The growing popularity of social media has shaken the very foundations of traditional journalism while making it increasingly difficult for the mainstream media to deliver accurate, fair and useful news.
But at the same time, social media has given the general public a real voice for the first time, a platform for weighing in on issues that directly impact them, an empowering development.
“People working in journalism are trapped in a strange situation in which some of us continue to do great work, but what are we competing with?” asked Samuel, who oversees the daily newsgathering operation at NPR. “We are competing with everybody who has a phone or a social media account.”
Forty percent of Americans get their news from social media, and as a result some of the most important news and investigations are showing up next to pictures of celebrities or someone’s recipe on social media accounts, making it “impossible to decide what’s important and what’s not,” noted Samuel.
“That is what we are competing with,” said Samuel, a former politics editor at the Washington Post, and author of the book, The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the United States Senate.
In some ways, the media has lost its “gate-keeping function,” the ability to put the most important and pressing news stories front and center, according to Samuel, a graduate of the City College of New York, whose work as a political columnist was anthologized in Best American Political Writing of 2009.
“We have to depend on Facebook to drive traffic, and it is a difficult place to be,” said Samuel.
Before the rise of social media, when a newspaper editor put a story or stories on the front page, it meant the stories were important and needed to be read.
“Now, there is none of that,” Samuel lamented.
The internet is also full of misinformation, making it necessary “to combat the misinformation that is just afloat in the atmosphere,” said Samuel.
“It is impossible to overstate how much work that is, and how much of our daily life it has become,” he explained.
A common refrain now is, “Twitter is reporting and what do you do with that?” Samuel said.
“You can’t just ignore it,” he explained. “So you spend time on that, and it takes time away from actual, real work. The real work is basically doubling down on fact-based, reliable reporting that comes with a really high bar of integrity.”
The internet and social media have deprived newspapers and other print publications of millions of dollars in advertising revenues, forcing many publications to go out of business. This has been especially true for local newspapers, creating huge gaps in local coverage.
As a result, people feel very disconnected from the process of local government, leading to nonparticipation.
“People don’t even know who the power is in their government or that they have any,” said Samuel.
Samuel illustrated his talk and the ensuing question and answer period with pithy quotes and revealing stories. He said, for example, that when he started working in the journalism field nearly 40 years ago, a popular saying stated, “If your mother told you she loved you check it out.”
That saying is now modified to say, “Define love,” which reflects our times.
In a telling story, Samuel said the NPR affiliate in Chicago has entered into discussions with the Chicago Tribune to merge the two news outlets, a move that if completed would probably save the Chicago Tribune from eventual extinction, an amazing development.
“For so long, the public radio station was the one strapped, begging for money and in need of salvation,” he noted.
Despite its deleterious effects, the internet and social media have spurred a new kind of journalism, allowing more voices to be heard than was ever possible.
“The loss of control I talk about – the sort of the end of the gate keeping function – has meant that other people have joined the conversation,” Samuel said. “And that has been an enormously good thing.”
By the same token, the media’s loss of dominance has not been an entirely bad development.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t always use (media power) correctly,” said Samuel. “You know the history of women in American newsrooms – the history of black people and other people of color.”
Samuel mentioned seeing a news item that said the University of Maryland plans to begin a study of how newspapers in the late 1800s and early 1900s supported and encouraged lynching.
“More than one newspaper has publically apologized for the way they covered African Americans in their previous incarnations,” he said.
The days of the high and mighty media arrogantly dismissing and ignoring the concerns of the public are probably gone forever, Samuel said with relief.
Samuel’s career in journalism has spanned nearly four decades, beginning at a time when the mainstream media was the dominant player in delivering and shaping the news, its powerful position seemingly unassailable. In many ways, his journalism career has corresponded with the profound changes that have transformed the journalism profession.
Samuel started his career reporting and writing for the Village Voice in New York City, banging out stories on a “big, heavy typewriter that was too heavy to throw.”
“That was important because people did throw typewriters at the Village Voice,” he quipped.
He remembered sitting on the Lexington Avenue bus in Manhattan, watching as a bus rider read his (Samuel’s) first story in the Village Voice while carrying a $284 check in his pocket, his first paycheck for writing.
“That was my idea of what a page view was,” recounted Samuel. “Obviously, we are talking about something completely different now.”
After the Village Voice, Samuel went to work for a small, regional daily and then a big metro daily and then another big metro daily before landing at a weekly magazine.
“Back in the day, that was an elevation because you got to write more – it was once a week and it was more thoughtful and less of a grind,” he explained.
From there, Samuel got a job with AOL, which functioned as a “little media start up,” when it first started, combining both media and technology.
“We couldn’t figure out what to do with either one,” he said. “After that, I foolishly wrote a book, assuming that people still read and happy they did, but not that book in particular. That turned out to be a great adventure.”
Samuel helped launch The Root in 2008, a start up launched by the Washington Post, aimed at a specific audience, African Americans.
“That was a very new thing, a new idea that you could just go off and do something, not just build on the (publication) you have, but start a new publication,” he said. “You could serve a different audience which frankly is pretty much what we do now.”
The targeting of specific audiences with single-minded publications is now common in the digital age. As Samuel noted, “Every time you turn around, you see a new publication aimed at X-group or Y-group.”
“You see popular writers leaving to go and start their own publications because there is an audience that wants to hear from them and them alone,” he said.
Samuel eventually became a politics editor at the Washington Post, overseeing White House and congressional coverage. When Samuel arrived at the Post, the paper was in serious trouble, laying off dozens of staff members.
“And then as all of you know, a guy named Jeff Bezos bought the Post,” he said. “He not only saved the Post, but some people think he saved journalism in some ways.”
Samuel now serves as the managing editor of NPR, often starting his day at 5 a.m. and working well into the evening hours, always striving to find the right stories and to get the stories right, something NPR accomplishes on a daily basis.
But as Samuel points out, “Of all the great things we do, if nobody is listening, if no one is reading it, it is useless.”
NPR and other news outlets have to go where the audience resides, and that means meeting them on their phones, social media and on video. Listeners don’t need NPR to report the weather, Samuel said, “So we don’t.”
“People want things they don’t know, they want a lot of context and they want to know what things mean,” he stressed. “I think the more time we spend doing that and explaining, the better we do.”