The biggest unknowns in media in 2018

Will the media's race for clickbait subside, the Facebook-Google ad Goliath be slowed? And which consumers will pay for content?

New Year's Day brought loads of dishes, the engrossing college football semi-finals (what a Georgia-Oklahoma game), NFL coach firings, White House reporters cooling their heels in a Palm Beach IHOP as President Trump played golf — and the final remnants of a holiday media staple: top 10 lists.
 
But wait. What about asking smart media folks what they don't know about what beckons in 2018? Yes, what about opening the year with a search for modesty not always associated with the press? So let's track down a diverse group of smarties and ask what they'd love to ask a crystal ball — and maybe run to Las Vegas with the knowledge.

Hamilton Nolan, senior writer at Splinter and former Gawker stalwart: "I'd like to know how we're all going to keep having jobs while Google and Facebook are taking all the ad money."

Mike Allen, Axios co-founder: "Will social platforms truly reward — with real monetization — publishers who produce first-class, worthy content without trashy, clunky web pages, annoying pop-up ads and hidden trackers that slow load times?”

Jon Steinberg, founder of Cheddar: "When I started Cheddar I never could have foreseen the acceleration of amazing OTT (over the top) platforms like Sling, DirecTV Now, Philo, Fubo, YouTube TV, Sony Vue, etc. I wonder where we will be in a year. How old will the incumbent cable news audiences get? Which bundles will replace traditional MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors)? Which post cable networks will take share from incumbents? What will TV in 2018 be?"

Cenk Uygur, founder of The Young Turks: "1. How well will the skinny bundles monetize? How many subscribers can they bring in? What percentage of inventory will be filled? What will be the CPMs? What will 'ratings' look like? How well will standalone channels do on platforms like Amazon?"

"2. Can any digital media company survive on programmatic and branded advertising alone? A corollary to this question is whether advertisers will ever figure out where their under-35-year-old customers went (hint: It's not television)?"

Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East: "Will the sexual harassment scandal finally move the entertainment industry past hand-wringing and focus groups on the issue of diversity toward something that will actually make a difference — that is, meaningful progress on diverse hiring and diverse storytelling? An industry that does not reflect the diversity of our culture, and that consequently permits radical imbalance in representation and power, is not sustainable in the long run."

Howard Tullman, serial entrepreneur and CEO of the leading Chicago startup hub, 1871: "How soon will regular businesses benefit by the implementation of the blockchain technologies which will eliminate millions of man-hours of wasted time and redundant activities? Using smart contracts, JP Morgan eliminated 360,000 hours of useless lawyer time reviewing standard contracts already."

Kathy Kiely, former longtime Washington reporter-editor now teaching journalism at the University of New Hampshire: "Will news organizations end the self-destructive race for clickbait and take a chance on giving members of the public what they need to know, instead of a steady diet of what they want to know? (Do we dare write about issues instead of Trump's latest tweet?)"

"As a corollary, will the public begin to understand that finding the culprit for everything that they hate about the media is as simple as looking in the mirror? Chartbeat tells us all we'd rather not know about your viewing and reading habits. If you want better movies, TV shows, stories, you're going to have to vote with your clicks. That means changing habits."

She also wants to know, "Will the major institutions of civil society — political, media, educational — undertake the massive public health campaign it's going to take to get all of us to improve our media diets? What we did with tobacco, we're going to have to do with fake news and other media junk food: Identify the threat it poses (in this case to the body politic, not the body), enlighten people about how to make healthier choices and help people who are already addicted. As with tobacco, it will take longer than a year to break the addiction, but will we start the effort?"

Jon Margolis, retired (to Vermont) former chief political writer for the Chicago Tribune: "I would like to know: Will reporters figure out that they should stop tweeting? Of at least tweet a lot less. Reporting and writing a story is a day’s work. It is not necessary (and often gets one in trouble) to waste time and energy venting one’s spleen about whatever."

Clay Shirky, an Internet expert at New York University, wants to know about user-supported media: "2018 is a perfect test-case for user-supported media. By the end of the year, we'll know if we passed or failed that test."

"It's a very big question. Ad-supported media long reigned. Now, newspapers are about to begin their 49th consecutive quarter of year-on-year revenue declines." Their attempts have failed in essentially saying, "Just like paying for shoes you like, you must pay for news," conceptualizing it all as a sales transaction, he says.

"NPR has the right model. People do not regard news as a product, and 'pay or else' does not motivate enough of them to subscribe. The message that does work is 'You need us, and if you don't pitch in, we will go away.' The mindset of the media subscriber is not 'I must pay for what I consume,' but 'God forbid there not be a New York Times.' "

"There is clearly no ad-supported alternative for most reporting, and especially local reporting. The obvious alternative is to find a small group of committed citizens in those cities and towns, enough to support the investigative journalism we need."

