Journalism in Crisis: The News and Us


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Have you ever experienced a cognitive dissonance between what you believe you should be doing vs what you actually do in daily life? For me, keeping track of news is a big source of dissonance. I believe in the importance of being updated about social issues around us, but often find myself not having enough patience or motivation to read news. Part of this is due to lack of discipline, but this dissonance is also part of a larger backdrop known as “journalism in crisis”. This term is used to describe the general decline of the journalism industry since the rise of the digital age from the 2000s to 2010s, caused by both a fall in revenue that has haunted the industry in the past decade, and a reduced interest in news demonstrated by younger generations. I wish to share some thoughts I have had regarding this phenomenon through this article.

Corporate side – Falling revenue

The journalism industry has been facing falling revenues since the rise of the internet and social media. As it is, news organisations draw revenue from two main channels: advertisers and circulation numbers. Before the age of digitalisation and social media, newspapers were the main source of information for the public, inculcated as part of everyone’s daily morning routines. Such high consumer dependence translated into exposure, naturally making newspapers a lucrative platform for advertisers. However, come the 2010s, the internet and, subsequently, social media replaced traditional newspapers as the main sources of information. Advertising revenue of newspapers plummeted. While some newspapers tried pivoting to expand their online presence, the increase in advertising revenue from digital news has not been able to compensate for the losses from print advertising revenue.

According to a report by intelligence provider WARC, print accounted for 62.8% of global advertising revenue in the 1980s; fast forward to 2023, Google and Meta took over this leading role and became the duopoly in the advertising field, projected to account for 40% of global advertising revenue. This shows that as the world progressed from print to digital, news organisations were unable to transfer their dominance in advertising from print to digital spaces in a similar fashion. One main reason behind this dissonance between print and digital advertising revenue is that news organisations face extremely intense competition from corporations beyond the media sphere when fighting for advertisers in the internet space. This is a competition that news organisations did not have to face in the print era. In the print era, newspapers were the biggest carriers for advertisements, which meant that there was no shortage of companies trying to advertise their products on the newspapers. In the internet space, however, online news is only one webpage out of billions of webpages on various search engines. The role of dominant carrier is now turned over to the search engines and social media platforms, such as Google and Meta. For a field that is highly dependent on advertising revenue, this inability to maintain its dominance in the advertising field is detrimental to their finances.

Most data regarding declining print revenue have been conducted in the US where free press is valued in principle, but this phenomenon is observable right here in Singapore as well. In 2021, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) announced a restructuring of its business due to a severe decrease in its operation revenue, caused mainly by fall in print advertisement revenue and print subscription. In the restructuring, SPH’s media businesses which include The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu among other services were hived off to a not-for-profit entity, SPH Media, a business model that allows the entity to obtain more financial support from the government. Such restructuring is indicative of journalism ceasing to be a business that can be operated on a private basis without assistance from various states.

The financial weakness of news organisations is further exacerbated by the fact that big corporations such as Meta seem to have no intention or interest to support the journalism industry in this decline. In June this year, Canada passed an Online News Act after complaints from the media industry, which will mandate conglomerates such as Google and Meta to share advertising revenue with news agencies that run their articles on these platforms. While Google has compromised and decided to pay US$73.6 million to new agencies annually, Meta has taken a firm stance against such payments and blocked news sharing on Facebook and Instagram in Canada. Considering the increasing number of people who are accessing news through social media and the prevalence of Instagram and Facebook across the world, such refusal by Meta could very well indicate that professional journalism affiliated with known media organisations are being phased out of individuals’ lives.

Consumer side – Falling interest in news

As digital news comes to share the same space with the vast amounts of entertainment on social media, the former has to fight for users’ attention with the latter, and it is usually a losing battle. Content on social media, especially on platforms such as Instagram Reels or TikTok, are meant to captivate users’ attention on the platform for as long as possible through consecutive punchlines delivered by the continuous stream of short videos. Humorous content is easy to understand, and shorter clips take much less cognitive effort than long, explanatory videos. This is as opposed to news, which may be much drier as it provides numbers and statistics, or requires more cognitive effort on the viewers’ end, involving thinking about past contexts or future implications. Even in cases where users do not scroll by such content, short videos and blurbs greatly limit the depth that news organisations can afford to go into when using social media platforms. As news is relegated to social media, it is by default disadvantaged against the overwhelming amount of entertaining content sharing the same platform.

