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When social media replaces newspapers

By Jack Bernard

Bernard is a retired corporate executive

Part of the reason the majority of Republican voters believe the recent Presidential election was stolen (it was not) is due to the lack of a trusted daily paper providing them with facts. Instead, they rely on slanted social media (and opinion TV), which reinforces their pre-existing political and social biases.

The numbers regarding the deterioration in circulation for newspapers are startling. And frankly, disturbing for those of us who believe that daily newspapers have historically had a positive effect on our society by keeping citizens objectively informed of local, state and national events. In 1974, U.S. daily papers had a circulation of 62 million. By 2014, it was down to 31 million, what it was in 1940. Although exact current numbers are unavailable, circulation is down by half in 40 years and we can assume it has substantially decreased since 2014.

Per a 2019  Pew Research study, the number of people in the newspaper industry is down by half in only 15 years: “37,900 people worked as reporters, editors, photographers, or film and video editors in the newspaper industry in 2018. That is down 14% from 2015 and 47% from 2004.” People are being laid off constantly at both large and small papers.

Digital viewing now is 35% of total revenue. However, the increase in digital viewing revenue has not made up for the decrease in hard copy dollars. Revenue has dropped from $49 billion in 2006 to $14 billion in 2018, net cut of $35 billion.

For many Americans, social media has replaced traditional news as a means of getting information on political issues. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are the social media sites visited most often for news. 

Per Pew in 2017, for those in the 18-49 age group, an amazing 78% get their news from social media; for those 50 and above, 55% use social media for news.

Many users of social media are tribal, with 42% saying they use it to find like-minded people (Democrats 50% and Republicans 39%). Likewise, from 2016 to 2019 the percentage of users saying that “they’re worn out” by political postings has increased from 37% to 46%.

Over two thirds (68%) of all users find it disturbing to discuss political issues with the other side. More to the point, most respondents (85%) believe the political tone has become more negative in the last few years. Over half (55%) believe Trump has changed the tone for the worse, while less than a fourth (24%) believe he has made it better. This was reflected in the recent election results and the failure of Trump’s base to face the fact that he lost, fair and square.

Respondents (78%) believe that heated rhetoric increases the chance of violence. Along these lines, two thirds of respondents believe media companies should review and delete “offensive content”, with 77% of Democrats of that opinion. Paradoxically, only 30% has a great or fair amount of confidence in these same companies to identify content to be removed.

What is the effect on the public of people switching from newspapers to social media? What is the effect on voters? 

The exact impact can’t be quantified other than what was presented above. But there is generally a lack of veracity on these social media sites with outrageous claims from both the left and right. Further, special interests (including Russia, Iran, China and others) have the ability to shape American opinion based on their self-interested hacking, as Russia did in 2016. In my opinion, that is clearly not good for our democratic republic, regardless of where each of us stand politically.