The Mainstream Media Will Rise Again


The news media was flattened on November 8th, but its recovery has already started.

One of the striking features in all the commentary on Facebook about Donald Trump's victory is the number of times that the words I, me and my appeared in member posts. For example, "I am proud", "I am optimistic", or "I am fearful", "I am worried", etc. The comments celebrating or lamenting the event were mostly about the way the writer felt about the event, not about the event itself. That looks like a subtle difference but it reveals a demarcating line between an introverted reaction vs. an extroverted one.

None of this is too surprising because even in normal times, Facebook's format and primary raison d’être are to enable people to talk about themselves and to update their friends on their comings and goings. On any given day outside of an election period, the blue bannered webpage seems to be 80% introversion (photos and news of one's own family, or one's own meal, or one's own travels, challenges and accomplishments) and 20% extroversion (posts of articles about third parties).

Anatomy of a Crash

It was surprising however to observe the same I, me, my phenomenon in the columns of major newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the election. Leading columnists were unusually introspective, if not introverted. Writing in the first person, they felt homeless in America, were horrified, struggled to absorb the impossible and vowed to fight back.

Of course, columnists are often media superstars and their extensive use of the first person may come from a deliberate effort by the newspaper editors to render the news commentary more personal. That coloring was certainly in full relief in the angst-ridden I haven't slept in my room since the election and Trump's election stole my desire to look for a partner among others.

Nonetheless, whether deliberate or incidental, the I me my device can be seen as a sign that leading dailies, or at least their op-ed pages, have over the years drifted from extroverted to introverted, from objective analysis to star-studded opinion.

In reality, the op-ed pages need not be so full of personal opinion and subjective thoughts and feelings. Opinion can be objective analysis, and as such can become an arms length discussion of facts without necessarily pointing the reader towards the author's own views. The op in op-ed then becomes an invitation and encouragement to the reader to form his own opinion, instead of a presentation of the writer's opinion. Fairly or unfairly, the value placed on the latter has been in steady decline for many years.

The presentation of facts in support of this new approach requires the inclusion of more soft and hard information and data. As W. Edwards Deming was fond of saying, "without data, you are just another person with an opinion", or, at his more whimsical, "in God we trust; all others must bring data". Data in an op-ed does not have to be numerical, so long as the tone and content are objective and analytical. Of course there is some subjectivity in choosing one set of data or facts vs. another but a writer will not be credible if the scope of his analysis is too narrow. An article is enriched by the addition of more and more data. It should be as full of data as possible and as short as necessary to make it a compact and quick read.

This is painting with a broad brush and we should recognize that the leading dailies still produce outstanding content, including on the op-ed page. But it is fair to say that, in reflecting and understanding the general mood of the country, these papers were blindsided by the more recent upstarts of the internet age and even by savvy Twitter users like Mr. Trump himself and others.

Social media has revalued upwards the opinion of every person with a computer or smartphone and simultaneously devalued professional opinion leaders such as newspaper columnists, academics and others. Remember that Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 2006 was YOU. Perhaps it is the new competition from you and from bloggers and micro-bloggers that has led these columnists to emphasize the first person in their writings as if to remind us that their credentials far outweigh those of the random blogger across town. Indeed they do. But in today's free for all media, opinions are increasingly judged on their own merits, and not as much by the identity of the writer.

Here is the key to understanding the news media's endless travails. Of course, digital and social media have played a big role in the decline of advertising at major newspapers, but so has each paper's own approach to news and commentary. A good first step towards recovery would be to excise or minimize I, me, my from the op-ed page and to shift the whole tenor from introversion to extroversion. With data and facts presented in a rigorous and coherent manner, a columnist becomes much more than "just another person with an opinion".

Scraping the Bottom

At first blush, the current state of play is not that encouraging. In the world of the internet, of blogging, of Facebook and BuzzFeed, it has become more difficult for legacy newspapers to keep up with a changing audience. Millennials may be more interested in short articles that combine news and entertainment than in the type of long form articles and analyses that are the hallmarks of the New York Times and other leading dailies.

