Over the weekend, I was privileged to be in attendance at the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Liberty Conference. Among the highlights of the weekend (which included recording an episode of our weekly show “The Debrief” in the hotel lobby) was a media panel, hosted by Carolina Journal editor-in-chief Donna King, discussing the current state of the news business.
On the panel were some big names in NC-focused conservative media: Pete Kaliner, host of the Pete Kaliner Show on radio’s WBT in Charlotte; AP Dillon, who reports for North State Journal; Nick Craig, radio host of WAAV’s Wilmington’s Morning News; and Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, a colleague and veteran of radio, print, and television news.
The panel seemed to be in constant agreement on just how big a revolution is underway due to the power of the internet. Some of these changes the panel identified as being very positive, but others they were not as favorable towards. I found myself nodding along, having made some of the same observations in my work in media. But with the length and breadth of experience present on the panel, everyone present undoubtedly came away with quite a few new thoughts to chew on.
Near the beginning, they discussed the function of “gatekeeping” that traditional news media used to take on. Whether a story was important or insignificant, fact or conspiracy, was determined by editors. News consumers just saw the finished product — those stories that were chosen as worthy for their eyes and ears.
The internet broke all of this. Now, social media largely determines whether a story is worth talking about and consuming. If millions of people click on something and share it (even if it came from cell-phone video from a passerby), it’s news. Newspaper editors may prefer to talk about something else, but it’s not longer solely up to them.
This democratization of story selection shined a light on another connected issue, that of bias. The stories that were previously not picked up were often not published because of the bias of those in the news industry. This becomes painfully clear when the news consumers are talking about what they think is “the big story,” while mainstream media (a term now often used derisively for this very reason) dismiss the topic, ignore it, and even fight to suppress it.
One downside of the death of traditional news is the growing hole in coverage of local and state stories. Kokai talked about how when he used to see the news room at the state legislature, it was packed with people from all over the state. Now, the designated room for reporter desks has been moved to a tiny room in the basement, but it is plenty of space for the few remaining reporters.
Local newspapers are also dying, as their reach is much more limited and people don’t like paying for news, whether a print paper or a paywalled website. Consumers also are choosing not to read as much state and local content. Very few know who their mayor or their state legislator is and are ignorant of the current major issues being discussed by those officials.
As those subscriptions dry up, so does the profit. And as the profit dries up, there is less to pay any on-the-ground reporters, who leave to find greener pastures. So stories get left untold. Those who want to know what’s happening at the city council may have to follow a passionate activists’ Facebook page or log into the hyperlocal site Nextdoor. But the way the activist down the street frames the issue may not be completely accurate or fair.
The panelists said this actually might be a good thing. If you have one clearly biased person on the right giving their version of events and another doing the same from the left, they can both make their pitch to the public in a transparent way. In the past, we assumed that there was a way to transmit the story that was objective and correct, but in reality, left-wing newsrooms were deciding which issues were worth covering and what values to prioritize when discussing them.
Since this creative destruction from the internet has led to a sort of Wild West in media currently, especially when it comes to state and local coverage, the panel discussed how the individual brand has become perhaps the most important element. Pete Kaliner said he owns his own brand because he has moved between platforms at times and doesn’t want former employers to have any ownership of his work. This makes sense, since those who are his fans are fans of his, and not necessarily fans of iHeart Radio or other places that have hosted his show.
While this every-man-woman-and-child-for-themselves dynamic has many advantages — like a low bar to entry, authenticity, transparency of bias, and direct interaction with fans — a potential downside that they discussed, as the panel was ending, is that so many news consumers are simply exhausted. There is just so much content out there, and they aren’t sure who to listen to, who to believe, and whether it is all making them more informed or just a distraction.
There’s plenty to consider in all these points. But in an industry that has been experiencing chaos, some enterprising and wise media figures — like those on the panel — hopefully will be able to navigate the storm and come out on the other end with a model for success. And probably soon after that, there will be another catalyst for drastic change that people will have to respond to — a minor cost to enjoy the free expression we enjoy in this country.