A Vote for a Sustainable “Fourth Estate”
 

A Vote for a Sustainable “Fourth Estate”

 

Regardless of your position on the outcome, it’s safe to say that the 2016 presidential election will not soon be forgotten. And no matter which way our political affiliation or candidate preference may have leaned, we will all take away a number of lessons from this presidential campaign.

From a media industry perspective, there are certainly a number of lessons learned. Much has already been written about the ways in which social media played a key role in enabling candidates to engage their constituents and there were specific themes throughout the race that called into question the bias – or lack thereof – of certain media outlets.

But a tweet from journalist Peter Beinart highlighted another important takeaway:

Peter’s tweet touches on and calls out the significant role that journalism played in providing perspective and transparency during this political journey – a process famous for its significant amounts of spin.

In the days since the election, the media has continued to occupy a central role in the discussion around the next administration, with much being written about the relationship between newspapers like The New York Times and our next president, bringing attention to the critical role that journalism plays in our country.

But when you consider the backdrop of publishing today, the challenging set of circumstances that journalism faces, and where we might be in the absence of the reporters and publications that have molded much of the conversation throughout this election, these observations should also prompt widespread concern.

The publishing industry is facing a significant set of threats, with weekly newspaper circulations continuing to fall and newspaper print ad sales expected to decline again this year. These challenges are compounded by the obstacles faced by publishers catering to their users across digital channels, with the use of ad blocking software serving as another hurdle to overcome.

This year’s election brings to the forefront and highlights the dichotomous position of journalism today.  On one hand, the world has never needed or valued the contributions of journalists more, but on the other, they work in an industry facing existential crisis and an uncertain economic future that threatens reliable revenue generation and the ability to continue funding the creation of its product.

Too often we make the mistake of describing online content as “free”, but this is a misnomer. While as an industry we have not always chosen to explain the value exchange to consumers – the creation of content comes at a cost and must be paid for. The salaries of journalists who cover stories, and the investment required to run a publishing operation have traditionally been funded largely by advertising. But with the myriad of challenges facing publishers, including the growing use of ad blocking tools, the future of news sites that have been so impactful in helping shape and form opinion could face serious troubles if we don’t seek alternative funding models soon.  

This election – and the role that digital publishing and journalism has played alongside it – should reinforce the core value exchange that underpins digital media and highlight the importance of compensating content creators. Publishers must engage with their users and introduce adaptable consumer experiences that allow them to choose their own compensation methods, with flexible payment options, above and beyond the traditional ad-funded or “paywalled” models. 

This year more than ever, we have relied on the “Fourth Estate” to enable the flow of ideas and information to inform our decisions. But if the impactful and heroic journalism we’ve seen this year is to continue to exist as we know it, we must work together as an industry to ensure that it is supported and paid for.  

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