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The news, like so many other things in life today, is a business. But unlike most businesses (where there is a philosophy that the customer is usually right), most news networks assume that their customers (viewers like you and me) are stupid and wrong.
It’s been this way for quite a while. In the 1990s, the “new media” emerged (think Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, and Fox News Channel) and started challenging the monopoly of traditional news services. In the context of business, this was nothing new: a healthy free market system allows for competition between businesses. After all, competition is how we as consumers get the best product.
In the news business, though, the legacy media ignored their new challengers and, insofar as they did recognize the competition, the legacy media wrote it off as ridiculous, propagandistic, unprofessional, and absurd. More damagingly, the mainstream media mocked the viewers who did take an interest in the new media.
Of course, the new media was not a short-lived fad, like Pogs or Beanie Babies. Limbaugh still dominates what remains of radio as he has for more than 25 years. Drudge is one of the most popular news sites in the world (and spawned a retinue of other conservative sites). And, until recently, Fox News Channel was the most watched cable news network. These conservative news organizations all had one thing in common: they knew who their audience was and they respected it. They did not hector their audience, they did not assume that their audience needed to be “educated,” they simply offered their viewers stories that interested them—and they didn’t make their audience feel bad about it.
With the election of Donald Trump, the mainstream media’s business model has taken another hit.
The legacy media has finally caught on to the fact that their ability to determine what should comprise “all the news that’s fit to print” has vanished. Their realization is about 15 years too late, however. Mainstream media institutions, from the New York Times to NBC News, have seen their audience—and therefore their ad revenues—drain away. Yet, instead of reassessing why their business models were no longer working (as most normal businesses would do), the legacy media assumed that they were losing audience simply because the audience was too dumb to recognize their brilliance. After all, it was they who were broadcasting the news, while their audiences were but the empty receptacles meant to receive the information the media brought to them.
It’s akin to a restaurant forcing its patrons to eat the same consistently bad entrée rather than admit that the chef, not the patrons, is the problem. At some point, people will stop showing up if all that you offer is the same terrible product, in the same tired and boring way.
In fact, the only thing that the legacy media has going for it is that its allies in other elite institutions of academia, business, and government sectors insist that the legacy media’s products be made available. Without those powerful special interests, there’d be nothing holding the mainstream media from falling into the abyss of outright failure.
With the election of Donald Trump, the mainstream media’s business model has taken another hit. To be fair, Trump’s star power and popularity forced the mainstream media begrudgingly to cover his unlikely (according to the mainstream media) presidential campaign. In turn, the mainstream media’s ratings increased. Though, the ratings increase was in spite of not because of the mainstream media’s best efforts to harm Trump.
More troubling, the men and women who comprise the legacy press—mostly Democrats, but a few Republicans also—looked down upon Trump and his campaign. What’s more, they loathed the Trump voter. After all, the Trump voters were basically the same people who had broken the mainstream media’s business model by abandoning them and going over to the new media in the first place.
It wasn’t even that there was a significant ideological divide between the legacy media and Trump. Remember, for years, Trump was the darling of the media. Trump was routinely called upon by the likes of CNN and CNBC to parse out his wisdom on all matters, mostly business, but also respecting politics and pop culture. In fact, Trump was a registered Democrat for several years before he finally decided to run for president in 2015.
Moreover, many of Trump’s voters are former blue-collar Democrats from the “rust belt” of America who felt alienated by the leftward lurch of the DNC. The reason the mainstream media hated Trump and his voters was cultural. It was a classic case of the haughty ruling class wanting to ignore the throngs of the rough-and-scoffing (in their eyes) masses, who comprised what Angelo Codevilla refers to as the “country class.”
Take Megyn Kelly’s fall from grace. While she was a rising star on the Fox News Channel, garnering high ratings and widely regarded as a top-notch journalist though despised among legacy journalists. Kelly opted to trade in her rising star in the conservative new media, for a chance to join a more conventional media outfit. After her series of run-ins with Trump on the campaign trail and after Rupert Murdoch’s controversial removal from his position at Fox News, Kelly joined NBC News to great fanfare. Obviously, she believed that her star power was greater than anything on Fox. Of course, NBC News—a network that has been hemorrhaging viewers for some years—jumped at the opportunity to grab onto Kelly’s star. They assumed that she would bring with her a large bloc of her Fox viewers.
They were wrong.
Now, Kelly is languishing in the ratings wars—losing to reruns of CBS’ 60 Minutes! Kelly has been granted interviews with Russian President Vladimir Putin (during which he humiliated her) and even begged gonzo, fringe Right media figure Alex Jones, to do an interview with her. Kelly did her best to make Jones look bad (not a difficult task) and still could not generate enough viewers. In typical fashion, Howard Stern has piled on and believes it’s that Kelly is not dressing as provocatively as she did when she was on Fox. What’s more likely at play is that Kelly, like her new corporate masters in the legacy media, has no idea who her audience is anymore.
Like the protagonist Philip Nolan in Edward Everett Hale’s The Man Without a Country, who abandoned the United States in a fit of rage, and was forced to live his days at sea, forbidden from hearing any news of his former home, the legacy media is rapidly becoming a business without customers. Just like Nolan, the mainstream media remains stubbornly unrepentant for rupturing the trust of the American people. But now, the legacy media seems sad and desperate to report the news in any way that it can.
Sure, it continues to push its Leftist agenda. But, to remain competitive, they’ve had to cover President Trump constantly. Even though they are clearly trying to destroy him with their coverage (it’s not working), their influence is so diminished that all they can do is continue pushing the Trump-Russian collusion lie. And, even that is beginning to lose steam among the few viewers they have left. The media doesn’t know who its viewers are anymore and they’re paying the price now.
The institutions that comprise the legacy media have long rested on their reputations to sustain them in these difficult years. Yet those reputations cut two ways. For, as they continue claiming to be the source of true news, they are also unable to change their mostly unsuccessful business model.
Reputation is a powerful thing. Businesses the world over spend vast sums of money in maintaining positive press relations, in order to buttress their public image. Once a business becomes marred by bad press, it’s very hard to overturn the negative perception among the public—their consumers. This explains why Megyn Kelly, a ratings success at Fox News, has been a massive ratings bust at NBC News. Reputation matters.
Let this be a cautionary tale to those members of the new media, who might be looking to change audiences: you always have to dance at the ball with the one who brung ya! If you don’t, you too will suffer the fate of the legacy media. Never forget where you came from and who you are. What’s more, never abandon those who made you what you are. Loyalty in business is possibly the most important commodity. In the news business, it’s one of the most fleeting.
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