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Five myths about journalism

Newspapers sit on display for sale at a newsstand in New York. (Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg)

These are tough times for journalism. Falling revenue for newspapers and magazines has led to layoffs since 2005, including four major announcements already this year. But the current crisis in the news business is also haunted by misconceptions about the industry and its history. Here are five of the most common.

Newspapers collapsed after they offered stories for free.

Subscriber and advertiser revenue for traditional print journalism has been in free fall, and many think it started when newspapers offered content online for free. As Dave Perry wrote in a 2015 online column for the Aurora Sentinel in Colorado, “Newspapers primarily hung themselves by giving away their content online 20 years ago, giving people a reason to go out and buy a 14K baud modem.” Former media executive Alan Mutter put it more directly on his blog: “The Original Sin among most (but not all) publishers was permitting their content [to] be consumed for free on the web.” 

The real problem is more complicated. In the 1990s, publishing online became easy, which led to a surge of independent digital publications that produced original content while also re-reporting news from other outlets with a little bit of analysis added. Self-publishing and the Internet’s ubiquity disrupted a news business model based on scarcity and lack of choice. Much of what midsize and large newspapers were producing was regional, state and national coverage that was being duplicated all over the country; that made sense when consumers’ choices were limited, but it was unworkable when readers could use the Internet to find that same news from anywhere. All it took was one newspaper that made its national coverage free, or an aggregator that summed up the news without doing original reporting, and they could steal the lion’s share of ad revenue by cornering the market.

Linking the problem to the cost of the product ignores the reality that loss of control of the distribution model was the real culprit.

Craigslist destroyed newspapers.

When Craig Newmark announced a $20 million gift to rename the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2018, the knives came out among those who blame Newmark’s Craigslist site for stealing classified ad revenue from newspapers. Felix Salmon voiced the long-standing beef his fellow journalists have had with Craigslist, which was founded in 1995, saying last year, “It’s utterly bizarre to name a journalism school after the man who almost single-handedly destroyed local newspapers.” Years before, New York magazine dubbed Newmark “The Exploder of Journalism” and accused him of “killing your newspaper.”

No doubt, the loss of classified ads has hurt newspaper advertising revenue, which dropped from $63.5 billion to $23 billion from 2000 to 2013, according to the Brookings Institution. Classifieds accounted for about 40 percent of the business’s ad revenue in 2000, but that share had fallen to about 18 percent by 2012. (Advertising, both in classified and display ad forms, still typically brings in more revenue for newspapers than subscriptions.) Craigslist wasn’t the only disrupter in the market, however. Revenue already was declining across the board as sites like eBay offered alternatives to a more global audience. Newer players like Amazon Seller (a division of Amazon, whose founder and CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post) and Facebook Marketplace have only broadened the competition.

Craigslist might have been one of the first, and for a while one of the best, new ways for people to sell things in a market once owned by newspapers, but the sheer volume of choices for sellers now is a sign that no single company is to blame. Simply put, newspapers prepared poorly for the rise of alternatives to classified ads.

Good journalism must be objective.

The American Press Institute says the public has developed a flawed conception of news objectivity by confusing it with lack of bias. The concept seems simple enough: The Online News Association’s ethics code proposes, “In objective journalism, stories must be balanced in the sense of attempting to present all sides of a story.” Fox News’s former motto — “Fair and Balanced” — promises something along those lines, even as it elides the network’s ideological biases. 

Objectivity as a journalistic practice is a relatively new phenomenon, though. From the founding of an independent United States to the penny press of the 1830s and the yellow journalism of the 1890s, the press was more often than not openly biased. The objectivity standard developed as a way to professionalize newsgathering and reporting in the wake of yellow journalism’s excesses. Noted columnist Walter Lippmann, a key figure in the industry, noted in his seminal “Public Opinion” that objectivity was a way to account for biases, not an attempt to eliminate them. Some of his ideas were highly influential in journalism schools, which sprang up in the early 1900s and began to train journalists with common standards such as objectivity. Other notable types of journalism don’t equate objectivity with lack of bias, as we see with the storytelling style employed by news magazines such as Time.

Facebook is a threat to journalism.

The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade describes Facebook as “newspapers’ public enemy number one,” arguing that it is muddying the project of journalism by limiting the audience for news. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram identifies Facebook as one of the main “threats to journalism” thanks to its “growing lock on the ad revenue that used to underpin most of the media industry.” 

In truth, loyalty to news brands had been fracturing even before Facebook took off. The Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media report noted in 2005  — back when Facebook was just for cool college kids — that Americans were grazers who consumed news across multiple formats and platforms and thus had no specific format or brand loyalty. Even by 2018, according to Pew , only 43 percent of Americans reported getting news through Facebook, and some of that included “soft” forms of news like celebrity gossip and viral clickbait stories. The more complex truth is that Americans have been consuming “hard” forms of news less and less each year. The problem is not just a function of Facebook stealing audience: People were already transitioning away from news consumption driven by brand loyalty with products such as RSS readers and Google News. That fragmented the hold on audience that newspapers had (and advertisers craved).

Facebook has grabbed much of the digital revenue, but that’s partly because it has consolidated the audience for “soft” news like birth announcements, want ads and the weather, subjects that were once the domain of newspapers . Google, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn also specialize in types of community information that used to be distributed by newspapers. Thus it’s more accurate to say that Facebook (and social networks in general) is stealing the audience for things that used to subsidize journalism.

Americans hate the news media, or at least don't trust it.

The Columbia Journalism Review noted, after President Trump held a rally in Tampa last August, “Several journalists commented on an atmosphere of hostility in Tampa that went beyond anything they had seen before,” reflecting a general trend of public animosity toward journalists that bubbled up during the 2016 presidential campaign. Ivy Kaplan of the Globe Post writes, “A climate of hatred and hostility towards journalists in the United States has become significantly worse,” pointing to a sobering Reporters Without Borders report that rated the United States as the sixth-most-lethal place in the world to practice journalism in 2018. 

While antipathy may be high, trust in the press has been on the rise recently, according to a Gallup poll released last fall. It shows 45 percent of Americans reporting that they trust the press a great deal or a fair amount — up from an all-time low of 32 percent in 2016, but still well off its peak of 72 percent in 1976. The picture also is more nuanced when you consider political affiliations: Seventy-six percent of Democrats say they trust the news media, compared with 42 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans. The numbers have roughly held steady since 1998 for independents and Democrats, but the loss of trust among Republicans is the noteworthy trend — down from 41 percent in 1998. So to say it’s an overall American sentiment is wrong. Similarly, recent upticks in press trust (a 2018 American Press Institute report noted that 32 percent of Americans reported increased trust in the media in the previous year) are linked to growing trust among Republicans. Thus it would be more accurate to say that Republicans don’t particularly like or trust the news media.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Walter Lippman as a New York Times columnist.

Twitter: @JeremyLittau

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