Ben Franlin's version of the 4th Estate- the Pennsylvania Gazette

Ben Franlin’s version of the 4th Estate- the Pennsylvania Gazette

Paul Gordon Collier-   As I look across the traditional and new media landscape, I am beginning to see a blurring of the two that is, I submit driven by three major factors- The blog, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.  The 4th Estate has become a battleground of narrative-makers and click-bait warriors.

The amount of unique news content being produced is not increasing, even as the 4th Estate’s players have expanded dramatically thanks to the ascendancy of the blog and social media.  The entry cost for being a new media news entity is considerably lower than starting a radio news network, a print newspaper or a television news show.  For many would-be citizen journalists, the cost could be as low as $10 a year for a domain and $5 a month for a webhosting account.

But is the proliferation of ‘citizen journalists’, of new media really contributing positively to strengthening a vital part of any republic, the 4th Estate?

I remember the rise of the new media.  Our company, Kross Publishing (which is a part of the new media) was (and is still) part of numerous email lists for leaders in new media.  So I remember well the promise that new media would shine a light on the dark places that traditional media was protecting.

But has that happened?  Has new media significantly contributed to TRUTH being brought to the light for the average, voting American to see?  I submit that new media has failed to live up to the promise that many of us were excited about in 2008, when the very notion of new media started to emerge with the birth of the now ubiquitous Twitter hashtag.

In the beginning (and I remember, because I was there actively participating), only among the top echelon of bloggers (Red State, Daily Koss, Hot Air, etc.) was serious consideration being paid to the issue of profitability.  New Media, early on, was not an entrepreneurial venture but an activist service to some noble ideal (whether it was liberty or equality, freedom or social justice).

Many of the top new media outlets of today began with little to no consideration of building a profitable business.  Their business plan was a vision, not a product.

To be sure, I was in the small rooms in those early years where leaders were already addressing the monetization issue, but such conversations only occurred at the top echelon.  I myself fell in the camp of the activist with a vision for a business plan, though I was, early on, at least considering the profitability question.

The possibility to monetize new media efforts increased as audiences built on predictable community platforms, like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook grew.  Early on, the key to building an audience was search engine optimization.  But google was not as predictable a community platform as building your own regular audience through Youtube subscriptions, Twitter followers and Facebook likes.

If you could build a sizable Social Media audience, you could create a more reliable audience stream that could be monetized in a number of ways, especially through Ad clicks on your site and content marketing (creating content designed to push a narrative a client was paying you to push).

As the audiences grew, patterns began to emerge on the major social media platforms, especially for the big three, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.  Through the last 5 years, new media outlets have gotten very good at understanding what builds audiences and what converts those audiences to clicks to your site.

During these five years, the leaders in New Media grew increasingly to focus more on the business model that went less towards vision and more towards product.  Some, who have come after the initial emergence of new media in 2008, began with a product-focused business model, not a vision-focused business model.

What soon became apparent is that the pathway to monetization is about driving clicks to your site.  An audience gave you the opportunity to sell two primary products, ad space and content marketing.  To a lesser extent (one I think will change over the next few years), building paid subscribers who have access to exclusive content is also fast becoming a major source of revenue that is making new media a more viable business model.

Remember, I talked about those predictable community platforms, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.   For anyone who regularly uses these social media platforms, you fully understand that certain types of content works on the different platforms.  You also understand that content production costs time, resources and money.  The more original the content, the more costly the content production.  The more investigative, fact-based the content the more costly the content production.

What has become apparent is this- with the diminishing importance of Google rankings to news traffic building (especially predictable news traffic results), the freedom to duplicate content and still be a viable new media business model has only increased.  This is good for profitability, but not so good for the state of the 4th Estate.

Speaking from experience, the type of content that produces clicks is not the type of content that delivers a truthful account of what our government is doing, but rather what impacts us emotionally.  We want to be inspired, horrified, justified, and enraged.  We want to laugh, to cry, to marvel at the absurd.

Now, remember I talked about content production coming at a cost.  The more original the content, the more fact-based the content, the more expensive it is to produce that content.  The most inexpensive content to produce is the cannibalized content where you add a sentence, perhaps a paragraph or three to someone else’s content (the less customization you have to produce, the less expensive your content production becomes).

Remember I also talked about the main drivers of the types of content that produce clicks, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.  All three of these platforms are primarily emotion-driven click productions, not fact-seeking, truth-seeking click production.

Of all the types of online publishing out there today, the news marketplace is perhaps the most fluid, demanding the most amount of content production to keep audiences clicking on your site.  Shelf life for most content in the news marketplace is sometimes measured in hours, even minutes.  As more and more people become fixed on their Twitter Streams, their Facebook News Feeds and their Youtube subscription feeds, the expectation for a constant flowing of clickable, emotion-driven news items has only increased.

