Subscription solicited as donation: a new cause of media bias

The decline in the media business caused by the internet has not distorted the picture of the world in the media. It has distorted the habitual distortion.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, both advertisers and audiences have fled to better platforms, where content is free and far more attractive and ad delivery is cheaper and far more efficient.

Not only did the media’s revenue fall, but its structure flipped. Ads used to bring in more revenue than readers, but ad revenue has slipped away the fastest. The media – and journalism – have found themselves in uncharted territory. First, earnings are not enough to survive. Second, reader revenue took over ad revenue in funding journalism. The news media have never faced such conditions before.

Media analysts have scrutinized the decline of media business and its impact on journalism. Much less attention has been paid to the reversal from ad revenue to reader revenue and its impact on journalism and agenda-setting.

***

Ad money incentivizes positivity, and reader money incentivizes negativity; but there has always been a third factor balancing the external impact – newsroom autonomy. To some degree, it can resist not only the push for negativity but also the pressure from both the political interests of the elites and the commercial interests of the media’s own sales departments.

Normally, journalists are affiliated with but not assimilated by the elites. In terms of social demography, newsrooms are filled with highly educated and passionate people who are well-networked with the elites but remain a part of their own professional clique. In terms of psychology, those who get selected for this profession meet some specific criteria. They need to be very ambitious, often bordering on narcissism; have a proclivity, sometimes messianic, for public service; and a very specific professional ever-challenging innate need to dig for scoops ‘at any cost’, which is always spurred on by competitiveness. All these criteria create a caste with a high level of self-awareness and self-determination. Much like priests of a cult, journalists normally think they do not serve the ruling elites – they shepherd them.

The demographic and psychological characteristics of journalists force them to oppose the political pressure of the elites as well as the business pressure of the media as a commercial enterprise. Or it also can be said that newsroom autonomy creates economic value of a higher level than the routine trade of ads or copies. The Washington Post boosted its symbolic and real capital after the 1972–73 Watergate scandal. By promulgating the huge story worthy of a presidential resignation, the Post rose from local to national status; a shift that had, of course, some pleasant business outcomes. In the 1971–73 Pentagon Papers scandal, the New York Times and their fellow colleagues in the Post and other major outlets faced a serious legal risk, which any normal business would have steered away from. But not the news media. Time Magazine reported that applications to journalism schools in 1974 reached an all-time high.[1]

The search for all kinds of ‘Pentagon Papers’, ‘Panama Papers’ and other huge WikiLeaks’ leaks that would smash the elites, is a fundamental professional standard, elaborated by journalism in the 20th century on the basis of the same capitalist mode of production that allegedly subjugated the media to the ruling elites.

“At news organizations the central organizing principle is usually to produce something with social impact first ahead of utility or profit,” said Emily Bell, the director of the Tows Centre for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, NY. She substantiated her statement with simple logical proof: by just doing their job, journalists are more likely to “end up being ostracized or imprisoned rather than ringing the opening bell at the New York stock exchange.”[2]

Neither advertisers nor readers are able to make journalists muckrakers, watchdogs or the public moral’s supervisors. These functions are the product purely of the self-imposed and jealously guarded journalist autonomy. In an environmental sense, this function of the media is a hygienic function of the social ecosystem that maintains the elites’ healthy reproduction. From this point of view, the news media is the instrument of the environment aimed at the elites, not the instrument of the elites aimed at the environment.

The media priests are well-aware that the power of the pulpit has more value than all ad contracts combined. This mass is well worth Paris. When the status of priest is well-maintained, the tributes and offerings will be brought in. Normally, journalists did not and did not need to bother with selling their product; they just got paid. The Vaisya, the people of the lower caste of merchants in ad sales and marketing departments, took care of it.

***

In the Golden Age of the media, the principles of agenda-setting were governed by the complex interplay of three factors: ad dependence, reader dependence and newsroom autonomy. However big the impact of advertising money was, the newsroom always had a say. Ad money might incentivize the beautifying of reality and a structural shift in the news agenda towards less disturbing content, but there also was a ‘glass wall’ between the newsroom and marketing department. Journalism, not paper space for ads, has always been the main asset of newspapers; media CEOs generally understood this.

Newsroom autonomy used to mitigate the distortions induced by media business when the media business provided enough money for newsrooms to stay strong and self-confident. When media business failed its maintaining function, the skews induced by media business outweighed the resistance of newsroom autonomy. During hard times, newsroom autonomy loses its ability to fend off the encroachments of business factors.

