On April 28, I spent an interesting evening not sitting next to Donald Trump. Normally, the president comes to the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner—and sits beside the editor-in-chief of the organization whose reporter is the association’s chair. That honor would have been mine, but sadly Trump, for the second year in a row, declined, making clear his disdain for the established media.
I spent most of the evening looking down from the dais at the ranks of American journalism, gathered around their pennanted tables like a slightly drunken medieval army. A 2006 cover of the Economist came to mind.
It appeared shortly after I became that magazine’s editor and used fonts from familiar mastheads to spell out, like a ransom demand, “Who killed the newspaper?” For better or worse, the cover rapidly became a staple of PowerPoints at journalism conferences, alongside predictions that “old media” would be swept away by newcomers like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Business Insider. The cover seemed prophetic, with papers giving up print production (the Independent), going into bankruptcy (Los Angeles Times’ parent Tribune Publishing), or laying off journalists (everybody), as advertising disappeared to Google and Facebook. The year 2006 also saw the start of what, in effect, would become the largest newspaper on the planet: Twitter.
Thanks in part to the election of the world’s most famous tweeter, journalism’s economic crisis has broadened into one of relevance and efficacy, centered on “fake news.” The leader of the free world has no need for us, preferring instead to speak to his voters directly in 280-character bursts. Vladimir Putin takes open pleasure in hoodwinking us; if Robert Mueller is correct, Russia had as much influence on America’s last election as the established media, at a cost of a little over $1 million a month. Meanwhile liberal opinion howls about the quality press’s failure to hold Trump to account and to prevent Brexit.
As if to prove the doubters right, the president’s nonappearance at the WHCA dinner was soon overtaken by a media squabble about the performanceof the person whom I did indeed sit next to: Michelle Wolf. The comic delivered a savage roasting of the president (and his staff) that even some Trump-haters think went too far. Trump tweeted his pleasure that the dinner had bombed, while some members of the press said Wolf’s speech should have been vetted—an odd position for defenders of the First Amendment.
But is journalism really in such a parlous state? Look closer. News is an industry in transition, not in decline. It is reemerging as something more digital, more personalized, more automated, more paid for—and (eventually) less fake. In many ways history is repeating itself, with the main surprise being the survival of so many established names. And good journalism still does have the power to change lives.
The quality press has staged a remarkable resurrection, thanks to the introduction of metered paywalls that charge regular readers but still leave their websites open to much larger audiences of occasional visitors who can see advertisements. The New York Times, which already has almost 2 million digital subscribers, is aiming for 10 million; about 100 million people still visit its website each month. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, and the Economist all make most of their money by charging people for their content; old advertising-first fiefdoms, like Condé Nast and the Los Angeles Times, are also now building paid circulation quickly. Even Le Monde—hardly most people’s idea of capitalism—is now apparently profitable, thanks to a paywall.
This week, we at Bloomberg joined the trend—with our own consumer subscription business. We already have perhaps the most profitable professional paywall, through the Bloomberg terminal; now we’re expanding a version of the Businessweek paywall we erected last year to cover all of Bloomberg.com. There are rumblings from Facebook and Google that they will start paying old media for content. Even the Guardian, the most fervent advocate of the idea of free news, now asks, very respectfully, for you to make a donation. Its begging letter has attracted 800,000 supporters.
The reason for this transition? It’s partly negative. No news provider has maintained much of a profit out of advertising, no matter how big its audience. But there’s also a positive reason: Consumers will pay. Back in 2006 they were used to the web being free—with just a few outliers (including the Economist). But in the age of Netflix and Spotify, people are coming around to paying for content again. They live in a knowledge economy where ideas and information matter and where news is still relatively cheap: You can buy most of the products listed above for the price of a cappuccino a week.
Some who have benefited from this shift have come from the new economy—notably Jeff Bezos, who, when he bought the Washington Post in 2013, invested in good journalism and put up a paywall. Now, most of the cool new—and free—media brands of 2006 are rounding up subscribers in some way.
For those who care about journalistic independence, this is generally a good thing. Relying on readers for your income presents fewer ethical dilemmas to editors than chasing advertisers. It cannot be coincidental that coverage of Google and Facebook has sharpened now that newspapers no longer rely on them so much.
So problem solved? Not entirely. First, paywalls don’t work for everybody. There are still big holes in local journalism. In the U.S., many city papers cut back on investigative work and covering politics as they lost the monopoly on classified ads. Democracy may not be dying in darkness, but many parts of local government are badly lit.
