Keeping the Flame Alive

Nearly every industry is facing uncertain and unsettling times in the age of Trump. But among the most threatened is certainly the free press, especially smaller magazines and blogs.

The challenges are coming from all sides. Let’s start with revenue. Google and Facebook have swallowed up nearly all significant traffic and advertising, which gives two private corporations enormous power over the fates of online publications. The decline of banner ad revenue is forcing many organizations to make the dreaded “pivot to video”–not because video is better content or more demanded by consumers, but because advertising revenue on video is far higher than on static pages.

The problem is especially salient now that these companies, in an attempt to battle the proliferation of “fake news,” are altering their algorithms in ways that disadvantage smaller media outlets. Moderators of the most trafficked political subreddits are also increasingly restrictive of the sources they allow.

Then there is the threat posed by the likely repeal of net neutrality. One of the many negative consequences of that FCC decision would be to allow ISPs to blackmail content providers into giving them a fast lane. Another would be to give consumers tiered access: someone could, say, get access to email and social media but not the rest of the web for a lower price. So in theory Rupert Murdoch could pay the toll to Comcast to let Fox News content sail through, leaving Mother Jones languishing in the slow lane even as entire swaths of the market no longer have access to online news media at all.

And then, of course, there is Donald Trump. At the moment, Trump appears to be too self-absorbed and incompetent to be an effective authoritarian dictator. But that dynamic could easily change with a single major disaster, just as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were elevated to terrifying heights of power by the 9/11 attacks. Trump’s biggest vendetta is against left-leaning media, and he would stop at nothing to silence all of us if he thought he could.

The only antidote to these toxic conditions is direct reader support. Publications like the Washington Monthly are increasingly reliant for our survival on readers themselves to help keep the lights on. Advertising revenue isn’t what it was. Clickbait journalism is a cancer that eventually discredits those who depend on it. The pivot to video is already a mockery. And now we have Donald Trump and Ajit Pai.

At Washington Monthly we do our best to keep you informed of what’s really going on behind the scenes, and to give you perspectives that you won’t find almost anywhere else. Depending on where you sit as a progressive, liberal, centrist, or even conservative, you won’t always agree with what you read here. But it’s our hope that you’ll always come away better informed, challenged and enriched by the experience.

This week any donation to Washington Monthly is being matched by Democracy Fund and by the Knight and MacArthur Foundations, so your support goes twice as far. Please help us keep the flame alive?

Thanks and good luck out there. We all could use it.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.