Foundations

Fixing the faulty foundations of old media ”Nieman Journalism Lab

It was at the beginning of 2000. I was a doctoral student finishing my thesis and going through an interview for a university position. In the midst of a tech boom that was set to collapse just under two years later, everyone in academia wanted to hire a “new media” candidate. Few people understood what the new media meant. Most newspapers used the Internet to advertise their print editions. They thought it would be advantageous at the time to offer news online for free. What a mistake. A clear underestimation of what would become of the Internet.

“What is so new about new media? Someone asked me. Everything and nothing, I would answer. “Amazon will surely fail,” I was asked. No, I would say, they just need more and better distribution centers. And of course, in 2000, what the older white men who questioned me wanted the most assurance was this emphatic statement, “Well, newspapers never go away. Well, the newspaper won’t be there, but the news is here to stay, I would respond. I have been laughed at more often than not. I got weird looks when I said that one day the internet would be as ubiquitous as electricity. Using it would be as natural as walking into a room and turning on the lights.

I was hired by a department and college headed by forward thinking women. Later, I was also hired by forward-thinking men and visionaries of color. The gradual but constant change I see in the workplace gives me comfort, even though things are still far from perfect. As I look around the internet now, in 2021 – amid the pandemic, Facebook logs, the post-truth moment, and an environment saturated with misinformation and misinformation – here is what I have to say about 2022. : It is not (just) the Internet that needs to be fixed. Amid the clamor on digital platforms, we forgot to fix old media. Traditional media. Legacy media. Journalism and its economic foundations. Use the term of your choice.

Information monopolies existed before the Internet. The news economy had already stood in the way of journalism before the emergence of online platforms. The oligopolies had driven the independents and local newspapers out of the market. Media conglomerates were deeply sensitive to advertisers and vulnerable to the politics of lobbyists. Media scholars regularly updated their agendas and research with the latest vertical and horizontal monopoly charts of media conglomerates and how they dominate the news ecosystem. News by a few, designed for many audiences. We never fixed what was wrong with the old media. Instead, we’ve built something new on an already broken foundation.

The problem isn’t just that Facebook and other platforms are spreading and amplifying misinformation and misinformation. The problem is, what is shared and amplified already exists. It is commented on and recycled by existing media structures with a longer and grander media history and legacy than that of Facebook and others. Let’s take Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit out of the equation altogether. Wouldn’t Fox News amplify it? Wouldn’t CNN continue to engage in content that is news commentary by self-proclaimed experts, but not journalism?

It is the economics of journalism that drives algorithms. Let’s not get sidetracked and let’s not lose sight of the heart of the matter. It’s not just algorithms that need to be audited. It is also the profit-oriented structure of the news media that needs to be rethought.

I’m not suggesting that we put aside the profit motive, just review how it works. There is a way to make money while staying true to democratically held information values. There is more than one way to do it. Put journalists in conversation with scientists. And let’s put more people of color and colorful backgrounds in charge. Because more often than not, they have proven that they know what they are doing and that they are one step ahead.

Zizi Papacharissi is professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.