Opinion

Objective journalism is dead

After spending the lead up to the US election on the campaign trail, Australian editor and journalist Aleks Vickovich argues there is now no question: objective journalism as we knew it, is dead. In this guest post, he explains why the role of media as an impartial observer is redundant and the significant implications this has for media businesses.

Having spent the past 18 months in the United States as a contributing editor for a number of financial services publications, my focus was largely on covering American business communities and representing the media brands at events and conferences. But as a curious journalist with a lifelong interest in politics, I also kept a steady eye on the presidential election and American democracy more broadly, including spending the final months of my US journey out on the campaign trail.

Putting the actual politics of the election to one side – as there is definitely no shortage of commentary out there on this front – the more interesting aspect of the race from our perspective is what it has meant for the future of media production and distribution.

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Having followed as closely as anyone would care to without suffering severe mental ill health, my conclusion is that the election has some significant implications for those in the media business.

The election was not so much a turning point for media and content providers, but rather served as conclusive proof of a trend that has already been underway for some time, which is that objective journalism – as was the predominant model from the birth of the printing press in the 1500s until the digital age – is well and truly dead.

Now, I can hear some sobs coming from some journalism fans out there, so let me be clear. This does not mean that accuracy no longer matters or that facts are completely irrelevant or, most importantly, that there is no future for quality content.

What it does mean is that the traditional role of the media as impartial observer, simply to explain things to those who weren’t there, has become disrupted and redundant in an age where billions of people document their every move online.

Instead, the media – or at least, its most successful and forward-thinking players – have taken on a role not as impartial explainer, but as opinion maker and shaper.

Indeed, this is the first trend facing media providers that I think has been highlighted by the election.

Rupert Murdoch is rumoured to have coined the phrase “opinion is news” and it is now truly a mantra for the times. This approach was emerging as an alternative to the traditional model for some time, but has now become dominant.

The most obvious and successful example of this is Murdoch’s own Fox News in the US, which emerged as a right-wing alternative to what it said was left-wing bias in the mainstream newspapers and TV channels. We have also seen the same strategy come to Australia with a more aggressively opinionated stance visible in recent years in The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun. More recently, other right-leaning online publications have flourished such as RedState, The Daily Caller and the controversial Breitbart.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ideological spectrum, similarly opinionated websites have sprung up offering a mix of news, opinion and commentary from an unashamedly left-of-centre perspective, such as The Huffington Post, Salon, Mother Jones and Slate.

These publications, whatever your view of their politics, have been on a consistent upward trajectory in terms of readership and revenue and – importantly – they have worn their biases on their sleeves.

By contrast, the mainstream media, i.e. the free-to-air news channels and celebrated newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times, have faced a dilemma whereby they continue to maintain their objectivity and resist the ‘opinion is news’ trend – but many consumers have continued to detect political bias.

It was this deceit, rather than any particular political view, that readers and viewers ultimately took umbrage with. In the aftermath of the election, these once-respected mastheads have seen subscriptions plummet, not because their readers supported Trump – very few NYT and WaPo readers are Republican-leaning – but because they do not appreciate being lied to, or for political biases to remain undisclosed.

Perhaps more worrying still for the mainstream American media is that their research and polling was so inaccurate, with the vast majority of outlets predicting an easy Clinton victory.

This can be partly explained by the fact that, with the Trump campaign being so divisive and controversial, few Americans were willing to publicly admit their support – even anonymously to pollsters. But it also suggested that many of these media providers have a data problem.

With his millions of Twitter followers and organic support via huge rally attendances, Trump was able to secure direct distribution to voters and, in particular, to voters who are increasingly unreachable to the east coast-based and left-leaning media companies.

This focus on data and distribution – and ensuring the cleanliness and accuracy of media databases – is a major focus for modern media businesses and one of the attributes that will set you apart from your competitors.

While so many media companies continue to provide broad and objective information to mass audiences, defined by geography or general association, the alternative is to implement a ‘narrowcasting’ approach, providing targeted information to niche audiences in their own language.

The global media is now catching on to the reader engagement and commercial benefits of narrowcasting, and of being a stakeholder and opinion maker within your audience’s sphere, rather than simply an information provider.

While I hesitate to compare successful modern media companies to Trump, a focus on data and on successfully distributing targeted and opinionated content to important niche audiences is a recipe for success in both the new media paradigm and, it seems, in American electoral politics.

This approach has seen some media companies shine in the new world, particularly those who have also embraced content marketing, podcasting and other commercially friendly initiatives.

Meanwhile, Australian incumbents like Fairfax experience awkward and very public death throes – their staff spending time whining and protesting as if they were oppressed mine workers, rather than sanctimonious and privileged journalists who refuse to read the tea leaves and adapt to the world that their consumers want.

There is plenty of controversy in the air when you consider the US election and other populist movements afoot across the globe.

But history will likely view this also as a turning point for the business of media, and while the incumbents continue their denial, innovative insurgents are eager to disrupt, experiment and invest in their crafts, with a constant eye on driving value for their audiences, communities and commercial clients.

Aleks Vickovich is managing editor, wealth and innovation at Momentum Media, where this post originally appeared

Disclaimer: Mumbrella’s editor Vivienne Kelly was previously an editor at Momentum Media 

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