhythms of the printing press and the newcomers were very used to popping up new content, some of it very light and entertaining, instantaneous basically.”

Buzzfeed was built on the back of Facebook, as an experiment, she says.

Their science of virality was to push things that people would want to share, their content would go viral, she says.

“We, luckily at The Times, didn’t have severe cut backs in our staff, we had some layoffs and buyouts, but it was a scary period and we were watching as places like Buzzfeed and Vice were hiring like crazy and growing very quickly.”

In newspapers, there was a traditional and sacred wall between news and business – two sides of the operation.

Advertising and circulations were once very healthy revenue streams but this was starting to change. 

“Print advertising was pretty much going off a cliff.”

There was a new form of journalism appearing. It wasn't news per say, but videos of immersive journalism taking the audience to remote and dangerous places where broadcast journalists seldom ventured, she says.

It was the signature style of Vice.

When Abramson was executive editor at The Times the publication was looking at some of this and thinking they should perhaps be doing some of the same, she says.

“Certainly, in the case of Vice, I found much of value including an early video series that Shane Smith, Vice’s founder, did on North Korea where he and basically a small camera crew sort of snuck in to North Korea through China and gave you… a very up close look at North Korea and this crazy kingdom where there was this giant state library with no books in it.

“I found all parts of that fascinating.”

Vice has won a lot of awards recently for their coverage of Charlottesville and Abramson says she can see why.

“Vice was smart and sent one of its young correspondents down there and she had very good sources in sort of the alt-right community and she did a fantastic piece that ran for almost a whole half hour.”

It’s an immersive style that lets the camera roll most of the time, she says.

The emergence of these digital media publications had a dramatic effect on The Times and The Post.

“In the beginning, the problem was the legacy newspapers like The Times and The Post thought about the internet as ‘oh all we have to do is publish the same stories that are in the paper on the web’ and the web has its own distinct rhythms and needs and ways of building audience that’s totally different form the old style of print publications. It took unfortunately too long for that to be understood.”

It was a struggle, at least for The Times, to figure out how video can be monetised and used to deepen journalism – something Vice was very good at, she says.

The Times wasn’t initially paying a lot of attention to metrics on the web, she says, but things quickly changed.

“A company called Chartbeat kind of became an obsession kind of overnight, at all newspapers.”

Chartbeat gives you metrics second by second of which stories are being read and by which reporter. The Post, purchased by the owner of Amazon in 2013, put up big screens all over the newsroom and in the lobby of its building, showing this data.

“That was a big, big change.”

The Times has signed up over 2 million new subscribers since Donald Trump was elected and stories about Trump are often the most read and clicked on – but Abramson says they aren’t at the mercy of his presidency.

“…they are both really high quality news operations, they produce investigative stories and enterprise stories… and The Times still serves somewhat of an agenda setting role for the rest of the news media in the US and so both of them have achieved success in reader revenue, requiring their heaviest readers and users to hit a pay wall and pay what they want.”

Both have achieved success, she says.

Two years ago, The Post announced it was profitable and The Times is getting very meaningful revenue from digital circulation.

“That’s important because it comes at a moment when digital advertising which Buzzfeed and Vice and many of the all-digital players thought would be their growth mechanism, digital advertising isn’t a solid business model because Facebook and Google are gobbling up by far the most of it.”

Abramson spent much of her life as an investigative journalist for The Times and The Wallstreet Journal, but she says we are now in the golden era of investigative journalism.

However, she says, because it requires a lot of time and digging, most of the time consisting of bigger teams too, a smaller number of news organisations can afford to do investigative journalism.

“It’s been eliminated in a lot of regional newspapers that used to thrive on it, which means local governments and state governments are going uncovered.”

It’s an open invitation for corruption, she says.

Public trust in the media is at an all-time low, according to some polls.

“I think a prime reason people give for not trusting media is that they think it is politically biased and that’s a view both of people on the left and people on the right.

“The way the almighty algorithm of Facebook works, is that it’s studying and gathering data about what you like and what you share and very quickly you’re mostly seeing… news that you agree with already and that adds to the polarisation of the country and the frightening reality that two sets of dramatically different facts are accepted as the truth by partisan opponents.”

The New York Times is also gathering data and adjusting stories accordingly.

“That’s part of why they’ve considered their own data about readership as a very valuable thing and they were not willing, during most of the years that I spent at The Times, to share it, to give away New York Times content to other big tech platforms.”

Part of this is that they wanted to own their data about their readers, she says.

Data about the wealth and education level of readers was sometimes shared with advertisers, although Abramson says the publisher of The Times recently said this would stop.

Try to access content on many news sites nowadays, and you'll be stuck behind a pay wall. The New York Times have one, and it's a success - what did they get right?

“The Times itself actually tried to have a paywall back in 2006 it was called Times Select and it was a crashing failure.”

It was mostly opinion writing that readers had to pay for, but they just weren’t willing to, she says.

“Roll the camera forward to 2011 and we needed desperately new revenue and so the publisher… made a very gutsy decision to try charging again but to use a very different model… it had some flexibility.”

It allows people to read 5 free articles because walling yourself off completely is very difficult, she says.

The New York Times is one of the best global brands and people associate it with singular quality and authority and because of that, in time… people are willing to pay for news that they can’t find anywhere else.”

Jill Abramson is here for the Auckland Writers' Festival and speaks with Kathryn about the era of digital disruption.