The temptation for every social commentator across the world, right now, is to add a personal perspective to the imperative socio-political conversations of the day.
Every journalist, every national pundit, every basement blogger has slumped over a keyboard just like mine, thumbing through a thesaurus and a thousand personal memories in search of the perfect line that weaves through the endless waves of media, desperate for a million shares.
I don’t have the mind, the experience or, honestly, the depth to contribute to the national debate. My job has always been to speak to the people who pick up our newspapers and share perspectives that have relevance, locally, to our lives.
But as our nation has important conversations on race, and while we work to understand a pandemic’s impact on the strangest definitions of normal, and no matter what major story comes our way next, there’s one area of expertise that I’ll share as long as I’m able.
I’ve been a member of the news media for more than two decades. I’ve written thousands of stories, interviewed a sitting president, edited hundreds and hundreds of reporters, and hired more than 40 different editors.
The men and women who came before me, the ones who helped me understand my role as a reporter, editor, publisher and now owner of nine community newspapers, burned in me the obligation we owe the public. Long before TV and social media hired a billion different editors to muddy the distinction between news and opinion, I learned we were more than a business; we performed an essential service to the ecology of our defined community.
That’s why the news media once likened itself to a branch of our nation’s government. We were, after all, considered the Fourth Estate, and we were given the enormous responsibility to report exactly what we see, no matter what’s in front of our eyes.
So I’d ask you, today, to consider whether our national media still live by the same high tenet set by those who trained me.
Do national media outlets report what they see, or do they see what they choose to report?
Do the media outlets devouring your smart screens live by the obligation of service, or are they fed by a lust to devour the screen in your hand?
This isn’t a black or white question. This has nothing to do with conservatives or liberals. I can’t, and won’t, write about the underpinnings of those arguments.
But I can and will write about media, and you must understand how media have evolved, because it has nothing to do with political affiliations or your purview that one political party controls the conversation.
In newsrooms across the country, there are more analysts tracking pageviews than editors tracking perspective. Let that sink in. It’s not what you’re reading; it’s how many of you are reading.
Reporters, whether in print, digital or the airwaves, are fed constant statistics of how their stories perform on social channels. If stories get likes and shares and comments, a tidal wave of similar stories appear. If reactions spike, so do the antennas of producers who rush out to find more angles to the same narrative.
What most consumers of news don’t understand is the financial upheaval felt by media organizations around the globe. The shift to a social, digital world nearly eliminated the advertising revenue that made it simple for news organizations to provide a diverse, insightful selection of information to readers and viewers.
Today, these same organizations live under the umbrella of constant data analytics, and their stories are driven by one simple editorial directive: If news stories make consumers emotional, and if that emotion drives consumers to click, like, comment on and share those stories, then the medium producing that content makes money. And if the emotional stories you’re reading incite division among the consumers, all the better. That just creates more viewership, which creates more money.
Financial strains on news organizations have forced them to feed a frenzy, and they won’t stop eating until they find a bigger bowl of meat to devour. That’s why you’re force-fed the same stories over and over and over again, and it’s why we’ve lost balance in our news – no matter if it’s a left or right medium.
This isn’t about a virus. It’s not about the important national discussions on race. This is about the exhaustion of a 24-hour cycle. This is why today’s news feels so heavy and divisive. This is about the impact financially driven news cycles have on you, me, our families and the friends we’re losing on worthless social feeds.
This is about the misfortune of what we once called news.
(Editor’s Note: This column was updated on June 12, 2020.)