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Visiting professor offers his take on what the media's future will look like

Mar 28, 2017

Posted in: News

By William Lineberry

The future of the media is up for grabs, but a few things are certain to happen to the fourth estate in the coming years. The traditional media—meaning both print and broadcast—will see a radical change in how it is funded. And, Facebook will become, in due time, the largest publisher of news to ever exist.

These were two of Bob Levey’s predictions for the media in his lecture, “The Future of the Media: Responsible journalism in the Trump era” last Thursday in the Commons Theater at VCU.

In the lecture, Levey, the Distinguished Dabney Professor of Journalism in the VCU Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and a former reporter and columnist of more than 35 years at the Washington Post, laid out a critique of the current media—both traditional and internet-based—and offered his take on future possibilities for the media in an era he sees as a pivotal point in the history of American journalism. 

Audience members watch during Levey's lecture on the media's future.
Audience members watch during Levey's lecture on the media's future.

Aside from his critique and offering a few possibilities for the media’s future, Levey concluded that the coming years will see an increase in quality reporting.

“Journalism is a transaction between the public and the media,” he said. “Good journalism will survive. But it’s up to people like you to demand this because if you demand it, it will continue to exist.”

Problems facing the Media as it stands

There are two problems that currently are facing the media and that will have an effect on how it will look in the future, Levey argued. One issue has to do with what is seen as news in the current age. And the other problem has to do with the funding model of traditional, legacy news outlets such as the Washington Post, Levey said.

In his critique of much of the “internet media,” Levey stated that the line between “advertorials” and “info-torials” had become blurred. In a race for advertising dollars, much of the traditional media have been left behind because they are unable to keep up with other “news” sites that create content specifically for page views and link clicks, he said.

Many of these sites also do not abide by the same ethical rigor and source vetting in their stories, Levey said. This practice makes their news more instantaneous but also less solid in its facts, Levey said. Levey cited BuzzFeed's publication of the Trump dossier as an example of what he sees as "clickbait."

“At any given point you can go find sources of information on the internet where the (ethical) standards are not clear at all,” Levey told the audience. “The difference between fact and opinion has been handed down (by these sites). And sometimes the unholy influence of money has absolutely overwhelmed what used to be objective and above reproach.” 

Aside from the “sanding down” of news standards by organizations that draw massive amounts of viewers such as BuzzFeed, Levey said, the other problem is the funding model for the current media. Despite having more flexible ethical standards, much of the internet media draws the same numbers as traditional media sites, Levey said. And with this, the traditional media are forced to compete for the same advertising money and readers, while also maintaining their ethical standards.  

According to Levey, the current advertising-supported model will soon become be replaced, as news outlets will begin to seek out new ways of funding the work they create. In the last few years, the news media have lost the ability to get people to pay for what they create, he said.

The two options, which Levey said he sees as viable, are either assume a nonprofit status and become funded by philanthropists (such as ProPublica), or become integrated into another enterprise that already exists on a large platform, such as Amazon, or Facebook. A third option of government subsidy also exists, Levey said. All three of these models could help assuage the financial insecurities of the ad-based funding model, but all three also come with their criticisms from both consumers and scholars, Levey said.

No more print, specialty news & Facebook

Levey went on to state that in a matter of a decade, maybe less, newspapers will become obsolete and news will be strictly digital.

“Print will die,” Levey said. “It will become a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean important journalism will stop.”

For broadcast, Levey said, the format will more than likely consist of a higher amount of specialty newscasts designed to attract niche markets, citing ESPN as an example of how this business model can be successful.

Nearing the end of the lecture, Levey looked forward to what he sees as an almost inevitable change the media will undergo in a matter of years. With print and broadcast news facing funding issues and the problem of competing with online news for readers, he predicted the rise of Facebook as the largest publisher of news to ever exist.

Levey said Facebook will in a matter of years realize that they can no longer continue shirking their role in the dissemination of journalism as a publisher. And with that realization, they will begin to assume a responsibility as a news facilitator and publisher.

An audience member asks a question at the end of Levey's lecture.
An audience member asks a question at the end of Levey's lecture.

“Facebook is going to get its arms around its power, its potential and its responsibility to journalism,” Levey said. “Facebook is going to become the greatest and most influential publisher of news in the history of journalism.” 

“Today one out of every six people on Earth will go to Facebook,” Levey said. “That is an audience that is unimaginable to newspaper publishers. It’s unimaginable to television networks. If Facebook decided to not just become editors of ‘fake news’ or ‘real news’ but decided to invest in journalism itself, it would have a dominant role in this entire discussion. And it could, by itself, turn the clock back to a time when there was no question of such a thing as reputable journalism, reported journalism and opinion journalism. I really think this could happen soon.”  

After the business side of the current media is figured out, Levey said he predicts that there will be a continued increase in the demand for quality, objective journalism.

“Look at the future,” Levey said. “We are not headed toward a dumb place. We are not going to a place where we want to settle for opinion—where we settle for 140 characters or 1/18th of the story.  We have more educated people than ever. We have more people that understand the truth is hard to come by and we have people that understand that just one news story is extremely complicated and demands real reporting, time and care.”