To gauge the prevailing mood, consider the table below which shows the results of several Google searches on November 18th, a randomly chosen date. Although cronyism is arguably a real scourge of our time, there were on Google only 348,000 results for "Hillary cronyism" and 423,000 results for "Trump cronyism". What is important in the table is how these numbers compare to other searches. Some serious crises like "Flint Michigan water" log in at less than two million results, but the distracting "Trump Rosie" has over 9 million and the promised "Trump build a wall" nearly 35 million, while itself only one tenth of the ubiquitous mega blockbuster "Trump Twitter".

Clearly, the more important items are under-covered while the ephemeral and insubstantive get a ton of coverage. It is possible however that this trend towards the superficially satisfying has run its course and that traditional news can regain some advantage. As with any downward spiral, recovery seems more plausible after hitting bottom. Strong brands in any sector can be tarnished for a while but in most cases they can adapt and enjoy a lasting rebound under altered circumstances.

Although no one can make this prediction with high confidence, there is a nebulous long-observed propensity for big trends to reverse themselves once they have reached an extreme point, as the devaluation of the media has on November 8th. There is also an increasing desire among news consumers to gravitate back to the great time-tested brands in order to gain some immunization against the so-called post-truth world.

Note for example that since the election, The New York Times has seen a ten-fold increase in daily subscription sign-ups, a signal that many readers are returning to more established brands at a time when fake news is spreading over the internet. Yet this surge may prove short lived if real reforms are not implemented in the wake of the election surprise.

At any rate, a total subscription count of 2.5 million at the Times seems exceedingly low for what is one of the top news brands in the world. Further, the market value of the New York Times company at $2.4 billion, though it has risen 30% since the election, still underestimates the full potential of the brand.

Sami Karam is the founder and editor of and the creator of the populyst index™. populyst is about innovation, demography and society. Before populyst, he was the founder and manager of the Seven Global funds and a fund manager at leading asset managers in Boston and New York. In addition to a finance MBA from the Wharton School, he holds a Master's in Civil Engineering from Cornell and a Bachelor of Architecture from UT Austin.

Photo: ‘New York Times’ photo Copyright © 2016

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The tendency to autobiography and testimony is not just a feature of op-eds. It is the current edition of sit pro ratione voluntas. It is the final triumph of the therapeutic. It prevails throughout the West. It has replaced Reason, which is after all a tool of racism, sexism and colonialism. Such people say that if you criticize their emotings you are declaring their very existences invalid.

The faith that there is such a thing as "data" that overcomes all of this wallowing in subjectivity is just that--a faith. As Megan McArdle recently noted (, The problem, as multiple critics of fact-checkers have pointed out (including me), is that determining what constitutes a “fact” is often not so easy. Data triumphalism has had two effects: at its worst, it has encouraged an entire industry of bespoke data production, as client-driven as any ad campaign on Mad Men, and at its best it has impoverished "public discourse" according to the Street Light Theory (only those matters susceptible of uncontroversial data are deemed worthy of consideration).

The truth is that journalism, opinionating and punditry will not improve until the people who are producing it are once again serious, literate adults practicing sound judgment and not simply admiring their own reflections.

Artie Sulzberger will not wake up.

...this surge may prove short lived if real reforms are not implemented in the wake of the election surprise.

There, of course, is the rub. I doubt very much that there will be any reforms. If the Times, and the mainstream media generally, were capable of absorbing even obvious lessons from reality, they would never have been so completely blindsided by the election results.

The Times will take the surge in subscriptions as an endorsement of their old dogmas. They're not likely to get any enlightening input from their new subscribers.

Few of the people who voted for Trump are likely to be among those subscribers. Those people have long regarded the Times as the most pernicious source of fake news in the country, and they have good reason. I'd guess that the new subscribers are Democratic true believers who had previously been too apathetic to subscribe to a newspaper (or to read much at all), and that their subscriptions are just one more panic reaction.