When I began writing this column in 2014, my then-editor offered only one piece of advice: “You cannot be depressing.”
That was not easy. Coming out of the Great Recession in the midst of an historic downturn in the industry, shiny slivers of light were hard to find. But that’s over. Better days are ahead because we have the talent and the evidence to find a new path.
We will look at 2018 as the year in which we started calling social media platforms what they are—privacy-invading, behavior-modifying, democracy-poisoning websites motivated by money. The redemptive capital of the Facebook/Russia connection is that it helped pull open the drapes on how social media platforms operate by spying on us (with permission we have given them). They then use that data to continually feed us more of what they think we want to hear and buy.
We will look at 2018 as the year in which solid, well-researched journalism began to reclaim its place in the world by offering people thoroughly vetted news that informs and challenges them. And they were willing to pay for it.
Because an editor is not an algorithm.
An algorithm establishes a set of rules to be followed by a computer programmed to solve a problem. An editor uses experience, skepticism, instinct and insight to report valuable information. People will be willing to pay for that. Artificial intelligence is no match for solid journalism.
It is important to step back and examine the dawn of the internet and crucial mistakes that were made (including those made by news media companies.) In its early days, internet architects wanted everything to be free to everyone, says tech entrepreneur and lecturer Jaron Lanier. But to keep information free, we created a business model that served ads to people viewing the free information.
This was fine as long as the ads were benign—offering products and services available in your community. But as the technological knowledge grew—and the sophistication of those delivering those ads advanced—Google, Facebook, Amazon and YouTube were able to deliver ads and content that made it seem like they knew what you were thinking before you did. In many ways, that was true. They predicted behaviors based on past choices.
The problem is that this occurred during a time when internet conspiracy theories and fake news sites were burgeoning. The algorithm might take your search for “the truth about ‘Schindler’s List’” and lead you right down the rabbit hole to anti-Semitic sites that claim the Holocaust was a hoax. Search for news about the Boston Marathon bombing and you might be served ads about legal explosives or sites that show you how to build one on your own.
With no check on this system—with no editor—artificial intelligence takes over and serves ads and content without distinction to its veracity.
This culling process always has been the true value of a good editor.
The president’s bellicose attacks on the media are so exaggerated and lacking substance that he has opened the doors for credible media to fight back by offering citizens a look at how news is researched and reported. With some celebrity cheerleading by John Oliver and Meryl Streep, and credibility-lifting films such as “Spotlight” and “The Post,” traditional news media is entering a heyday.
But we must not repeat the mistakes of the past and build our future around websites with ad-serving partners that chase readers around like an annoying little brother. We can’t collect personal data about our subscribers and sell it.
We can do what we do best. Chase, check out and report the news with disinterested vigor.
People will pay for this. If you doubt that, consider that many consider this a golden age of television. Streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime chose a model that essentially said, “If we step up our game and produce quality programs, will you pay for our service?” Result? Netflix now has more customers than cable television, and 61 percent of young adults (18 to 29) primarily watch streaming services.
Quality won on television. It can win in print.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.