The backlash to the nesting of journalism ”Nieman Journalism Lab
When techlash erupted, it merged a number of once-distinct grievances: online harassment and hatred, the maddening working conditions of the gig economy, a proliferation of disinformation, cascading privacy breaches. â¦ and more. The combined weight of these frustrations has led to a popular indictment of an ideological pillar of the known technological world. People have increasingly rejected the soft promises of digital platforms to build a thriving and democratic digital community on a business model now known as surveillance capitalism.
Maybe 2022 will be the year something similar happens around digital journalism. It is becoming increasingly evident that there are serious problems with the basic news and information infrastructure in the United States.
Much of today’s journalism lies downstream from surveillance capitalism. It is not that the most important media are organized singularly around the objective of collecting data for advertisements. But they must survive in a media environment structured around this economic paradigm. Whether dependent on ad revenue, subscriptions, or membership, all types of news sites feel the pull of the incentives to develop loyal and niche audiences rather than more heterogeneous audiences.
We can begin to see rebellious movements against the political and economic choices that have led to the ânestingâ of journalism – an information economy that only encourages the pursuit of relatively homogeneous and separate audiences.
The problem is not the growth of the niche media themselves. Democracies need a plethora of forums and publications dedicated to particular interest groups and perspectives. Let a million flowers bloom. But 2022 could bring us closer to tackling the scarcity of resources for information and media forums that bring together large and diverse audiences at local and national levels.
Niche journalism echoes some of the same promises as targeted advertising. To justify building a vast digital architecture for collecting personal data and delivering sophisticated targeted advertising, the advertising industry had to tell a compelling story. Data-driven advertising, they said, would simply give people more of what they wanted. Targeting would mean that users would see ads that are more relevant to their own interests. The advertising activity would be more efficient and would thus continue to subsidize information and culture. Everybody wins.
This story, of course, has obscured many of the consequences of such digital architecture.
Targeted advertising does more than just match us with advertisements that match our existing preferences. She profiles us, then cultivates tastes and structures opportunities based on these profiles. In a 2011 book, Joe Turow illustrated this by invoking a fictitious, middle-class, downward-moving family. Members of this family receive targeted ads and discount coupons for fast food restaurants and other products that marketing algorithms predict based on their profile. This family does not enjoy the same discounts for organic groceries or promotions for prestigious colleges that would follow the wealthiest members of their community on the Web.
Stratification and segmentation do comparable – though probably more extensive – work in the information industry. To survive under current conditions, news organizations are focusing on their own promotion and adjusting the sensitivity of their coverage to audience profiles deemed to be the most lucrative and easiest to mobilize. As Nikki Usher documents in her provocative new book, the most favored audience segments in this context tend to be wealthy, white, and âblueâ (i.e. Democrats). As with advertising, the nesting of journalism does not simply respond to existing differences in the interests of news consumers. It reinforces and amplifies these differences.
Some communities are becoming information deserts as local reporting resources dry up. At the same time, many people find that they do not fit the demographics sought by major national media. For some communities, the right-wing media play a role in filling the void. These outlets become the only outlets to tell stories of public life in tones calibrated to speak to the tastes and social identities of individuals and communities. profiled like conservative. This inevitably includes a lot of people who don’t have hardened conservative views, but come across no one else offering political life narratives who even try to talk about their experiences and tap into their familiar vernaculars.
In 2022, the problems of a media economy that demands segmentation of news audiences will be harder to ignore. As we face catastrophic threats to democracy and other crises, there will be a growing recognition that narrow political victories offer insufficient solutions to these problems. Wider changes in good political sense are needed. A democratic information infrastructure is a necessary condition to support informed audiences capable of making such changes.
But, alas, a coming boost is more hope than sober prediction.
Anthony nadler is Associate Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College.