Meditations on

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

5 trends that are changing both modern media and the country

The initial response to the internet age was a panic by some in print media that their product was going to go down and be replaced by blogs and less well accredited news sources. Then it turned out that the world wasn't ready for that yet and established, print media maintained its place by simply moving online.

Now however, media IS experiencing a major shift away from where it's been with alternative types of sites and even reporting growing in size and influence. There's even conspiracy theorizing out there right now that Trump is already "pivoting" away from trying to win the 2016 election and is instead looking to leverage his tremendous levels of support into building a media empire and establish the alt-right/nationalist voice as a permanent fixture in American political discourse.

I tend to think he may very well do that but still be looking to also win the election. He's capable of delegating and multi-tasking, after all. What's more, Trump has no chance in this election without new, alternative media outlets helping him out because the traditional ones are almost entirely in the tank for Clinton and the establishment. It would make sense for him to craft an emerging alt-media for use in this election or a future one.

The 2016 election proving to be a turning point in American politics in several regards but changes to the media structure is one of the big themes worth exploring. Here are five trends that are shifting how media works in the modern world and how that impacts the country's future.

1. The Establishment's major advantage is in access not quality

As a career journalist let me tell you how I go about researching and learning about the football teams I write about. First I go to the team site and/or the beat writers for direct access to the coaches and roster and try to figure out who comprises the team. I fill out a depth chart and take notes of stats and scheduling notes.

Then I go watch the film for myself and do all of the contextual analysis of what the players are doing, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they project to an upcoming season or game. I don't go to the coaches for that information because A) they don't like to reveal those types of details and B) I have very limited access to them.

The beat writers have access to the coaches but they don't have the information I need because A) the coaches don't give it to them and the writers can't push limits with the coaches or they lose access, B) the beat writers don't know what I know. They couldn't answer many of my questions or know to ask them in the first place because they don't have the understanding of the game's schematics that I do.

The blogosphere has deeply broadened the pool of people that can do analysis and research and opened up opportunities for people to speculate and analyze that aren't beholden to maintaining access or friendly relationships with the people they are writing about.

Sometimes that means that bloggers go after people with unfair and inaccurate pieces...sometimes it means that they go after people with fair and accurate pieces that no one else would have written.

In my own experience I can tell you that I've written things that hardly anyone else in my market would have written due to knowledge I uniquely possess. Sometimes it's something that the University of Texas coaching staff would like to see someone write and sometimes it's not. Either way, they don't really have much choice in the matter like they do with the established media.

2. Monetization is hard and much of the media is unprofitable and subsidized

Donald Trump loves to refer to the New York Times as "the failing New York Times" for a reason besides the fact that they are his enemy and branding opponents as "losers" is one of his favorite pastimes. He's actually right that their business model is not proving to be financially profitable.

What many people don't realize is that much of the political media world out there is heavily subsidized by "the ruling class" or wealthy elites who like to influence American politics. Incidentally, these same people tend to favor open borders (cheaper labor and greater influence over the population!) and view Donald Trump as one of the worst things to ever happen to American politics because of his preference for border security.

Check out some of the established conservative media outlets that have been very strongly against Trump such as "The National Review" and look into their finances. You'll find that many of them are backed by big money and aren't even profitable outlets. Glenn Beck has been desperately trying to pivot "The Blaze" towards more moderate positions recently in order to find wealthy people that will buy him out due to the companies' financial struggles. Positions that seem to be virtuous on the surface are often actually guided by financial interest.

You also often hear people at or rail against figures like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh for "lacking the moral courage to stop Trump in the primary." Seriously, just google "Red State" and "Limbaugh" and you'll find article after article ripping him along those lines.

The real difference is that Limbaugh and Hannity depend on rank and file, working class listeners/viewers for their income while sites like Red State are subsidized by the wealthy elites. So when Hannity or Limbaugh noticed a groundswell of support for a guy like Trump, they understand that if they want their bread to stay buttered they'd better get out in front.

It's hard to make money online unless you have extraordinary traffic, something really good to sell beyond content, or content that is very difficult to come by. That latter is not the case for most in political media, you need either to be wildly popular or subsidized by powerful interests. Hannity and Limbaugh rely on popularity, Red State can lean more on what their backers a point.

Established conservative outlets be like...

3. There's a growing preference for obvious bias over non-obvious bias

People love to find the echo chamber. If you're a conservative, clinging to hope that the Republicans can win this election, what sort of sites are you likely to traffic? Probably the ones that explain why this is still a realistic belief. I'm not sure Rasmussen does scientific polling anymore or just finds ways to manipulate their polls to sell to Republicans that want good news.

On the other side, exists to carefully and comfortingly explain how whatever is happening in the world actually fits into the progressive narrative about how the world works.

