I am going to step into a minefield and state boldly that it’s not TRPS that dictates media behavior anymore — it is the extraction of affect that determines which stories will be pursued and how stories are written, broadcast, discussed. This is where the money is currently.
While Internet ad spending is up, it’s really Alphabet (parent company of Google and Youtube) and Facebook that have soaked up most of the revenues from online advertising. Social media is not a great vehicle for revenue generation for smaller platforms. And if you’re a news media site, even a gigantic one like the New York Times, the truth is that digital ad revenues are a fraction of subscription revenues. Let’s not even talk about print ad revenues that have fallen off a cliff.
Media coverage is now determined by whether a story can have viewers and readers pouring out their emotions on some digital platform including the ubiquitous comments section. From the comments section these articulations can be collected like stamps, refined like oil, and treated like currency. A hybrid commodity for a hybrid age. Many news “reports” are designed deliberately to outrage but, more importantly, to trigger passionate written commentary. What else explains recent editorial decisions at the New York Times and the Atlantic? Hiring controversial columnists is not going to endear them to their average urban liberal subscriber. Why provoke those who opened their wallets to support you? I suspect it is precisely because these hires (and fires) provoke deeply-felt emotions that readers then articulate. Loudly.
No one is interested in what you discussed around the water cooler at work or around your dinner table. What counts is your fighting terrific wordy battles on Facebook, Twitter, or the comments section of whatever website you’re browsing. We labor without pay for others who make gobs of money collecting, refining and reselling our affect. It doesn’t matter whether the data is true or not; it only matters if it can be packaged in a saleable way.
For all media — especially news media — there is now the treasure trove of data in the form of social media interactions. Disgusted by abusive trolls, some news media websites have either shut their comments sections or have moved them to social media sites like Facebook. This has now become the latest Facebook problem — the barrage of insults people direct at others. People in public-facing roles will sometimes avoid Facebook because of the relentless verbal assaults on them.
Regardless of what people in media think or do, the gold of affect is freely available to advertisers, political operators, and crooks in a veritable Ali Baba’s digital cave.
Will this change anytime soon? Frankly, we are in uncharted waters here because we are at the intersection of written and oral culture in the new marketplace of affect. For data to have collection value it has to be written, retrievable and permanently archived, but the framework of furious online arguments recalls an older oral tradition that is ephemeral, shifting, contingent. The temptation is for authoritarian actors to use these contradictions to advance their own power. Authoritarian leaders will try to manipulate public opinion by inserting their own agenda into these overheated discussions, taking advantage of the malleable nature of affect and emotion.