It is, as that 19th century journalist Charles Dickens might have observed 200 years on from his birth, the best of times and the worst of times for the Media. It is the best of times with new technology opening up new global markets, and opportunities to reach audiences and readers in new ways on mobiles, tablets and more. But it is the worst of times with business models in disarray as fragmenting audiences and advertising revenues undermine the industry. And of course in the UK we have a major public inquiry into media pratices in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.*
This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer however shows an increase in trust in the media in key parts of the world. Given the usually low trust in journalists and media, this is unusual.
I think there are two explanations. This year’s rise was alongside a significant decrease in trust in both government and financial institutions in particular – because of the current economic climate and perceived lack of political will to deal with things like the eurozone crisis and bankers bonuses. In that context, the serious media is seen as having done a good job in explaining what’s going on at a turbulent time and even holding some, including their own, to account.
However, at a deeper level, I think we are seeing A Tale of Two Media (excuse the continuing Dickens analogies). Historically, many mass media companies combined entertainment and serious information – in tabloid press, weekly magazines or TV. In the digital environment, those functions are separating out. Increasingly the tabloid press, for example, are seen as being in the entertainment business, rather than the news business. As such, trust is less of an issue. The serious end of the news business (The FT, New York Times, BBC) is seen as doing a trustworthy and responsible job. Some still sit on the fence – but even there the strains are showing. The Daily Mail website is very popular, but definitely in the entertainment sector. The traditional paper is a different, non digital, brand.
The problem is that the entertainment end makes money – and the serious end loses money. With the combined products breaking down and revenues atomising there is a real question about the viability of serious news. In the past it was subsidised by revenues from business, sport or other activities or simply by prosperous owners seeking influence and prestige.
In a niche, fragmented digital environemnt it is hard to see where those subsidies can come from in future. Perhaps media shareholders need to rediscover a little of Dickens social conscience (that’s the last reference I promise). Instead of demanding higher and higher returns (as happened in the US for example leading to the collapse of some regional papers) they might want to take note of another conclusion from the Edelman Trust barometer: the public increasingly expect business to play a positive social role – and in their mind, the licence to operate may depend on it.
*(Disclosure: News International is an Edelman client)