As anyone working in the media industry can tell you, journalists have a long history of facing public distrust and criticism. But that level of distrust — even hate — has never been so obvious and widely felt as it is today.
On July 25, New York magazine featured a cover story that immediately sparked interest among those in media, called “The Case Against the Media. By the Media,” written by Jeff Wise and Nick Tabor.
The story, with its paradoxical title, quickly picked up speed on different social media platforms.
Featuring 48 interviews with media professionals, the article goes through a number of different issues currently afflicting media makers, including the presidential election, Donald Trump, social media, unconscious bias, and more.
The current political environment, particularly the candidacy of Donald Trump — who both criticizes the media and sparks greater public criticism — was a strong driving factor in New York magazine’s decision to explore this issue.
“It felt like there was this inundation of criticism from all angles,” Genevieve Smith, lead editor for the story, tells Folio:. “At the same time, there’s a lot of anxiety within the profession about our fate and our future, and whether we’re being too shallow in pursuing traffic or an audience. So it felt like there was a sort of existential crisis going on within the media and we were curious to explore that.”
The level of anxiety in the industry regarding Facebook was also a driving factor for publishing the story now, Smith says.
“It has had a really substantial effect on the way people read the news and what they see,” she elaborates.
Social media has the ability to bring issues to the fore, which has generated criticism against mainstream publications for not bringing said issues to the public’s attention sooner.
Many of the interviewees in the article also point out the number of news organizations and quick access to news via mobile means that speed begins to take precedence over complete and accurate investigating. The need to drive traffic can also sometimes result in shallower reporting.
Add on to that the pervading sense among readers that the media focuses solely on the negative, and there seems to be a strong case against the media, even from the perspective of those working in the industry. However, readers are also at fault for their own distrust, to a certain extent.
“The reason why the news seems so terrible is because that’s, in fact, what people tend to want,” Smith says.
Moreover, the magazine ran a test to see if this was correct. After the story went live, New York magazine partnered with digital firm Native, which did an A/B test on Facebook.
A select group of users was presented with two different headlines for the story: “The Media is Fantastic,” and “The Media is Terrible.” In the end, 74 percent clicked on “The Media is Terrible,” while only 26 percent clicked on the more positive title.
Addressing the criticism the media faces was a risky move for New York magazine, Smith says. The story may not generate strong interest from the brand’s typical readers, but it was never meant to be a traffic-generator of a story.
“We were hoping that we would be exposing the way journalism is made and showing people the things that they might worry about with the media — some of them are grounded in reality and some of them aren’t,” she adds.
Publishing this cover story posed further risks because it's unusually long for the magazine. According to Smith, the transcript from the 48 interviews was 75,000-words-long in the end. The story has 53 different subsections, plus an introduction explaining the magazine’s reasoning for investigating this issue.
One might question why Smith and her team wanted to interview such a large number of people. Smith explains that the process of writing the article started organically, originating from a desire to explore why people don’t like the media. Initially, Smith asked New York magazine staff why they believe the media is criticized so harshly. Then she reached out to Jeff Wise to do a few initial interviews.
Based on these results, Smith realized they needed to interview a range of media professionals, wanting perspectives from journalists at local papers and those involved in particular media controversies. They also aimed for geographic diversity and a range of professionals, from media veterans to up-and-comers.
One could say Smith and her team used the large number of interviews to their advantage. The online edition of the cover story features links to each interview, making these transcripts, as Smith says, a “proof of concept.”
“There’s so much mediation that happens, from the time the story is created to what the reader or the viewer actually sees. For us, that transparency was a way of showing you the way that we mediate, the way that we take a really messy, super long, 5,000 word transcript and find the nugget that makes a very specific point,” Smith says.
Smith admits she’s unsure if readers will take the time to read through the article, but so far, she believes it’s doing well. A spokesperson from New York magazine said it was too early to release analytics on the article.