“Fake News” makes money

And Trump’s Tweets don’t help

Buzzfeed last week announced it would lay off 15% of its workforce. There was plenty discussion and debate on social media about what caused this. Does it signal a new era for journalism, media, or even capitalism? Is the news industry broken, and how can it be fixed?

Perhaps the most notable reaction was written by one Donald J. Trump on Twitter. Not only because it was wildly unfounded and inaccurate…

…but because it was shared 27,047 times.

Mr. Trump has ceaselessly used newsworthy events as leverage for his own personal agenda, and I usually stay out of it. But this time, he’s gone too far. Not only has he displayed a blatant lack of understanding of the media industry, he has solidified his own role in exacerbating the very issue he continues to censure. For someone with the incredible amount of influence as Mr. Trump has, such irresponsible claims can have far-reaching consequences. Notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s general attempts to undermine the efforts of hard-working journalists and news agencies, the claims he’s made here are contributing to a mass desensitization to the real problems facing our news industry, and distracting people from the ways in which such problems can actually be solved (see: “red herring”).

Digital news and social media — a recipe for disaster

In order to understand the inaccuracy of Mr. Trump’s tweet, we should first look into the current state of the news industry.

Since the shift to the digital format in the early part of the 2000s, many publications struggled to maintain sustainable revenue. While some have opted for a paywall solution, wherein users have to pay to access articles, most rely on advertisements. But ads have proven not very lucrative in the long run, to the point where some have existentially questioned the sustainability of the entire industry.

While I feel that may be a bit of an over-apocalyptic view, it’s true there is a struggle going on, and one that is yet to have been solved effectively. The reason for the struggle is the deep-rooted dependence of news on social media, each of which has motivations that are irreconcilable with the other (social media: to drive ad-clicks, news: to inform the public). When social media is used as a tool for accessing the news, the news must become sensationalized in order to garner sufficient engagement to be placed high up in Facebook’s feed, such that enough users click on it, leading to an increase in the amount of ad revenue for the news publication. In short, ads and news don’t mix.

According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of American adults get news via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This means that, in order to gain as many clicks as possible (and in turn, gain revenue), news publishers have to play by the rules of Facebook’s algorithm — namely, by drawing as much engagement as possible. And how best to do that than publishing provocative, sensationalized content. Such demand for sensationalism leads to clickbait, and in extreme cases, fake or fabricated news, much of which is further propagated by social media users. It follows that those outlets who publish sensationalized (i.e. fake news and clickbait) content are more likely to bring in ad-revenue than those who publish accurate, informative content.

The verdict on Mr. Trump’s tweet

Buzzfeed’s layoffs have nothing to do with Trump’s claims of a “downturn” caused as a result of “fake news” and “bad journalism”. If anything, they are a testament to the diligent efforts by their journalists in maintaining the integrity of reporting in an era where doing so is becoming ever more difficult, in part because of irresponsible claims made by leaders who throw red herring arguments at the public, distracting them from the real problems.

How can we solve the problem

In order to restore the quality and integrity of journalism (and make it financially sustainable), consumers and publishers should change their attitude and approach towards paid digital content, respectively:

On the part of consumers, we should consider purchasing a subscription to those outlets who maintain high quality reporting — even amidst such toxic verbosity — thereby eliminating the dependence of their sustainability on revenue brought in by ads.

On the part of news outlets, more should consider joining a third party bundle subscription package, such as that of INKL, or otherwise providing more personalized payment options for different types of users.

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Corduroy Bologna

Corduroy Bologna

I don’t paywall my garbage content and you shouldn’t either.