PBS Newshour: “Waning trust and a perilous financial landscape challenge the news business”

From a conversation on the PBS News Hour:

It is a tumultuous time in the news business, with a perilous financial landscape and significant percentages of Americans saying they fundamentally don’t trust news sources that don’t line up with their opinions. Gregory Moore, editor-in-chief at Deke Digital, and Radhika Jones, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Judy Woodruff:

It is a tumultuous time in the news business. Significant percentages of Americans fundamentally don’t trust news sources that don’t line up with their opinions. And the financial landscape is perilous.

Last week, Tribune Publishing, which owns nine major daily metro newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune, announced that it was turning over complete control to Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund widely seen as gutting editorial coverage at newspapers. Only one of The Tribune’s papers, The Baltimore Sun, will now be turned into a not-for-profit and owned by a Maryland business executive and philanthropist.

We examine some pressing questions of the moment with two who know this well.

Gregory Moore is a former editor of The Denver Post. He is now editor in chief at Deke Digital. It’s a company that advises corporate executives. And Radhika Jones, she is the editor of “Vanity Fair.” She also worked at The New York Times and at “TIME” magazine, before taking over Vanity Fair.”

Let’s start by talking about this business model. It used to be that newspapers, broadcast outlets sold advertising, people bought things, and somehow there was enough money to pay newspaper and broadcast reporters’ salaries.

Gregory Moore, what do we have now?

Gregory Moore:

Well, you have a lot of uncertainty.

Google and Facebook really changed the advertising landscape. They have gobbled up somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 or 95 percent of the media advertising. And so local news organizations in particular have had to go looking for other ways to sort of finance the collection and dissemination of news.

And what’s really exciting about it is that we’re looking at new models and new opportunities, from foundations owning and supporting news operations, to taxpayer-supported formulas that will work, corporate donations and things of that nature that, 15 years ago, we wouldn’t even look at.

But I think we have got to find a new model. The advertising one is broken. And it is really critical to the success of the local news environment.

Judy Woodruff:

And, Radhika Jones, you were telling us, while we’re figuring all of this out, local coverage, local news coverage has taken a big hit.

Radhika Jones:

It has.

There are certain national news outlets that have become a lot stronger in, say, the last decade, decade-and-a-half, and local news has suffered, in large part because of the collapse of things like classified ads, which are now such a relic of the past.

But the irony is that local news often is national news. I think about what happened with the blackouts in Texas, and the way that all of our eyes were trained on those events. And it was reporting from Texas Monthly and from the paper in Houston and places like that, that really helped bring clarity to that situation and hold powerful people to account.

Judy Woodruff:

Greg Moore, while all of this is going on, you have the deepest political polarization across the country that we have ever seen, people gravitating toward, as I mentioned a moment ago, news sources that reflect their own opinion.

There was a Pew study that came out today that said one-quarter of Republicans consistently turn to news sources with right-leaning audiences, same for Democrats, a quarter of Democrats doing the same. And then you have a half of Democrats and a third of Republicans turning to sources, news sources, that serve — try to serve a mainstream audience.

What has all this meant for the challenges facing journalists?

Gregory Moore:

Well, one of the things that it has meant is sort of a lack of common sense or a common set of facts.

As these particularly local news organizations have lost their ability to sort of more broadly cover issues, our collective sense of what is going on in our communities has really been disrupted.

I think the second thing that has happened is that we have lost some credibility, that the fake news assault over the last four, four-and-a-half years has really had some effect. We have lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 newspapers, to be specific, 1,800 newspapers in probably the last 10 years.

And with that, we have lost a lot of institutional memory. But, more than that, those newspapers had 150 years of credibility. They’re being replaced by upstarts that really haven’t earned the right to be where they are.

And so the way that they’re doing it is by appealing to what people already think they know, right? They’re confirming the very limited sort of siloed existence that they have, and it is really contributing to a breakdown in the sense of community.

It’s really — we’re at a perilous moment here. It doesn’t mean it is going to last, but we’re at a perilous moment where we can’t even agree on a common set of facts because of the fractured nature of the media.

Judy Woodruff:

And, Radhika Jones, how has that affected the journalism you can do at “Vanity Fair” and what you see others doing? And do you think this is a trust that can be regained?