New Media has, in my view, degenerated to the point where even many of the most reputable sources have given in to the click-bait war for the next emotionally-satisfied clicker.  The need to produce content regularly, to satisfy the expected flow, has also increased the need to produce content at a low cost.

What do we have today?  We have largely a network of cannibalized news sites in which the top click drivers are emotional in nature, and, in increasingly majority proportions, have very little to do with the reasons new media originally emerged, to shine a light on the dark places where tradition media was refusing to go.

I won’t name names, but we all have our favorite new media sources that, over the last couple of years especially, have degenerated to cannibalized content of viral items, like an embedded youtube video of an iceberg turning upside down or yet another Jeanine Pirro opening monologue which the outlet claims is a singular takedown of Obama or Obamacare or the Democrat party.

When a news media outlet does produce some actual, original investigative content, that content is quickly cannibalized by everyone and grandiose claims are made about the nature of that investigative report (Finally, the report that will destroy Mitt Romney’s 2016 Presidential bid).

I want to come back to the click-bait drive, emotions.  To do that, I want to talk about ineffective parenting.  Trust me, I will tie this back in to the point I am about to make.

As many of us parents know, the most effective way to discipline your child is to yell at them. Once you establish the right volume that sends a message to your child that you are really upset, that child will effectively respond to your yelling and correct the undesirable behavior.  How many parents out there slapped themselves in the head and said, “Is this guy serious?”

Of course, yelling is never an effective way to discipline your child, to produce a desired action.  We understand that if you start going down the path of yelling, you are going to have to keep increasing the volume and drama of your yelling to get the same result that lower volumes of yelling once supported.

And so it is with the click-bait war for the emotional clicker.  Our appeal to emotions to drive clicks also creates an acceleration process.  We must be more and more emotional if we are going to stand out in the click-bait flow.  This means making more grand statements, more biased, editorialized headlines, more shocking news items, more jarring, dramatic language.

In the case of the parent, we use an emotional appeal, fear to produce a desired result, getting our child to stop a bad action and start a good action.  In the case of the new media entrepreneur, we make an emotional appeal to produce a positive action, drive up clicks to the site.

New Media has degenerated to such a degree that some of the most credible sources and earliest pioneers (again, I will refrain from naming names) feature headlines with expletives in them.  There are even some who have claims to representing a Christian worldview that include expletives in their headlines.

If the click-bait syndrome only affected new media, I would not have titled this article “The State of the 4th Estate- an Epic Fail.”  But, that is not the case at all.

Initially, traditional media was very slow to catch up to the reality of the online news market.  Perhaps, to some degree, that was because of the importance of google search and the legacy power these traditional media outlets had (and, for the most part, still have) on that search platform.  But as people began to use google less to get their news and their flows on social media more and more, the importance of chasing those flows dramatically increased over the past couple of years.

I can speak with direct knowledge on this topic.  As the Media Director of a Print/Online Newspaper, the Tioga Freedomist, I can speak about the effectiveness of building a reliable, predictable audience to your site by building up your social media followers.  Facebook alone has become the central driver of the rise in popularity of our newspaper, with over 70 percent of our traffic coming from our Facebook community.

I can’t speak with authority about the percentage of revenue that comes from traditional TV news outlets from their online site as opposed to their television ad sales and revenue share of cable subscriptions, but I can tell you it is no secret that cable subscribers are going away in high volumes month after month, even as audiences continue to build on social media platforms.

Discerning from the dramatic increased effort by news outlets to have a steady flow of content going out of their Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts, I would say that the evidence suggests the revenues from online ad sales and marketing must also be dramatically increasing.

When you factor in the degree to which traditional news media outlets, especially newspaper publishers, now couple in web marketing, seo and content marketing services to their business model (as we do as well), you get a sense of the increasing importance of those social media flows to the continued economic viability not just of new media, but traditional media as well.

Within the last year especially, traditional media has now effectively caught up with new media in exploiting these predictable, reliable click-bait audiences, the social media flows.   And, like new media, the content of traditional media has come to look exactly the same.  The cannibalized, sensationalized, emotionalized, shockified click-baiting headlines now regularly spill out of these traditional media outlets with the same velocity as they have been coming out of the new media flows.

Click-baiting has also produced another player on the field, the satire news site.   These sites, in varying degrees, simply make up sensational news stories claiming anything from Obama has been arrested to the State of Montana just passed a law outlawing Christianity.  Some of the more insidious ones mix in a fair amount of true, but cannibalized news items to layer in the completely fabricated news items.

The emotional clicker that is the coveted treasure of the click-bait warriors is only too happy to like, share, retweet, and, if they happen also to be a blogger, cannibalize the false news items.  On more than one occasion, these fake news stories have been cannibalized not just by credible new media outlets, but even by traditional media outlets, with MSNBC, Fox, the NYTimes, etc all falling victim at various times to these false news items that began on one of these news satire sites.

