Sad news for papers
There is a strong pressure from major online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, to unbundle the newspaper and media channels. Unbundling means that people read individual items, found through Facebook or Google News, and as a result, it matters less which organization or journalist produced the news. Items that are liked are shared and articles that are disliked will go unread. In a traditional bundle this was different. News came as a package, with breaking news, background stories, personal columns and sports, all part of the same product.
This unbundling process has led to a novel type of news organizations, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post to name just two, producing a large number of stories with the hope that around 10 percent of these will be circulated around online platforms and become viral. Financially speaking this means a change in the way news is funded, as articles are valued on an individual basis. This spells bad news for the classical news institutions as not only do online advertisements yield lower revenue than their printed counterpart, but it also means they lose the power to contextualize.
A parallel development is an increased demand for investigative journalism, and newspapers portraying themselves as trustworthy alternatives to superficial and sensational news. After the U.S. elections some major national news organizations, such as The New York Times and The Guardian, attracted new subscribers, both digitally and in print, with more people realizing that quality journalism is worth supporting. What’s more, the state may support independent quality news by creating an infrastructure to assist them, as we have seen in the U.S., where ProPublica provides data to support investigative journalism.
Depending on whether or not people are willing to pay for it there will be less independent news organizations, and only the larger organizations such as NRC-Handelsblad and De Volkskrant will survive. To preserve local news it may be combined with other local services that people already pay for, or it may distributed via platforms only. Regional newspapers are not doing well and so it is really the time to experiment with new types of journalism, such as RadarLimburg, to see which methods are sustainable.
What to believe?
Recent research into filter bubbles suggests that the phenomenon is more complicated than originally thought. Regarding the U.S. elections, filter bubble theory dictates that democratic voters should share and like only democratically oriented posts, and likewise Republican voters should share and like only Republican-promoting posts. What has been found however, is that democratic voters engaged with both democratic and mainstream news sources (NYT, CNN, CBS), whereas Republican voters only engaged with items on the Republican side, and most of it extremely right-wing, namely the online outlet Breitbart. The filter bubble theory only applied to Republican voters and can subsequently be concluded not to be the result of a platform imposed algorithm, but a combination of the algorithm, and collective user behavior or organizational strategy.
Speculative figures about payments to the European Union were influential in the Brexit referendum, and yet afterwards they were unveiled as disinformation. This can be seen as a result of debundling, since platform networks do not have to commit to the same rigorous quality control checks that newspapers do. So many news items are not necessarily facts, but not fake news either, and it is difficult to separate misinformation from opinions, irony, comedy and predictions. Similarly it is not clear who should make the decision as to whether something is misinformation, and subsequently what should be done about this. People are becoming increasingly aware of this issue and De Volkskrant now has expert analysts trying to validate claims made by influential people, looking in-depth at disputes between sources.
Another solution is to have different aspects of the news circulated by a variety of sources. Platforms need to commit to a diverse news ecosystem and must adjust their algorithms accordingly. With newspapers this is easier, as they can be held accountable for producing untrue news and it is clear on which side of the ideological spectrum they are. Platforms do provide the opportunity for comments, which allows for dialogue and criticism on articles; however it is clear that these democratic processes can be manipulated quite easily, for example by political bots. A proper routine to deal with this has to be developed in practice.
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