"Most of what's in a paper has more than adequate substitutes online, from display ads and sports pages to the horoscope and classifieds. The one irreplaceable function — actual journalism — has to be supported by the people who need it. 2018 will tell us if there are enough people who care enough to keep that journalism alive."

First Alabama gave us Roy Moore, now ...

The Anniston Star reports, "A former Anniston Star reporter says that H. Brandt Ayers, chairman of the company that publishes the paper, sexually assaulted her in the 1970s in The Star’s newsroom. Veronica Pike Kennedy says Ayers, then the newspaper’s publisher, spanked her against her will in an incident on a Saturday, when Ayers and Kennedy were among the few workers in the building."

“ 'I was still determined to be a reporter after that,' Kennedy said. 'But I hated Brandy Ayers with every cell in my body.' ”

"In response to inquiries from The Star on Monday morning, Ayers issued a statement. 'As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret,' Ayers said in the statement. 'At my advanced age I wish I could relive those days again, knowing the seriousness of my position and with the accumulated judgment that goes with age.' ”

"Two other women who worked at The Star at the time told similar stories of spankings by the Star publisher, though each declined to have their names published, citing repercussions the revelations might have for their careers and family members."

It just so happens that Ayers wrote an Oct. 29 op-ed in the paper on Roy Moore. It opened, "There is one certain outcome of the Alabama Senate race if Roy Moore is elected. He will be compelled to embarrass Alabama because of a set of personal religious beliefs that, in his mind, are superior to all man-made institutions, even the Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court."

And that was a few days before The Washington Post broke news of sexual assault allegations against Moore.

New boss, same values

In his first formal day on the job, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, 37, wrote, "The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding, forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions. Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press. Growing polarization is jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together."

"Like our predecessors at The Times, my colleagues and I will not give in to these forces."

The morning Babel

"Trump & Friends" went heavy with Iran protests as co-hosts waxed ebullient at the start of its new year, even repeating Mike Pence (not Trump) tweets. "You kinda gotta walk the line a bit and show support (for the protesters)," said co-host Brian Kilmeade, as he and his colleagues got around to blaming Barack Obama for most of this via the Obama sanctions deal they don't like.

CNN's "New Day" assessed Trump's own initial New Year tweets on Iran and Pakistan, with The New York Times' David Sanger also talking about the fine line between supporting Iran protests and not appearing to be the ones fomenting unrest, "the hardest one for the president to navigate." He then noted that this U.S. government has been "rather selective" in speaking up against human rights, with Trump not doing much ago about what's up in China and the Philippines, among others.

MSNBC's "Morning Joe" mulled Iran and Pakistan, too, with the latter accused by Trump of lies and deceit. So since the Obama administration withheld aid from Pakistan, what does Trump do? Richard Haass noted how Pakistan still provides cover for the Taliban and that making our continuing assistance a big public issue just complicates an inherently messy situation. Still, all the similar discussions provided a brief geopolitical relief before the inevitable immersion into Trump and congressional politics.

Nate Silver's holiday ennui

He tweeted, "A lot of the problem with these mainstream media retrospectives on Trump's first year is a failure to recognize how profoundly unpopular he is — especially for a president in a pretty good economy."

Holiday feasts

Reads of the holiday weekend included The New York Times' irresistible annual Sunday magazine compilation of essays on interesting people who passed away in the previous year ("The Lives They Lived"). This group included Mary Tyler Moore, a fascinating rehabilitation-medicine specialist, a great photographer, a wonderful poet, a hurricane victim in Puerto Rico, a country music artist, a young Princeton philosopher, and a Native-American activist, among many others. It's a homage to creativity and human diversity.

But there was also Evan Osnos' "Making China Great Again" in The New Yorker, underscoring the perils of Trump foreign policy, naivete and outright ignorance. One Chinese academic calls Trump America's Mikhail Gorbachev, meaning a world leader taking his empire to collapse, at least in the Chinese mind. Then there's this de facto conclusion via another Chinese academic, as summarized by Osnos:

"In both countries, people who are infuriated by profound gaps in wealth and opportunity have pinned their hopes on nationalist, nostalgic leaders, who encourage them to visualize threats from the outside world. 'China, Russia, and the U.S. are moving in the same direction,' he said. 'They’re all trying to be great again.' "

Jeff Kittay tries to again break the mold

Former Yale professor Jeff Kittay produced one of the 1990s' best small circulation magazines. It was called Lingua Franca and explored the academic world in a wonderfully alluring, accessible and nervy way. Now he's turned to the world of food.

But he's not focusing on reviews of restaurants and profiles of popular chefs. Nor is he going down the second major route, namely niche reporting for producers on how they might be more efficient and profitable. Instead, he's looking at a changing food economy and how it impacts our lives and American culture. It's called the New Food Economy and is very much worth a look.

