The media – including newspapers – are proving to be their own worst enemy. Public trust is at an all time low; the economies of the business are making it more challenging to produce solid products, be it print or broadcast; and the standard way of delivering news is being challenged by a number of online platforms.
On the trust issue, the media in general is at its lowest level since Gallup first polled this question in 1972, according to information released by the firm in recent weeks. In its 2016 poll, 32 percent of the public had a “fair amount” or “great deal” of trust in those who disseminate the news. Interestingly, the most recent poll represented an eight percent drop from 2015 and the decline cut across all age groups, another first. Of those polled nationally, only 14 percent of Republicans expressed trust in the media, while 51 percent of Democrats polled had trust in the news media, leading pollsters to speculate that the constant criticism of the media by GOP candidates – most notably Donald Trump – was helping push down the confidence level.
Media scored the highest trust level in 1976 – 72 percent – and those who follow these issues are saying that public confidence in the Fourth Estate was buoyed by detailed coverage and investigative journalism focused on the war in Vietnam and the scandals surrounding Watergate.
Since then, it has been downhill with the exception of the 2002 annual survey in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the public registered a great deal of trust.
In a separate poll performed in 2015, Gallup found that newspapers had a 62 percent trust factor among the public with either “great” or “some” trust.
I share this with our readers because I think the media in general – and some newspapers in particular – have hastened their own demise.
Let's take the Oakland County market. For generations voters have relied on newspapers to sort through the candidates running for public office, providing information on candidates' positions on the issues and making recommendations to readers on how to vote. But fast forward to the 2016 election and we find that Downtown newsmagazine might be the last to carry on this tradition among non-daily publications in the county. On the daily newspaper front, with the Oakland Press getting out of the endorsement business, that leaves the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News still in the game, although their frequency and distribution reach has declined considerably and one would have to assume their sphere of influence with the electorate has also.
To some extent the decline in solid election coverage and endorsements backs up to the declining profit centers that newspapers were at one time. In tough times, it becomes easiest to eliminate positions that produce no identifiable revenue stream – i.e., the newsroom. Then there is the continuing trend of combining newspapers under larger corporate ownership where it becomes even more tempting to cut costs to reach certain profit levels, and there goes the newsroom head count once again.
Add to this the trend – and it is taking place in Oakland County – where print products have taken the position that they will only produce news that draws higher levels of “clicks” (readers) on their websites. So sensational stories win out over the more tedious but still important local government coverage. Longform journalism loses out to shorter pieces that can be read quicker.
At Downtown newsmagazine, we still adhere to a more traditional definition of our role as journalists.
We know we have an educated readership, both for our edition serving the Birmingham/Bloomfield area as well as our edition serving Rochester/Rochester Hills. We also know that our followers appreciate the longform features that we do each month on issues that should be considered critical to local residents. We mix those longer pieces with coverage of municipal meetings, personality profiles, restaurant news and social scene news/photos.
We define our role as a provider of hard news or serious information and we know that approach hits a responsive chord that has allowed us to develop a strong following in the communities we serve. Yes, like everyone else, we do check each week the website stats to see what type of traffic we generate, and we know that locally and well beyond this area we have strong readership, both on the hard news and the longform features we post to our website, which regularly draws 70,000 to over 80,000 visitors each month. But we don't focus our news coverage based on “click” statistics.
Downtown newsmagazine also still adheres to the traditional role of providing coverage of candidates and our opinions on who we think is best suited to represent the public, as evidenced by this issue in which we give our endorsements of November general election candidates on our Endnote opinion page.
Candidates answers to questions appear on our website and if past elections are any indication, our readers will take the time to familiarize themselves with the options appearing on the ballot.
Over the years I have taken a number of approaches to election coverage. Some election cycles we have interviewed in person all the candidates running in an election and sometimes we have interviewed candidates, recorded the sessions and posted those online. One election cycle we broadcast through our website live interviews, then archived recordings of those online, along with written transcripts of the interviews. Sometimes I have relied just on questionnaires for candidates.
This year we did a combination of things. All candidates received questionnaires, the answers to which will be posted at downtownpublications.com as absentee ballots go in the mail. News editor Lisa Brody and I also spent time doing one-on-one individual sessions with a good number of those running for office so we could have a better feel for candidates as part of our endorsement process.
All of this is done to provide our readers with a solid monthly news product on which they have come to rely.
Perhaps the current state of print media was captured best in an interview I recently read with the David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker since 1998: “The media is a many-headed beast. I can’t speak for people’s trust in Fox News or the Wall Street Journal or L.A. Times. All I can do is speak for us. All we can do is gain the readers’ trust for what we do.”