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There’s always a bright side: How the Trump presidency could save journalism

If the first week is anything to go by, the relationship between the Donald J Trump administration and the press will be anything but cosy. That’s excellent news for journalism, argues Paul Brislen.

Day One of Trumpton got off to a rocky start with the new press secretary for The Donald taking to the podium not to impart news of the new administration’s first day in office but instead to lambast media for daring to suggest Donald’s inauguration wasn’t the best there’s ever been. If that wasn’t bad enough, another Trump staffer then had to clarify what the Press Secretary had meant by his shouting, giving us the immortal “alternative facts”, a coinage that would do George Orwell proud.

Day Two (actually, Day Five but time is clearly standing still for @PressSec) went no better with an actual press conference (referred to as the “first press conference”, thus assigning the previous day’s rant to the dustbin of “did that actually happen?”) that ended with questions being taken from the softest of friendly reporters and even then proceeding with few answers.

Sean Spice Chris Geidner tweets

This is a great opportunity for journalism and may just be the saving of mainstream media as we know it.

Mainstream Media (MSM to us hep cats in the digital space) has been stumbling along without a clue for quite some time now. Since the advent of Google, Facebook and social media in general, MSM has been rudderless, powerless to stop the steady crumbling of its business model.

Actually, I’d say the rot set in a lot earlier. When I was a reporter (note to young reporters: when you start saying things like this it’s time to hand in your notebook and pencil and switch to public relations because you’re done), this newfangled website thing called TradeMe had not long launched and was looking for a buyer. It offered itself to Buy Sell and Exchange, the weekly classified advertising rag that consisted of roughly three million pieces of advertising every single week, but BSE declined the kind offer.

Morgan and co were pushing a sale for $1 million. Eventually TradeMe sold to Fairfax for $700 million – a number so outrageous I declined to run the story until I had verification that there wasn’t a decimal point missing from the number.

Today it’s hard to really remember what life was like before TradeMe came along but I do recall one New Zealand Herald edition with so many ads in its car section that it didn’t have room for any copy. No story at all – just ads.

It was a licence to print money and APN and Fairfax and others treated it in just that way.

They could have invested in TradeMe. They could have built their own version. They could have cornered the market for classifieds, for house sales, for jobs, for all of these things because they already had cornered the market. But when the market moved they declined to spend and compete and so were crushed like bugs under the internet’s wheel of fortune.

Eventually these media behemoths set up their own websites and gave away their product for free. For reasons as yet uncovered, this led to a lot of people not paying to buy their newspapers, which led to calls for cost reductions, which led to the number of journalists gainfully employed by said newspapers being slashed, which led to fewer readers, which led to more panic, more cost reductions, more layoffs and so on until today.

This has happened in newsrooms around the world. Entire publications have vanished into the ether and yet the readers remain. People want news and they want more of it. Yet we are defunding news coverage steadily right around the world.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement to the White House Press Core, flanked by photos of the Trump presidency, January 21, 2017. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement to the White House Press Core, flanked by photos of the Trump presidency, January 21, 2017. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, thanks to Donald and company, suddenly MSM has a real opponent, someone they can obviously and clearly call out. Mainstream media’s output of truth, accuracy and verifiable facts were thrust into the limelight by a president who believes in none of these things.

Trump’s is an administration that actively contradicts the stance it took the day before. An administration that refuses to cite its sources when claiming millions of illegal voters were involved in the presidential election, that attacks individual journalists for doing their job (both on Twitter, in person and by having them arrested) and which is so eager to control the message that it has stopped various government science bodies from releasing factual statements.

This is all so garish and over the top, so outlandish a set of behaviours that were a script writer on the next Bond film to include a villain so transparently vile as Trump it would be rejected as being implausible and obvious. Bring us more subtlety, the producers would cry, this is too Jared Leto’s Joker to be believed.

Basically, this is a perfect foil for the journalists of America to rail against.

CNN started strong, refusing to screen Spicer’s stand up rant until it had fact checked it (turns out most of what he said was inaccurate at best and provably false at worst). The New York Times followed up by using the “lie” word instead of referring to “inaccuracies” and even the UK’s Guardian has got in on the act, with a piece devoted to rallying the media troops to its cause. Let’s work together, it says, to defeat this common foe.

Readers want reporting. They want news. They want to know what’s going on behind the scenes and they want to know someone is being held to account. I was taught that journalism is about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Now more than ever, it is essential that journalism holds true to that.

Newspapers can do that but lately they seem to have lost the plot. When you look at the front page of either main New Zealand news website you’ll find columns of “Most Read” stories and articles syndicated from Outbrain, which specialises in the clickbait stories that Buzzfeed and co have rejected for being too pointless.

In the rush to get more clicks to support their failing business models, newspapers have forgotten why people read them in the first place: for impartial news. Instead we’ve been given BREAKING NEWS banners for stories that are barely newsworthy let alone breaking, lifestyle stories and more junk news than we can handle. We readers should be fed a diet of quality information put together thoughtfully and with concern for the truth. Instead, like hummingbirds fed on Nutrasweet, we’re given stories about the Kardashians and what John Key is up to now he’s no longer PM. We’ve had to turn to comedians to fill in the blanks, to provide the analysis and the understanding – but as much as I love watching John Oliver et al, lampooning is not journalism. That shouldn’t be their job.

Mainstream media needs to do more than just regurgitate what’s put in front of them in the hopes of attracting a few clicks. It needs to do more than re-run stories we all read yesterday on the internet. Newspapers don’t need to put BREAKING NEWS banners up unless it actually is breaking news. In marketing speak, it devalues its own brand by doing so and it breaks its promise to the reader that newspapers are filled with news.

If they can keep up this barrage of accurate reporting, of actual news, MSM might well survive the transition from print to digital. Sure, they need a new payment model but subscriber numbers are rising for the first time in a long while and people seem willing to pay actual money for news .

If we are in a post-truth world journalism need to accept that and raise the bar higher. We need to move to a post-truthiness world, one where facts are checked, hypocrisy is called out and where we do indeed hold the bastards to account for their actions.

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