Social media, commentary endanger journalism in America
The threat that social media and the internet pose to journalism is universal
The threat that social media and the internet pose to journalism is universal. However, the United States is probably the most prolific mass-media-driven culture in the world, and American cultural forms - even the values that inform those forms - tend to become universal facts sooner or later.
It is highly symbolic of the role media has played historically in the United States that one of the most important of the founding fathers, referred to by historians as “the first American,” was Benjamin Franklin. He was a politician, statesman, diplomat and scientist, but also a newspaper publisher and journalist.
Because of its vast expanse, American media is incredibly decentralized. Strictly speaking, the United States has no prestigious national newspaper. Even TV news is largely decentralized. Each local channel in each major city staffs reporters, producers and anchors putting on air a local news show that generally attracts at least as many viewers, if not more, than national news shows. The same decentralization, and thus proliferation, applies to radio news, which still survives with a vast American audience driving to and from work, as well as busy housewives.
Probably the most popular internet content is pornography. Fifty years ago, newspapers were competing with TV news, not with pornography, which was banned across the United StatesAbdallah Schleifer
A national American media has evolved in recent decades: first the all-news channels CNN, Fox then MSNBC, and now online journalism. Broadsheets and tabloids have attracted millions of readers to their online editions, well beyond national boundaries. They are effectively global online news sites, despite their predominantly national content.
Broadly speaking, online news includes any number of relatively high-quality American daily websites that were made for the internet - such as the Huffington Post, Daily Beast and Slate - not websites created by newspapers or magazines.
They have millions of readers, but this is a drop in the ocean compared with social media, with its powerful pictures, weird content, celebrity gossip and pop music. Probably the most popular internet content is pornography. Fifty years ago, newspapers were competing with TV news, not with pornography, which was banned across the United States.
American newspapers depend far more on advertising revenue than sales via newsstands or home delivery. However, advertising revenue has declined from $63.7 billion in 2000 to $23 billion in 2013.
Americans now spend about 5% of the time they devote to media of all kinds to newspapers and magazines, yet 20% of advertising dollars still goes to print media, almost out of inertia. That is changing, and even more radically since the younger the age group, the less likely they are to buy print media. Only a third of Americans under 35 read a newspaper even once a week, and the percentage declines every year.
Newspapers and TV news organizations, which have also been losing out to internet viewing, can only remain barely profitable by reducing reporting and editing staff. The newsroom of the New York Times costs about $230 million a year, and despite heavy investment in a superb online version, it is barely profitable.
The Washington Post - the second most influential newspaper in the United States - runs a news operation that costs more than $90 million, despite the reduction in staff and profits. Newsrooms all over the country have been decimated. Newspapers employed 59,000 journalists in 1989, but only 36,000 in 2012, and the figures continue to decline.
To compete with the internet, reporters have to continuously update their initial stories in the course of a working day for their newspapers’ websites, instead of probing more deeply to develop the one version of their story that would appear in print. Reporters are also increasingly encouraged or required to script and narrate a video field report of the same story, again reducing the time available to advance the original story.
Overseas reporting has always been the first to suffer from staff reductions, since most people just about anywhere are more interested in local or limited regional news than in foreign affairs. And while internet audiences are invariably far larger than print circulation, which continues to decline, advertising on websites has not increased to the same degree.
Leading newspaper websites are beginning to require subscriptions, but the revenue stream is far less relative to the increase in readers. As for online publications that are not simply web versions of print newspapers, their staffing is even thinner.
TV news in the United States has endured the same grim process, with significant staff reductions. Where TV reporters would once concentrate all their effort covering news from the capitals of politically important foreign countries, now they must be continuously on the move covering the region rather than just one country. That is one of the reasons why American coverage of Egypt over the past few years has been so thin and often misleading.
In the Arab world, this negative effect of free-market TV news is minimized because channels are either state funded or survive as a non-profit public service within a network of other, profitable entertainment channels. This is the case with Al Arabiya News Channel, which falls within the MBC network.
TV journalism has also suffered from the ability to quickly edit a news report on one’s computer and send it out at minimal cost or go live, via Skype, at no cost. Given the competitive need to get one’s story out faster than one’s rivals, news organizations are increasingly going for live-on-camera responses rather than waiting for correspondents to figure out what is going on.
Given revenue pressures, and the fact that reporting an event or trends is far more expensive than offering an opinion about it, commentary is increasingly crowding out actual reporting, particularly on American TV news channels. This is further reducing the quality of journalism.
This may sound strange coming from someone writing an opinion piece, but at Al Arabiya opinion is separated from news, and news takes priority in the design of the homepage. In contrast, in Egypt highly opinionated TV talk show hosts are increasingly considered more authoritative by audiences than relatively objective or detached reports on the occasional TV news bulletin.
The quality of American journalism will continue to deteriorate. In an in-house report on the digital future, written by a committee of New York Times staff, it is stated quite clearly and unapologetically: “Packaging, promoting and sharing our journalism on the Internet – three activities that have nothing to do with reporting and writing news stories – must become a priority for the newsroom.”
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.