With the switch from ad to reader revenue, even the principle of the editorial ‘glass wall’, which used to protect the newsroom from advertisers’ wishes, disappeared. The marketing department now interacts with the audience, not advertisers; how is it possible for the newsroom to fence itself off from the wishes of subscribers? The wall between editorial and business dissolves when the business rests on readers.

All in all, not only have the media been rendered dependent on a declining revenue coming predominantly from readers, they have also thus become defenseless against readers. Newsroom autonomy has shrunk because of both the decrease in revenue and the increase in dependence on readers’ support.

What advertisers and corporations wanted from the agenda-setting in the media was known. It remains to be explored – and experienced – what the donating audience might want from the news media.

***

Douglas Rushkoff, when assessing what has happened to the internet in the last twenty years, stated that the digital space was captured by corporations and commercialized. “The seemingly God-like abilities offered by the net were productized,” he wrote. “The internet went from town hall to shopping mall.”[3]

This happened, of course, under the pressure of advertising money which had migrated onto the internet. The ability to customize messages personally, but on such an enormous distributive scale, converted social media into profit extraction platforms. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, social media provide people with a service of the highest value. They allow for better, faster and broader self-actualization than any media in human history. In return for this service, social media collect the personal data exposed by the users in the process of self-actualization. Precise user profiling helps connect people better and increases the relevance of the newsfeed. But this same profiling also allows for better and, in fact, the most efficient commercial targeting in history. Revenue collected by platforms from advertisers is a platform fee that society pays to platform landlords for the service of users’ self-actualization.

This is how the town hall has become a shopping mall. To develop a McLuhan dichotomy, an amazing personal service of platforms comes with a harmful social disservice. There is no evil plot behind this, even though some actors (actually, many actors) have managed to use social media settings to pursue their own interests. Such is an environmental effect of a new medium, enthusiastically met and used by both users and advertisers. Service’s convenience enslaves and blinds users and amplifies disservice.

The traditional media, on the contrary, have disappeared from advertisers’ radars. The subsequent loss of advertising unshackled the media from ad money’s beautifying impact on agenda-setting. Therefore, rephrasing Rushkoff, the media went back “from shopping mall to town hall.” However, due to the specifics of the new business model with a focus on reader revenue, this is a very peculiar town hall full of angry citizens.

***

Reader revenue for the media is now supplied by an odd source. It looks like subscription and is sold like subscription, but it has motives that are increasingly not commercial and transactional, but rather civic and philanthropic.

In part, the audience still believes that it buys news. But in fact, news is usually already known from the newsfeed on social media. The audience increasingly buys not news, but the validation of already-known news from a certain point of view.

In order to supply such a product, the media need to reorganize their agenda-setting to accommodate the expectations of readers, i.e. the donating audience. Readers pay to make sure 1) they receive the right agenda and 2) the right agenda is delivered to others. This blend of the validation fee and the membership surrogate of subscription encourages the sliding of journalism toward crowdfunded propaganda: the media must validate, justify and supply to others the picture of the world sought by the payer.

The observation is well-supported by similar processes occurring in social media that has been identified as ‘participatory propaganda’ (Wanless & Berk, 2017; Asmolov, 2019; and others). ‘Participatory propaganda’ signifies the phenomenon of ordinary users joining, subliminally or deliberately, the distribution and support of political ideas in efforts that traditionally were intrinsic to classical propaganda. Now, the blogosphere and particularly social media have given users an opportunity to be the propagandists in their own right.

In ‘participatory propaganda’ on social media, people contribute their participation. For ‘crowdfunded propaganda’ in the news media, people contribute their money to a cause. But for the latter, people need someone to do agenda-setting on their behalf, and this agenda-setting contractor is the news media. So, this is crowdfunded and outsourced propaganda.

***

Allocative control of advertising money made the media target a mostly affluent audience. In terms of political economy, the ultimate product of such a media system was neither the news nor agendas but the buying transactions that kept capitalism rolling. Informing was not the primary business goal of the ad-driven media. They made people buy; content was just a decoy.

This political economy schema has now made its way to social media, where self-actualization in the form of communication can be seen as a decoy, with the ultimate purpose to make people buy what is advertised.

What is the final purpose of funding in the traditional media then, if they have switched from ad to reader revenue?

The final purpose of the reader-driven media within the validation/membership subscription model is to make people donate. It is not news – readers already know all the news. It is even not agenda-setting, because the donating audience is already immersed in the agenda on social media. The work of the media is to refine and justify the agenda and inculcate it in others. But for the media themselves, the desired result is making people donate.

As always, the media induce the demand for their product. To that end, they induce the reality, in which the audience will stay constantly triggered and willing to donate. Within this new business model, the media commodify what they fight with. This is why the mainstream media in the US kept commodifighting Trumpism, even though everyone understood how beneficial it was for Trump.

