This is part 2 in a series about the news media and journalism (in the broadest sense of the word) losing their audience and advertisers as their product becomes a commodity. Part 1 focused on switching costs and the way in which community can reduce defections by creating membership.
In this part, the focus will be on personality and how it can create loyalty and reduce defections; how personality translates as transparency and builds trust.
Slang-Whangers: There’s no such thing as neutral.
The first thing to recognize in modern media is that there is no such thing as a neutral point of view. The mainstream media has long been criticized by the right as being liberal. Meanwhile Fox News, a not so thinly veiled conservative propaganda outlet, describes itself as “fair and balanced” (they are the slang-whangers in our logocracy).
In her book, News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News, Bonnie Anderson opens with a snippet about a Fox news Affiliate:
She then goes on to applaud Walter Cronkite for his declaring, during a report from Vietnam, that the best Washington could hope for was a stalemate. Johnson was later quoted as saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite then I’ve lost middle America”. Anderson hold this up as a great moment in journalism, a trusted newsman facing down a lying government and exposing the truth. But is it so different? It’s a point of view in the midst of a news report. Sure, the Fox example is ominous, but a declaration of virtual defeat by the major news anchor of the day?
Personality is the New Transparency
Numerous polls have shown the decline in trust of the mainstream media. In 2009, it hit a 20 year low. But what is perhaps more interesting is the growing political divide in these opinions. Republicans have an ever growing trust in Fox News while democrats increasingly run the other way (no surprise). According to a very recent poll, Fox is the most trusted name in news, and this is verified by Politifact. But the same details hold true, it is trusted by Republicans and not by democrats:
“A generation ago you would have expected Americans to place their trust in the most neutral and unbiased conveyors of news,” Debnam said in a press release accompanying the poll results. “But the media landscape has really changed and now they’re turning more toward the outlets that tell them what they want to hear.“
Fox has succeeded by employing two key tactics: (1) Cater to your audience and represent their perspective, and (2) Do it with personality. Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly are all huge personalities. The clarity of their personality and the clear bias of their opinions are what passes for transparency these days. It is more trustworthy feeling than journalists/reporters/anchors who attempt to play down their personality. A lack of personality suggests dishonesty. It’s as if we all know that everyone is inherently bias and those who attempt to hide it are trying to mislead us.
Maddow (MSNBC) and Huffington (Huffington Post) are the liberal equivalents of their right-wing counterparts, although perhaps less feverish in their overt bias, and they are standout successes. Meanwhile, trust in the New York Times has dropped across the board. Why? Because there attempt to be neutral (Republicans are laughing) is now perceived as obfuscation.
Personality Cannot Be Commodity
It is easier to trust and be loyal to a person then it is a product or a corporation. By putting personalities out front and exposing their biases, beliefs and inherent flaws, people are willing to take them as they are. They learn to trust them and rely on them, partially because they are telling them what they want to hear, partially because they are far more entertaining then the dry neutral equivalent, but also because they are WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).
One thing is for sure, you can’t switch stations and find another Glenn Beck. You can’t switch websites and find another Arianna Huffington. These are people that deliver “the news”, they are not a commodity.