This falling interest is also exacerbated by the fact that viral news is more likely to be negative than positive. Negative bias in our cognition indicates that we are much more likely to pay attention to and utilise negative information compared to positive ones; and since social media thrives on attention, the most shared news is going to be the most negative. The most recent example will be the importance placed on the Israel-Hamas War compared to other significant political events that happened alongside the war. As the conflict rages on, there has been an outpour of images and videos coming out of Gaza on X (formerly known as Twitter) and Instagram, many of which include harrowing images of children’s bodies or videos of hospitals plunged into mayhem. Among this cacophony of tragedies, one would notice that discussions around other events such as the Biden-Xi meeting in the US or the Australian referendum on indigenous rights have been incredibly muted despite their political significance.

While negative bias is not a phenomenon new to the digital age, social media algorithms significantly amplify it. When people pay more attention to negative news, the social media algorithm understands such news as a topic that retains user attention on the platform, therefore suggesting more content related to that topic without accounting for the pessimistic nature of these news. This leads to users’ feed being filled with large amounts of depressing news that could deteriorate an individual’s mental health, also known as doomscrolling. In such cases, users are rightfully recommended to disconnect from social media for a period of time. While this means protecting the users’ health, it also means reduced readership for the news organisations. This contradiction shines more light on this declining interest in news: when social media is the main platform through which news is accessed, news risks becoming synonymous with negative news. What was originally supposed to be a way for individuals to inform themselves about the world is becoming a source of pessimism to be avoided.

Significance of journalism in decline

One noticeable consequence of these developments is the need to sensationalise news. Like negative bias, news sensationalism is also not a phenomenon brought by digitalisation, for sensational news often draws in larger audiences than purely informational news. However, the fall in revenue due to advances in technology forces journalists to reckon with an increased need to push readership up. For societies with existing polarisation, this is a dangerous phenomenon, as news organisations will strengthen their effort in reporting and exaggerating negative news about opposing political parties to retain their current audience base. They might also be more selective in selecting stories to run on their platforms, resulting in portions of the population getting incomplete pieces of the same story depending on which news company they tune in to. This will exacerbate existing rifts in the society. A prime example of this is the electoral disputes during the 2020 US Presidential elections, where Fox News ran stories alleging electoral fraud despite knowing there was no basis to their claims. These false allegations of electoral fraud ultimately spiralled into the Jan 6 Capitol riots, which is one of the most serious attacks on the country’s own democratic system in history. While the US faces a higher degree of polarisation, political division deepens in other parts of the world as well. The need for news companies to sensationalise news might very well end up catalysing this in other countries.

Besides sensationalising news, journalists are also forced to produce works of lower quality when faced with lower revenues. The reduction in revenue has led to layoffs in the newsroom, with no accompanying reduction in the output required of remaining journalists. According to one report done on the media industry, 43% of journalists are covering more than five beats per week and nearly 30% write 10 or more stories in the same span. Journalists have less time to fact-check each article, and that can lead to them making mistakes in published articles. Making mistakes is the relatively less serious issue; online articles can be edited after publication, and information errors are usually fixed relatively quickly. A much more obscure problem is journalists limiting the amount of research and depth they could have afforded with enough time. This is particularly damaging to investigative journalism, a branch of journalism that focuses on unearthing serious crimes such as political corruption or corporate wrongdoing that otherwise remain under the radar. The research that goes into this type of work can take months to years, and its returns might be low as these stories might not always successfully engage readers. The issues under investigation are usually severe and heavier in nature; think a commercial movie versus a documentary, it is not hard to see which one garners more public attention. Given both the falling revenue ergo limited time as well as general falling interest in news, investigative work as a form of journalism is very hard to sustain in the current environment. This is a consequence that spreads beyond democracies – even in Southeast Asia, where press freedom is much more restricted, investigative journalism continues to play an important role in exposing the powerful institutions and individuals’ exploitation of the weak. The fall of investigative journalism will make such exploitations easier to happen.

Conclusion (or lack thereof)

In the digital age, news seems to have lost its previous centrality in our lives. This would have been an ideal point to pitch suggestions on how we can improve this situation – but my mind draws a blank on how this decline can be reversed. After all, I am one of the people who struggle to pay attention to informational news in the face of creative entertainment. I have also been stuck in the situation of avoiding news because of sensationalism and negative reporting. The original mission of news is something I believe in even until today; informing the layperson of developments in a specialised field, be that politics, societal issues, financial developments, technological advancements, and so on. Having a responsible fourth estate to hold the powerful accountable in corners hidden from the public sight is crucial in reducing potential exploitation of individuals or groups. But when these ideals are challenged by realistic obstacles outlined in this article, how should we go about tackling this dissonance? This is something I will continue to mull over, and an open-ended question I pose to all who stopped by this article.