(Roughly) Daily

“The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be.”*…

Social media could have been a boon to journalism and the fourth estate; it hasn’t turned out that way. Charlie Warzel‘s thoughts on why that is and where things might go…

Over the past decade, Silicon Valley has learned that news is a messy, expensive, low-margin business—the kind that, if you’re not careful, can turn a milquetoast CEO into an international villain and get you dragged in front of Congress.

No surprise, then, that Big Tech has decided it’s done with the enterprise altogether. After the 2016 election, news became a bug rather than a feature, a burdensome responsibility of truth arbitration that no executive particularly wanted to deal with. Slowly, and then not so slowly, companies divested from news. Facebook reduced its visibility in users’ feeds. Both Meta and Google restricted the distribution of news content in Canada. Meta’s head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, noted that its newest social network, Threads, wouldn’t go out of its way to amplify news content. Elon Musk destroyed Twitter, apparently as part of a reactionary political project against the press, and made a number of decisions that resulted in its replacement, X, being flooded with garbage. As The New York Times declared recently, “The major online platforms are breaking up with news.”

This is correct, but the narrative is missing something. Journalists tend to fixate on how our work is or isn’t distributed. Doing so allows us to believe that algorithms and shortsighted, mercurial tech executives are fully to blame when our work isn’t consumed. Fair enough: Platforms, especially Facebook, have encouraged news organizations to redefine their publishing strategies in the past, including through disastrous pivots to video, only to change directions with an algorithm update or the falsification of key metrics. They’ve also allowed their platforms to be used for dangerous propaganda that crowds out legitimate information. But there is also a less convenient and perhaps more existential side to tech’s divestiture of news. It’s not just the platforms: Readers are breaking up with traditional news, too.

Last week, the Pew Research Center published a new study showing that fewer adults on average said they regularly followed the news in 2021 or 2022 than in any other year surveyed. (Pew started asking the question in 2016.) There’s some shakiness when you break down the demographics, but overall, 38 percent of American adults are following the news closely, versus a high of 52 percent in 2018. This tracks: In 2022, Axios compiled data from different web-traffic-monitoring companies that showed news consumption took a “nosedive” after 2020 and, despite January 6, the war in Ukraine, and other major events, engagement across all news media—news sites, news apps, cable news, and social media—was in decline.

The struggles of legacy news organizations have no simple explanation. Trust in the media has fallen sharply in the past two decades, and especially the past several years, though much more so among Republicans. Some of this is self-inflicted, the result of news organizations getting stories wrong and the fact that these mistakes are more visible, and therefore subject to both legitimate and bad-faith criticism, than ever before. A great deal of the blame also comes from efforts on the right to delegitimize mainstream media. Local-news outlets have died a slow death at the hands of hedge funds. A generational shift is at play as well: Millions of younger people look to influencers and creators on Instagram and especially TikTok, along with podcast hosts, as trusted sources of news. In these contexts, consumer trust is not necessarily based on the quality of reporting or the prestige and history of the brand, but on strong parasocial relationships.

You can see how public opinion has shifted in surveys covering the 2010s. In 2014—squarely in the halcyon days of social news—75 percent of adults surveyed by Pew said that the internet and social media helped them feel more informed about national news. But by 2020, the conventional wisdom had shifted. That year, a Pew survey of more than 10,000 people found that “U.S. adults who mainly get their political news through social media tend to be less engaged with news” and, notably, less knowledgeable about current events and politics…

[Warzel traces the history of news and its relatioship to social media from 2013…]

It would be wrong to suggest that news—and especially commentary about the news— will vanish. But the future might very well look like slivers of the present, where individual influencers command large audiences, and social networking and text-based media take a back seat to video platforms with recommendation-forward algorithms, like TikTok’s. This seems likely to coincide with news organizations’ continued loss of cultural power and influence.

In a recent New York essay, John Herrman suggested that the 2024 presidential campaign might be “the first modern election in the United States without a minimum viable media” to shape broad political narratives. This might not be a bad development, but it’s likely to be, at the very least, disorienting and powered by ever more opaque algorithms. And although it is obviously self-serving of me to suggest that a decline in traditional media might have corrosive effects on journalism, our understanding of the world, and public discourse, it is worth noting that a creator-economy approach to news shifts trust from organizations with standards and practices to individuals with their own sets of incentives and influences.

Should this era of informational free-for-all come about, there will be an element of tragedy—or at the very least irony—to its birth. The frictionless access and prodigious distribution of social media should have been a perfect partner for news, the very type of relationship that might bolster trust in institutions and cultivate a durable shared reality. None of that came to pass. Social media brought out the worst in the news business, and news, in turn, brought out the worst in a lot of social media…

Speaking as a scenario planner (an explorer of plausible futures), your correspondent would suggest that while there are other potential futures, Warzel’s is entirely possible.

One facet of the kind of Warzel’s future that he doesn’t explore is worth mentioning. Stewart Brand is famously remembered for suggesting that “information wants to be free.” What he actually said (to paraphrase slightly) is that “information wants to be free or very expensive.” In a future like the one Warzel describes, journalism of the “what’s actually going on and what might it entail” variety– information that has a very real economic and political value– will surely survive… for those who can afford to pay for it. In a future like this, that kind of “insider info” becomes (yet another) force leading to an oligopolist landscape and the kind of social, economic, and political inequality that entails.

Lest we passively conspire in that future, we should all support the public media institutions that remain dedicated to democratizing “real news.”

Big Tech’s relationship with journalism is much more complicated than it appears: “The Great Social Media–News Collapse,” (gift article) from @cwarzel in @TheAtlantic.

* Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey


As we get informed, we might recall that on this date in 1918 newspapers around the world carried the headline that the armistice signed by Allies and Germany ending World War I had come into effect.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, the First World War came to an end. The armistice… meant total victory for the Allies and the collapse of Germany. The armistice was not a formal surrender – this would come later with the Treaty of Versailles – but it ended all the active fighting. Celebrations occurred across the world after its announcement as the “war to end all wars” had finally come to an end…



Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 11, 2023 at 1:00 am

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