Second, the product underpinning that economic model will not stay the same. News is changing shape—with technology revolutionizing the way stories are produced. One change is automation. When I arrived at Bloomberg in 2015, I found a team of “Speed” reporters who leapt on company earnings and sent out headlines across the terminal, their triumphs measured in seconds against Reuters, our ancestral rival. Another reporter would then write a fuller “wrap,” say 10 minutes later, bringing the numbers together, saying how the market reacted, and perhaps adding an analyst’s quote.
Nowadays, journalists increasingly prep their story templates to be filled in by a computer system called Cyborg that dissects a company’s earnings the moment they appear and produces not just instant headlines but, in a matter of seconds, what is in effect a mini-wrap with all the numbers and a lot of context. All this is in competition not just with Reuters but with specialist news-scraping sites that serve hedge funds looking for microseconds of advantage. An arms race has developed, with the battleground moving to secondary data—like the number of iPhones sold in China—that can often move a share price more than the profit numbers. Today, a quarter of the content produced by Bloomberg has some degree of automation.
It’s not just the financial press. The Washington Post, for example, uses automation to cover high school sports. News organizations that used to first hear about news from local reporters now use banks of computers to find news, trawling through reams of social data for words like “explosion,” “resignation,” or even “Kardashian.”
Before anyone panics about robots replacing humans, you still need a lot of humans not just to write clever templates but also to look for discrepancies. Raw news is immensely valuable—you can watch shares worth billions of dollars change hands when it’s disclosed—but the period of time when this is really news is ever shorter. With facts so rapidly established, journalists whose core responsibility used to be saying what happened now have to answer questions like why and what’s next. It also gives even greater value to people who can uncover news that computers cannot reach—the fact that two companies are in takeover talks or the corruption of a politician. In a world where the facts are known, commentary will become ever more important: For better or worse, you cannot digitize Matt Levine’s brain.
If automation is one trend, another is personalization. Old media has used new technology to become really good at targeting what its readers want to know. Wherever I am, the BBC will happily tell me what the weather is in Rutland or whether Leicester City has scored. The financial press is finding value in delivering the right information to people who have more money than time. You can deliver news pegged not just to financiers’ portfolios but also to their “player types”; a fund manager will see a different news feed from someone selling equities. There’s a natural limit to this, not because it’s hard to segment news but because the people who can afford these products not only prize their privacy and individuality but also want the serendipity of being able to see other stories—which is a strength of print.
That points to the final series of changes: the multiplicity of formats. The standard print news story is being broken up, split among explainers, videographics, podcasts, and so on. Editorship is increasingly a matter of choosing the best way to deliver information to a time-starved consumer. News is likely to get shorter, quicker, and more graphical. But if you need to understand Syria or cryptocurrencies, you may save time reading one long story in Businessweek or the New Yorker rather than endless small ones.
What about fake news in this brave new world? There has always been fake news. As Lewis Lapham has pointed out, the Trojan horse was fake news. The word “canard” comes from libelous French pamphlets—one of which doomed the reputation of Marie Antoinette. More recently, the “yellow journalism” struggle between the Hearst and Pulitzer empires helped tip the U.S. into the Spanish-American War.
Bursts of fake news often seem to be tied to technology. After the steam-powered press increased productivity tenfold in 1814, cheap newspapers, many scandalously inaccurate or racist, sprouted everywhere. In 1835, New York’s the Sun, which sold for a penny, reported confidently that half-bat, half-human mutants were living on the moon. And yet, the industry smartened up for two reasons. Advertisers decided they did not want to promote their brands alongside obvious rubbish, and readers began to pay for better content.
My guess is something similar is happening now. The people who flock to Twitter do so increasingly with one question: Is this true? (We’ve tried to answer that question by launching TicToc by Bloomberg, a news network on Twitter that tries to verify what’s real.) Pushed by consumers, Facebook and Google are struggling to clean up their act. Advertisers are also getting more choosy: JPMorgan Chase & Co. used to have ads on 400,000 sites; now it limits them to 5,000.
Serious journalism does matter. The New York Times’ story on Harvey Weinstein may have been full of salacious details of towel-dropping and groping, but it’s changed the behavior of men toward women in offices and factories (and newsrooms) around the world in a profound way. Or take the person sitting on my other side at the WHCA dinner: Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian charity worker who languished in prison until reporting about her prompted Trump to intercede with Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.
Trump is often right to skewer the media’s hypocrisy. Some journalists, under the cover of objectivity, are indeed out to get him. But many more are simply doing their jobs and trying to establish the truth. The money that Bezos and others have pushed into investigative journalism is good for America.
The newspaper has not so much died as transmuted. News is in a state of transition—and what’s emerging is molded by both new technology and old verities. As journalists, we have to work harder to keep our audiences. But I’m still optimistic—not least about fake news. It won’t go away; it never has. But it will play a smaller role. And the big winner will be you, the consumer. Even if you have to pay a little more for it.