Conflicting media interests

By Josh Cook

We’ve been in D.C. for nearly a full week now. In that time, we’ve visited roughly a handful of publications with major clout in the city – most recognizably Politico and The Hill just to name two – and have had the privilege of speaking to writers and editors who have found immense success here. On top of that, the staff we’ve been able to sit down with has been, seemingly, genuine and honest. Because of my background studying journalism, the process has been exciting and fun, but has led me to some sleepless late hours spent thinking about the conflicting pressures modern media faces, especially in the political world. People have expressed a wide array of pressures, from money to status, and have provided excellent insight pertaining to life near Capitol Hill. However, they all have seemed grateful to be in media and generally optimistic about the field’s future.

There’s a laundry list of competing interests we’ve heard about. Naturally, money has been a consistent theme. This seems to be the one most people think is the sole pressure on journalists, especially with the public mentality that journalism is dying and clicks are the only things that can save publications. This may be truer for local media, but in D.C. it is far from the only interest. We’ve also heard a number of editors and writers talk about their ethics and struggling to do what they think is right while also being concerned about viewership and click-rates. On another similar note, many have discussed their personal interests. Some people are able to write about what they’ve always cared about, while others have wound up in politics and/or D.C. because it provides the most opportunities thanks to widespread partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle.

Partisanship itself also provides a challenge for media companies. While staffs are worrying about their ethics, they must also be skeptical and fair (at least at non-partisan publications) without turning off viewers by over-challenging their beliefs – something we know can easily cause viewer drop-off in a hurry. Along with this partisanship, most journalists are walking on egg shells to retain the connections they have with insiders to have consistent routes to fresh scoops and important information. While this can be making sure to not bash people publicly, it also means D.C. publications frequently operate with and cite anonymous sources. This is because very few in D.C. are comfortable with being quoted as it could negatively impact their career (it is important to note that every writer and editor we’ve spoken to has said that anonymous sources are verified and shared with editors to avoid fabrication and legal issues). On top of all of this, people are left with concerns about being successful. With all of these conflicting pressures, worrying about keeping a job or moving up seems like a tertiary concern.

Despite all the conflicting pressures, not one person we’ve talked to has seemed worried about the stability or longevity of a career in media or the companies themselves; though they are all inspirationally confident and charismatic. While there are a lot of opportunities in D.C. to do quality, visible and important work, it should be noted that the same cannot be said about media companies in smaller markets. There seems to be a theme, which could definitely be geographical bias, that D.C. is the place to be – especially for political journalism, which makes a ton of sense. I think companies like Politico and The Hill will last a long time as long as they do quality work and adapt to trends. There’s no roadblocks in the way for companies like Fox, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. either, but small-market journalism is struggling regardless of the quality of work they do and that’s the portion of the market it seems safe to worry about.

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