Radhika Jones:

I do think it can be regained. I am an optimistic on that front.

And I think that the mere fact that we are having these conversations and drawing attention to it, I hope is a helpful step in the right direction. I mean, one thing that has happened, especially in the last four years, with the assault on the media and its credibility, has been a lot of hostility toward members of the press and reporters who I work with both at “Vanity Fair” and places in the past, who’ve endured threats and incredible hostility simply for doing their jobs.

And I think that the more we can shine a light on that and start to reestablish, in a transparent way, the fact that people in the media are not the enemy, they are actually holding powerful people to account, they are providing clarity, they are providing a service, and often a very community-based service, I think, the more we can show that, show our processes, make decisions in transparent ways, the better off we will be.

Judy Woodruff:

I know that is something we think about every day, all the time, at the “NewsHour.”

The other thing I want to bring up with both of you, Greg Moore, is, while all this is happening, there is a generational change. There is a turnover in leadership at a number of major news organizations. There is an increasing call, in this age of Black Lives Matter and within the last year, the death of George Floyd, there is a call for more diversity, more inclusion in newsrooms.

Journalists have talked about this for a long time, but we still have a long way to go. How do you see the progress that is being made? And how much difference does it make that there is progress?

Gregory Moore:

Well, certainly, having diverse newsrooms is hugely important to covering stories like Black Lives Matter and policing in America, income inequality.

Having people who have experienced some of that, who actually understand what is that is like really contributes to how a story like that gets covered.

We’re — when the economy is bad, the first thing that really goes in news organizations is diversity. And we are witnessing what I have described as the whitening of the media. We have lost a lot.

And one of the ways that we get it back is to shine a light on it, as Radhika was saying, and make sure that we explain that, while we may be losing diversity that is so important in newspapers, these new digital upstarts that are being created, they need to put an emphasis on diversity.

If you look at a lot of these digital verticals that have been created in the last 10 years, they’re almost exclusively white. And that really affects the kinds of stories that get covered, who gets to tell the stories, who gets included as sources and things of that nature.

And I would say, next to the financial stability of the media, the second most important thing is inclusion and a diversity of voices, not just on the reporting level, but on the editing level, on the producer level, and certainly in the chief executive office.

Judy Woodruff:

And, Radhika, Radhika Jones, how do you see the imperative here? How much difference does it make that this happens? Is it happening at the pace it should be happening at?

Radhika Jones:

I think one always wants it to happen faster. It is a work in progress.

Again, I think the fact that we’re having these conversations and that they are, in my experience at least, more robust than they have ever been is cause for optimism. But I do agree that it is extremely important.

And it does come back around to that local news question, because, often, local news, where it exists, is able to serve otherwise marginalized or underserved communities. And so to be able to have a diverse group of reporters and writers and editors, and more than that, podcasters, audience development executives, everyone now who contributes to multiplatform news, to be able to have those people come from different places, and represent different modes of storytelling, represent different points of view is going to be critical, I think, for our success going forward.

Judy Woodruff:

And you raise a point that does get back to something I know we’re all interested in.

As we democratize, if you will, small D, the coverage of news, as the public, the audience is more involved in what we cover, there are fewer editors. How much should we worry about that? How does that figure into journalism as it moves into the future, Greg Moore?

Gregory Moore:

Well, Judy, I don’t confuse citizens with being journalists.

There is more to be a journalist than jotting down notes or recording a conversation. There’s a whole different level of accountability and verifying and things of that nature.

But I do think that the people that we cover need to have a stronger voice. And what that coverage looks like, they should be able to interact. They should be able to give resolution to errors and omissions in real time.

You know, when I was coming up in this business, if we made a mistake, we basically tried to negotiate our way out of it: Next time, we will do better.

Well, that’s not good enough now. I think that the damage that can be done by portraying individuals or communities incorrectly is much longer-lasting with the Web.

And so being able to interact and being able to influence coverage and actually understanding how that is done, I think, is one of the most important reasons that women and people of color and other underserved and marginalized folks need to be a part of the media power chain in this country, to demystify it.

Judy Woodruff:

We thank you very much, Radhika Jones, Greg Moore. Thank you.
Gregory Moore:

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