Journalism Faces Threats of Fake News and Ad Duopoly in New Digital Age

Hal Conte

With the shift towards digital media, the rise of fake news, and decreasing ad revenue, the future of America’s news business in 2017 is increasingly blurry, creating an exciting albeit threatening time for students pursuing journalism degrees.
While there are certainly many jobs in the field of reporting – 49,600 people will be employed in news jobs in 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – students are entering a business undergoing a period of historic agitation.
At America’s newspapers, fat print profits were vaporized during the Great Recession and never really recovered. Digital growth has not been able to fill the gap. Even the New York Times, which is seen as an industry success story in adopting to the new digital age, has seen revenue from advertising drop from 70 to 40 percent – with just 12 percent of that representing profits from digital ads, according to statistics from Wired Magazine.
“The problem is the business model,” said Tony Rogers, professor of journalism at Bucks. “When the internet came along there was this mindset that if newspapers just dumped all their content online for free, they’d get lots of digital advertising. That hasn’t happened.”
Many of those dollars are being hoovered up by online platforms, platforms which traditional news organizations like the Times may use to gain clicks- but do not control. “News outlets are forced to fight for the crumbs that are left,” Rogers sighed.
An academic report published by Columbia University’s School of Journalism titled “The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Reengineered Journalism,” says that mainstream news outlets including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, “are giving up” the traditional functions of publishers, as they are putting much of their work on websites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google.
The news sections of these websites – and the algorithms that control them – are increasingly becoming the de facto page layout editors for the entire country, if not the world.
According to the Economist, Facebook and Google have gobbled up between 80 and 90 percent of growth in digital advertising revenue this year. The sway they hold over the internet’s nervous system may be the determining factor in whether particular news outlets get a share in the profit or shut down the presses for good.
“What would happen is that there would be this whole body of knowledge about how to get page views by using keywords,” Rogers explained. “Then Google would come along and change their algorithms and control how people are accessing content.”
The Wall Street Journal, which adopted a comparatively successful paywall model from the very beginning, saw its Google search results nosedive nearly 50 percent after it prevented users from accessing five free articles per month.
Google’s search algorithms are designed to promote free content – which, according to a study from the Columbia report, can bias news feeds in favour of opinion and advertising-like information, as well as “low quality, sensational, or made-up pages.”
As a result, some media analysts have begun to worry about a possible future where the information consumers receive is determined by wealth- with clickbait and fake news for the many and high-quality, accurate journalism for the few.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media websites have been hit since last year’s presidential election for injecting fake news and Russian disinformation into Americans’ media diet.
News outlets have been attempting a multi-pronged strategy for tacking what their lobbying group, the News Media Alliance, calls the “digital duopoly.”
The president of the Alliance testified before Congress in October, saying that the tech companies should overhaul “their ad-driven business models and opaque algorithms….so that higher-quality, reputable content is elevated in search and news feeds.”
In addition, established media companies have sought to increase scrutiny of the tech companies in an endeavour known as “Project Goliath,” according to a Wall Street Journal article.
In response to pressure from establishment journalistic outlets, as well as Congressional Democrats, Twitter has begun to fund media literacy groups, and Google’s Jigsaw think tank has rolled out Civil, a blockchain-based project that they say will help journalists.
Google has also acted to downrank websites promoting what it describes as “factually inaccurate information to manipulate users in order to benefit a person, business, government, or other organization politically, monetarily, or otherwise.”
However, these moves have fanned the flames of discontent among anti-establishment and fringe news sites, including WikiLeaks, AlterNet, Breitbart and CounterPunch, which have accused the company of censorship- a charge that could potentially increase their readers’ distrust of mainstream news.
The problems that established media faces is also generational: Constant exposure to hyper-partisan and fake news may have turned millennials permanently away from objective news reports from established outlets, according to an article published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry.
In addition, conservative millennials may never turn to mainstream sources that their figureheads describe as untrustworthy and dishonest.
“So many readers are trapped in these news bubbles,” Rogers said. “The idea that the internet was going to lead to some promised land didn’t end up being the case.”