It was standing room only at the season’s inaugural lecture for the Summer Institute Speaker Series. “You have Guttenberg on one side,” said Bruce Eckman, chairman of the Summer Institute, “and you have Mele on the other.”
Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, spoke on how digital advances are affecting media in 2018. The picture he painted was rather bleak. He likened the decline of newspaper jobs to those of steel, however with a more drastic drop for journalists. In 15 years, newsrooms saw a reduction of 58 percent while in steel, there was a similar reduction (of 64 percent) over 35 years. Much of this is caused by newspapers being unable to come up with a new business model for a landscape altered by digital technology. “Digital is pushing power out of the institutions at an alarming rate,” said Mele. “Institutions which used to be gatekeepers have lost their power.”
With this loss of manpower and funds for newsrooms, some types of reporting are becoming economically unfeasible. Mele cited investigative reporting as a particularly hard-hit area. The Los Angeles Times, where Mele had a stint as deputy publisher, had to work on an investigative piece for four years before it could run. That long-term kind of story is expensive and increasingly difficult to make room for on a shoestring budget.
Local reporting, however, was another area which has fallen on hard times. Nearly half of U.S. states don’t have a local paper which sends a reporter to Washington, D.C. This means there is a portion of the population which doesn’t get coverage on how federal-level legislation affects their hometowns and communities specifically. “Local reporting has been decimated in the U.S.,” Mele said, “and the gaping hole has been filled with fake news, or what I like to call information pollution.”
A major factor as to why this problem has gotten so big so quickly is the pace at which digital development is growing. “Forty years ago,” Mele said, holding his iPhone up in front of the crowd, “this would have required a million dollars and a national security clearance.” Legislation hasn’t caught up with the technological advances. Driverless technology is on the verge of hitting the market, and yet, Mele argued, there has been little discussion on what to do in the states where one of the top professions is “driver.” Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms are allowed to continue with a hands-off approach for monitoring their news content, and when they do go in front of congressional hearings, Mele criticized the lawmakers who spent most of the time getting a grasp on how the platforms work rather than how they should be regulated.
Much of this comes down to an overarching trend where there isn’t room for young blood and new ideas. Mele joked that most of the leadership in the Democratic Party could be Paul Ryan’s parent. In news, the old institutional powers haven’t weakened enough to allow for new forms of journalism.
There was a spot of hope. For the most recent French election, Mele and a team of graduate students developed an algorithm to track and identify news stories that might be fake and targeted toward newsrooms. When a story was trending or viral, the algorithm would flag it and the team of grad students would look to fact-check it before sending it along to the newsroom for coverage. French journalists began to rely so heavily on this that American newsrooms have requested Mele and his team do the same thing for the 2018 midterms.
This algorithm is a short-term fix. Mele continued throughout his talk with a mantra of “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” In the long term, newsrooms need to come up with a sustainable business model that can cover the $40 billion annual shortfall local newspapers are facing. There has to be a change in the way reporters refute fake news: Simply saying it’s fake has been shown to solidify the rumor in the public’s mind. Finally, the eight companies who, Mele argues, virtually control the public sphere, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple, Amazon, Google, and eBay, need to be held accountable for their power. It’s a daunting list, but Mele closed his lecture by reciting “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, a poem of hope in dark times.