The State of the 4th Estate is this- there is no real credible source for news in America today.  The ‘flow’ is an unreliable source of news filled with cannibalized, sensationalized items designed to register a click and/or push a narrative that, often times, is one that some interested party is paying to be pushed.

Should I blame the new media for the all-but demise of the 4th Estate in America? I cannot say that new media is to blame for that destruction.  I might just as easily lay the blame on the social media flows.  You could also argue that the real cause of this demise is the citizen, who, no matter what they claim, at the end of the day wants mostly to have an emotional need met, not to face the truth, such as can be known, about the people and institutions that govern over 300 million people in a nation-state called America.

Assigning blame is not the purpose of this article.  This article is about the state of the 4th Estate in America today.

The New Media reality began with an idealistic vision that gave very little attention to the practical concern of producing a product or service that a consumer would purchase.  It has now become a reality in which the original vision now has very little bearing in affecting the creation of a product or service that a consumer would purchase.

Perhaps if New Media had begun with a more balanced approach between product and vision we might today see more examples of free market news outlets that balance vision and product, a calling to be an effective part of a republic with a commitment to realistically produce a product or service that would fund that work.

I have been working, with the team I am a part of, on a news business model that attempts to take that balanced approach, to be an effective 4th Estate, a vital element for a free republic, and to run a business that makes money for the owners and the people paid to work to run the business.

To that end, I do not pursue the click-bait path, which will limit the potential for audience growth and revenue growth from that audience.  I do not do so because I recognize my role in the republic, to shine the light on the dark places that others won’t dare to do any more.

My brother, Bill Collier, the current editor of the Tioga Freedomist, has developed a news standard that we incorporate called WAR, Watchdog, Advocate, Resource.

First and foremost, we try to be a useful resource to our news community.  We give them practical information they need every day- like school closings, road conditions, weather, etc.  Second, we are an advocate for our community.  We showcase the people of our community.  We advocate for them and for our community.  We seek to serve our community by highlighting where needs are and how members of our news community can help.  Finally, and most importantly for our role as the 4th estate of a free republic, we are a watchdog. We hold those accountable who violate the trust the people gave to them when they elected them to office.

If we were to give in to the click-bait wars, we might produce a larger audience, but we would reduce our credibility and standing in our community so that when the need to be a Watchdog arises we may not have the support of the community, which makes us ineffective citizen journalists, that is, if we wish to advance and support the perpetuation of a free republic.

New media has largely sacrificed its standing and its credibility to increase revenue.  It did so by making itself no longer an effective representative of the 4th estate in a free republic but a contributor to the effort by the powers that be to bury the citizens in an avalanche of useless, unreliable information.

It remains to be seen, as we continue our citizen journalist experiment through the Freedomist, and especially, right now, through the Tioga Freedomist, whether it is possible to produce a viable business news model that is practical in its concern for creating an attractive product for the free market but is idealistic in its commitment to willingly cut itself off from greater profits if it requires invalidating its ability to be a healthy, functioning member of the 4th estate, advocating for and supporting a free republic.

At the end of the day, the fate of a free republic is always in the hands of a free people.  When people no longer value freedom, except their own, then no matter what we do as a news service, the republic cannot be saved, cannot be restored.  Be that as it may, it is our duty, we who know, to walk forward, proclaiming this free republic through word and deed, come what may.

For those of us who are awake, it should never be said of us that we did not walk in the freedom we seek as living examples of that freedom given to us by our creator.  For those of us called to do so through the 4th estate, it is not for us to succeed or to fail but to give the people we serve the opportunity to choose freedom and the responsibility this freedom puts on those who choose to claim it.

At the end of the day, the faithful work of being a steward of the free republic we have been given, both what is and what could potentially be, is the work that matters most in our role as members of the 4th estate.

The state of the 4th estate is this- a Volunteer Fire Department learned that people would pay it more money if it used its trucks to pump water on slip and slides at family birthday parties.  The parties paid so well that, after a time, the Fire Department simply stopped fighting fires.  True, it developed a much better business model, but it did so by sacrificing the purpose it was created, to stop fires.

The 4th Estate has found a business model one that converts it from being a Watchdog, Advocate, and Resource, to simply enabling the emotional and contributing to the dimming of truth by flooding the land with useless, cannibalized, unreliable information.

At some point, especially among the new media, especially among the most successful, especially among the early pioneers, I would hope that the new media leaders would ask themselves if the chase for the click has destroyed the vision that most of them began with, to shine the light on the dark places where traditional refused to go.

There is a balance to strike, friends, between vision and product.  The pure idealist is just as ineffective a 4th estate representative as is the pure product-driven news producer.  We go forward, we who are in this business, to make money without losing our standing, our power, given to us by the communities that we serve, to be watchdogs, sentinels, watching over the free republic, not enabling those who would see the republic fall.

Paul Gordon Collier
Media Director- Tioga Freedomist
Editor- The Freedomist