***

Under the advertising model, the characteristics of the target audience were well-known. The most important were income, education, job position, area of living, property cost, etc., – all revolving around the ability to buy advertised goods. As noted by Herman and Chomsky, the cultural power of marketing and advertising created virtual communities based on consumer demographics and taste differences:

These consumption- and style-based clusters are at odds with physical communities that share a social life and common concerns and which participate in a democratic order. These virtual communities are organized to buy and sell goods, not to create or service a public sphere. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 [1988], p. xviii.)

If the characteristics and political impact of the ad-driven media’s audience were known, then what are the characteristics of the audience of the reader-driven media? What is the political impact of this newly emerged cultural entity – the audience paying the media for news validation and donating to the media, considering the fact that the media targets this audience not just for its attention (as they did to the buying audience) but also for its donations?

This has yet to be identified by media sociologists and political scholars. But the main assumption could be made on the basis of etymological analysis. The core feature of the donating audience is that it consists of people who are able to donate. They are not just financially able – the amount of money donated to the media is not enormous – but rather that they are psychologically inclined to do this. They are a particular class of people, presumably educated enough, most likely old enough (they are the Last Newspaper Generation that remembers the role of the news media), and most likely belonging to the cultural, political and business elites, academia or other areas of meaning production and consumption. The most important characteristic of this class has to be their political involvement and empathy, at least at some level, along with their political or social awareness and civic consciousness.

 The closest synonym for ‘donating audience’ would be ‘concerned citizens’. The psychological, educational, and social profile of the audience’s members should relate to their ability to be concerned with social and political developments. They are the only demographic category that can be responsive to the news media’s calls to join the cause. All other groups stay impervious to the subscription pitches.

***

‘Concerns’ are the key factor for why the media targets their audiences. The more concerned people are, the more likely they will donate. For media outlets with a subscription-membership model, people’s concerns are not something that should be solved and eradicated. On the contrary, concerns should be cultivated and reproduced.

Happiness and peacefulness are disincentivized. The trendsetting emotional tone is easy to read even on the faces of TV hosts. In the 1970s, TV anchors had to wear smiles; now, they are obliged to wear an anxious grimace. Today’s news anchors make a kind of ‘basset face’ that would have looked unprofessional on 1970s TV. In return, an anchor with a ‘corgi face’ from the 1970s would look like an idiot on today’s news show.

Not only do the media have to address ‘pressing social issues’, they also have to support and amplify readers’ irritation and frustration with those issues. Ideally, the media should not just exaggerate the menace but induce public concern themselves.

The history of the American media has seen a dramatic example of such a business attitude. At the very end of the 19th century, Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s media empires competed for readership by instigating a patriotic hysteria and hatred towards Spain. The media turned into what the U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren called a “hate-for-profit machine” when characterizing Fox News 120 years later.[4] The public mood and the pressure on the politicians induced by the media for the sake of higher circulation contributed to the sparking of the 1898 Spanish-American War.

As the media have no other viable business options remaining, except attempting to earn through the subscription-membership hybrid, they are compelled to refine and push on concerns and, most importantly, to fire up polarization as the most triggering socio-psychological mechanism.

There is no evil plot, ‘liberal bias’, nor ‘right-wing conspiracy’ behind it. Such are the environmental settings of a media industry that has lost its ad and news business to the internet. The media based on the subscription-membership business model must push pressing political issues and therefore be polarizing. This is their survival mode. They will not extinguish social and political conflicts but rather fire them up. Without a polarized environment, the media are doomed today and more so tomorrow. Political polarization is their last resort. Using McChesney’s metaphor of the ‘rich media/poor democracy paradox’, it can be said that democracy has not benefited from the reversal. Since the media has become poor, democracy has gone wild.

The ad-driven media produced happy customers. The reader-driven media produce angry citizens. The former served consumerism. The latter serves polarization.

Andrey Mir

Excerpts from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”


[1] Time Magazine. (1974, July 08). “Coyer Story: Covering Watergate: success and backlash.”

[2] Bell, Emily. (2014, November 23). “What’s the right relationship between technology companies and journalism?” The Guardian.

[3] Rushkoff, Douglas. (2019, November 14). “Was Humanity Simply Not Ready for the Internet? A 1990s cyber enthusiast considers whether he’s to blame for our digital woes”. Medium.

[4] Epstein, Jennifer. (2019, May 14). “Elizabeth Warren turns down Fox News, slamming ‘hate-for-profit machine’.” Bloomberg.



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers

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