President Trump’s challenge to media credibility
“Trump has been good for the economic viability of the American media,” says Alan Murray, chief content officer at Time Inc, who oversees a stable that includes Time and Fortune magazines.
He cites the bump in digital subscriptions at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the increase in traffic at his own business in the wake of the presidential election.
“But I think he has been bad for the credibility of the media”.
According to public relation behemoth Edelman’s latest “trust barometer”, the media has become the least-trusted institution in the world In the US, more than 70% of Donald Trump’s supporters distrust mainstream outlets.
Despite an increasingly engaged audience, helped along by a president who creates headlines with every tweet, the business of journalism in America, Mr Murray warns, is in trouble.
“The media in the US is in the midst of two simultaneous crises, which predated Donald Trump,” he explains, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“One is an economic crisis – how do we make enough money to support what we do, and the other is a credibility crisis, in a world where anyone can be a publisher, and people are sitting in their pyjamas in their bedrooms putting out stuff on Facebook and the internet – how do people know what to believe?”
The task of deciding what to believe, he adds, is made all the more difficult by the incumbent of the White House.
“It’s very difficult when the president takes things that simply have no basis in truth and puts them into his Twitter feed,” says Mr Murray, referring to when Donald Trump took aim at one of Mr Murray’s own publications, Time.
Last November, the president tweeted that: “Time Magazine called to say that I was PROBABLY going to be named ‘Man (Person) of the Year’ like last year, but I would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot. I said probably is no good and took a pass. Thanks anyway”
This claim, says Mr Murray, was “just completely untrue.”
“I was well aware of the thought that went into who was going to be Person of the Year this year, Trump was never on the list.”
No one, he says, has ever been Person of the Year two years in a row.
At the time, Mr Murray took to his own Twitter feed to set the record straight, but he says this entertaining saga is emblematic of a more serious attack on the press in the US.
Ben Smith, editor in chief of what Donald Trump has termed a “failing pile of garbage”, but what is otherwise known as Buzzfeed News, agrees.
“For any given media outlet, being attacked by the President of the United States for an accurate story that he is unhappy with, draws attention to that story, draws attention to your reporting,” he says.
It also, in the case of Buzzfeed, helps shift some tongue-in-cheek merchandise – “failing pile of garbage” T-shirts and bumper stickers.
“The sum, though, of the president and his allies’ attacks on the idea of a legitimate press is incredibly damaging.”
For Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, and a veteran White House watcher, the best response to such attacks is robust journalism.
“I think globally we are seen as very tough on the president,” she says, when asked about what the Oval Office has done for the Gray Lady’s reputation (as the New York Times is known).
“He refers to us constantly as the failing New York Times,” an exhausted Ms Bumiller adds.
“I like to say that the failing New York Times is even failing at failing, and we have record high readership and interest.”
Mr Murray’s publications are also doing well – Time Inc (soon to be subsumed into Meredith Corp) attracts 140 million unique visitors to its sites a month, and its print magazines still have the power to create international headlines.
But he warns that increasingly, readers are confused about the veracity of stories, particularly on social media.
Mark Zuckerberg, he says, may be a bigger cause of upheaval for the US media than Donald Trump.
“Facebook and Google to some extent have helped lead the confusion that people have about what can be trusted and what can’t.”
The answer, he says, lies in good old-fashioned branding.
“There have to be strong brands that people trust and believe in, in order for them to get news they can feel confident in,” he says, adding that appearing to be fair and impartial is vital to this endeavour.
“Branding is basically a shortcut to trust”
Buzzfeed News, which piggy-backed on a popular online entertainment brand, has been growing too, both in stature and audience.
But although the company recently announced layoffs and a broad restructuring plan, Ben Smith says he is “optimistic about the business of news,” particularly when it comes to the digital media.
“The underlying trends – the shift towards social media, the shift towards mobile consumption are on our side,” he says.
And what of the bogeyman of many online newsrooms, Mark Zuckerberg?
“We are less dependent on Facebook than we were a year, or two years, or three years ago,” says Mr Smith.
Mr Smith is also less pessimistic than many in his industry about proposed changes to Facebook’s news feed, which would make posts from businesses, brands and media less prominent, under the guise of cracking down on fake news outlets.
But did executives from the social media giant consult Buzzfeed – after all a driver of huge amounts of interaction on the site – about the tectonic shift in Facebook’s algorithm?
Mr Smith chuckles: “If only”.