A heyday for investigative reporting? Maybe not

There is lots of fabulous work being done these days, some of it by new digital news operations. Here's one effort by STAT and the Boston Globe over the holiday weekend that hammers Phillip McGraw, better known as "Dr. Phil," for placing guests he purports to help in substantial, ratings-driven risk. 

For sure, there's a certain conventional wisdom about an improvement in investigative reporting, with Politico even finding a cause and effect due to the coming of Donald Trump as president. But it might be smart for those claiming the same to hop in a car and drive to mid-sized and smaller media markets outside Washington and New York. A new business model is unclear, and the notion of improving investigative labors is dubious.

A tiny example: A few years ago there were more than 30 full-time reporters covering the Illinois legislature. If you didn't know, no state's finances are more messed up than Illinois, and no state could use more diligent reporting of a legislature ruled by Democrats (largely one powerbroker named Michael Madigan). 

According to Madeleine Doubek, a longtime Illinois political reporter who is now Policy & Civic Engagement director at Chicago's Better Government Association, that number is now down to four:  The Associated Press (John O’Connor), the Chicago Tribune (Monique Garcia), the State Journal-Register/Gatehouse (Doug Finkle) and Capitol Fax (Rich Miller).

ProPublica has expanded its Illinois operation and already done a nice job on tax assessments in Cook County. But that probably won't fill the gaping hole in the capital or, as telling, the sharp decline in systematic coverage of an array of government and other beats with newsroom declines. It all amounts to a big asterisk on claims of Trump and any journalism renaissance.

Big and unceremonious exit in Nashville

How it communicates bad news is revealing of an organization. At Nashville's WSMV-TV in Nashville, longtime local TV star Demetria Kalodimos says her exit after more than 30 years as an anchor "came with a letter left on a desk, no conversation, no face to face meeting, no thanks. I have spent more than half of my life at WSMV, working long and unpredictable hours, winning awards and ratings, serving and understanding the community and building trust. It is quite sad to end a nearly 34-year career the way this company chose to end it."

Poynter's Al Tompkins says, "I would remind viewers that she is the only local anchor in the country that I know who is/was deeply involved in serious investigative reporting significant enough to be honored by the Investigative Reporters and Editors with two medals. It is among the highest honors in journalism on par with DuPont, Peabody and Pulitzers."

"More than 25 years ago, she was involved in investigating a contaminated blood clotting factor that nearly wiped out a generation of hemophiliacs. She uncovered what was known as The Body Farm near Knoxville, a place where a researcher gathered up unclaimed human bodies, some of them homeless people, some were veterans who nobody claimed. And the researcher set those bodies outside to study how they decayed, essentially rotted, as part of his forensic science. Families of the dead had no idea."

"She uncovered the horrific living conditions that migrant workers were enduring in rural Tennessee. She investigated toxic waste and overweight trucks. She investigated plagiarism in country music lyrics (oh boy, did that light some fuses in Nashville.)"

Too much or too little regulation?

The New York Times profiled an upstate New York apple farm that must heed thousands of government regulations, with the strong implication that things have gone too far  (one can imagine how this tale by the "Fake News, money-losing" Times will make the rounds of deregulation-minded Trump allies). That may be so for some in produce. But read Bloomberg Businessweek on the obvious exploitation of immigrants when it comes to low-wage, dangerous night jobs cleaning up slaughterhouses, where "the nightly storm of high-­pressure hoses, chemical vapors, blood, grease, and frantic deadlines, all swirling in clouds of steam around pulsing belts, blades, and blenders, can be treacherous."

'Black Monday'

There was wall-to-wall coverage on sports cable channels, notably the NFL Network, as the tradition of canning NFL coaches as soon as the regular season ended played out again. Once again, big players, including ESPN's Adam Shefter, scooped some local reporters on their hometown coach being gone. That was the case in Chicago, where the move to can coach John Fox but extend the contract of bumbling Bears general manager Ryan Pace (who picked the modest talent Fox was left with) was fodder for a tough-minded skewering of management by the Tribune's David Haugh and another by WSCR-Radio's Dan Bernstein

Bad news from Canada

From Ad Age: "As if the U.S. newspaper business didn't have enough trouble coping with decades of lost readers and advertising dollars. An escalating trade dispute with Canada is poised to make every edition cost a lot more to publish. Newsprint prices have jumped since October to a three-year high and may keep increasing if, as expected, the administration of President Donald Trump slaps duties on imported paper from Canada next month."

"America's northern neighbor accounts for about three quarters of what gets used in the U.S., from the Wall Street Journal to local news providers like the Idaho Press-Tribune. The higher costs will squeeze U.S. newspapers already coping with 28 straight years of declining circulation and increased competition from the internet."

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former chief media writer, The Poynter Institute.

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