We all seek these out. What happens every time something big and terrible happens in the world? You see everyone processing it out in real time on Facebook and explaining how this terrible event fits into their preferred political narrative while, really when you think about it, disproving the opposite side's narrative in dramatic fashion.

This is bad news for Establishment centers like the New York Times that have forever painted themselves as objective when in reality they are not. One of the good critiques that post-modernism brought to the thinking world is the realization that bias-free, objective thinking is not possible.

One of the results of the growth of blogging and online media platforms is that people are now more free to choose the clearly biased media outlets. If you're looking for someone that will sell a political narrative you are comfortable with then you may want some options besides the established media. Especially if they are capable of proving equally adept at it.

Conversely, wealthy elites can still find it quite easy to get their preferred narratives out because they can afford to subsidize a website like "the National Review" and attempt to shape the narrative without worrying about whether it will sell successfully or not. 

Just find an existing opinion tribe that you think you can manipulate in a few key areas and then build a site with writers telling them what they already want to hear while pushing a few key points to get what you want. College-educated opinion tribes are some of the most ripe for manipulation in this fashion because they are smart enough to convince themselves that this isn't what's happening.

4. The nation is increasingly diverse, so the opinions are as well

There are tons of niches to be filled in online media today. People tend to converge towards uniformity in opinion and outlook but only within a community. For instance, I've known several people that held unique, thoughtful political opinions before they were actually really interested in politics.

After they started becoming more interested in politics they'd read up on various websites and gradually their opinions would converge towards more mainstream ideologies or narratives. It's just a natural process and I've seen it happen on both sides. Semi-conservatives that had doubts or reservations about different conservative ideas became rank and file conservatives after reading thoughtful conservative commentators. Conservative people that favored Obama for one reason or another in 2008 and then gradually talked themselves into much of the modern progressive narrative after seeking out pro-Obama media and conversation.

There are pros and cons to this process. On the negative side, it snuffs out some original thinking in favor of whatever narrative/opinion shaping that is coming from the online sites, which again are often tools of influence for wealthy elites. However, it also snuffs out some dumb, poorly thought out ideas and promotes unity, which is a big positive.

The monkey wrench is that while people will tend to converge towards uniformity within their opinion tribe or community of the political sphere, there are increasingly large numbers of communities within the United States.

There is a TREMENDOUS divide right now between young, college-educated Evangelical Christians who are very suspicious of Donald Trump and older, working class Evangelical Christians that make up some of his strongest supporters. I'm in the former group and I regularly see or hear people saying things like "who are these Trump supporters that are voting for him?? I don't know ANYONE that likes him!!!"

Well, those people aren't in the world that you've formed by seeking out political discussion within the college-educated/evangelical community. They're in their own sphere of the internet wondering where these Republican holdouts are that keep preventing Trump from getting past the 45% threshold in the polls. Resentment on both sides is growing.

5. The diversity and insulation of opinion tribes might not a good thing for the future of the U.S.

It's easy to forget that a "state" is actually supposed to be a sovereign political entity and that "The United States" indicates that a diverse collection of political entities is looking to actively work together to form a single government and nation.

So while all of the trends above can lead to some very interesting developments in the political world where people throw away pretense of bias, welcome communal thinking, and empower non-establishment communities due to new options...none of that necessarily leads to a more United collection of states.

Another thing that is easy to forget is that less than 200 years ago there were diverging opinion tribes within this country that found their differences were strong enough to cause a highly destructive war.

Did you know that 1/4 of the Southern male population of fighting age was killed in the Civil War? Did you know that another 1/4 of that same population was permanently maimed by injuries? No Americans ever sacrificed more for any cause then did the American South for independence in the Civil War. Second place goes to the American North in the same conflict.

That happened when the U.S. consisted of the northern, industrial-based white Americans, southern, agricultural-based white Americans, and enslaved black peoples. Today in the U.S. there is an even larger number of discrepant people groups with disparate interests and priorities. Online media is making it easier for everyone to find their own opinion tribes and websites rather than all having to grudgingly accept a compromised, established media narrative that is formed largely from wealthy elites.

It's possible that this could lead to division and even conflict within the country. Note how confident everyone is on Facebook that their own preferred political narrative is the most noble, just, and true view while the others are deeply flawed and even evil...don't think that could lead to people being willing to come to blows if there's future division on issues that effect their lives?

To get back to the idea of Trump's "Alt-right media empire" and the nationalist voice gaining strength in American politics...that's going to happen whether Trump is a part of it or not. That's an opinion tribe that is gaining enough strength that people can profit from the traffic. What's more, many wealthy elites will probably hop aboard and join the movement so they can have influence.

Very interesting times we live in.

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