Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

Did Big Social Media Kill Traditional Media?

In some ways, traditional media have co-operated with their own demise

The former editor-in-chief of USA Today considers it a “bloodbath”:

Why the disconnect? Look no further than a new study by the News Media Alliance, which found that in 2018, Google made $4.7 billion off of news content — almost as much as every news organization in America combined made from digital ads last year. Yet Google paid a grand total of zero for the privilege. News industry revenue, meanwhile, has plunged…

The results are clear: Almost 30,000 newspaper jobs disappeared — a 60% industrywide decline — from 1990 to 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. News media ad revenue plunged by $30 billion between 2006 and 2017, according to a Pew Research Center report. Almost 20% of all newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, and “countless others have become shells — or ‘ghosts’ — of themselves,” according to the University of North Carolina.

Joanne Lipman, “Tech overlords Google and Facebook have used monopoly to rob journalism of its revenue” at USA Today

Some of the details of the losses are disputed, as Lipman admits. But, having been nearly fifty years in the news business, I note that three factors are often overlooked:

First, major news media depended in the past on the fact that most people had a limited number of news sources. The media did not adapt well to much easier public access to competing perspectives on a given story. At the very point when new media were beginning to change the story, they were still seen as pajama-clad and unemployed, blogging 24/7 from laptops, absent-mindedly eating cat food. That underlay the “Rathergate” scandal of 2004, when senior journalist Dan Rather accepted documents discrediting incumbent US President George W. Bush, then seeking re-election. The documents subsequently proved dubious at best. As a senior Canadian journalist recalls,

Bill Gates was 16 in 1971, the date of some of the alleged memos. Silicon Valley was not even a dust mote inside the most farseeing crystal ball. The likelihood, then, that in some back station of the Texas Air National Guard there were a few second-hand PCs processing the office records, set to Microsoft Word’s formatting, is, at the kindest, an anachronistic fantasy. Among the obligingly deluded were Dan Rather, senior producers at 60 Minutes, and management overseers at CBS. There wasn’t a typewriter on this side of Alpha Centauri that could type in the manner of the documents presented. I’m not going into the delicious, scholastic discussions of fonts, proportional spacing, kerning and all the other tasty esoterica of the typesetter’s art that burdened a hundred Internet sites in the aftermath of Mr. Rather’s scoop. A single day after the “scoop” it was all out there.

Even a rustic like myself has heard of Google and knows how to spell “Rather” and “document.” In less than 10 minutes, I had a dozen accounts offering both competent and analytic judgment that the documents were ludicrously and obviously fake. CBS imperiously sniffed back something about bloggers being guys in pyjamas.

Rex Murphy, “Rathergate: What were they thinking? (September 25, 2004, updated April 21, 2018)” at The Globe & Mail

Indeed. It was bloggers who first called attention to the implausibility of the documents, demonstrating that they could only have been produced by a modern PC. Twenty years earlier, no one who was not in a position of influence would likely have had access, as those bloggers did, both to a similar level of expertise and a broad public—access that rivaled that of CBS.

Second, when traditional media did start to adapt, they tended to copy the flaws as well as the speed of the new media, with disastrous results. Consider the scandalously misguided major media coverage of a group of high-school boys attending the 2019 March for Life. Acting on partial information, top national media portrayed the boys, who were surrounded by activists while waiting for a bus, as abusive racists. The most prominent victim, Nick Sandmann, is suing major media outlets. The critical factor is that major media were not deceived by anyone; they simply did not wait until they had acquired enough facts before running with the story.

Defenders of the MSM have told me, “But they have to do that nowadays. That’s how the internet works” Very well. But if so, they have no advantage over an angry retiree blogging from the patio. So, given their much greater financial outlay, their precipitous decline is inevitable. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that there isn’t a market for better-verified news, even if it takes a little longer.

Lastly, there seems to be an unjustified tendency among legacy media outlets to claim the High Moral Ground, which is unbecoming in a news hound. It is one thing to have strict journalistic standards and another to announce that “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (Washington Post). Given that the Post is one of the outlets faced with a lawsuit in the Covington boys coverage debacle, one is tempted to retort that democracy can be damaged by irresponsible large media as well.

The main reason that big social media suck up all the advertising revenue, as Lipman complains, is that most people today go there rather than to traditional top-down media to find out what is happening. The problems created by the new media’s monopolistic practices are unlikely to be resolved by propping up traditional media, any more than the problems of modern traffic congestion would be resolved by bringing back the horse-drawn wagon. We would simply end up with the problems of both systems at once. And the interaction between them would be ugly too.

See also: How the internet turns coffee klatches into mobs (Michael Egnor) A philosopher sheds light on how the Covington high school kids became America’s Most Hated

Are social media companies violating anti-trust laws?

How did Twitter become a virus of the mind?


Jordan Peterson to found new free-speech platform

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Did Big Social Media Kill Traditional Media?