5.2. News media as structures of the public arena

From the eighteenth century onward, news media have been crucial structures hosting the public arena in Western societies. They provided information, made elites visible to publics, and publics visible to elites and to each other. In this, they never functioned without fault or were completely free from power structures in society. Their role, beneficial and detrimental, in hosting the public arena and serving democracy over time and in different countries has been well established. But for our purposes here, we will focus on three features of news media that matter strongly for the contemporary public arena:

  • The role of news media as an institution;

  • The economic foundations of news; and

  • The emergence of alternative news media in the public arena.

5.2.1. News media as institutions

Looking at news media from an institutional perspectives reveals their functions and inherent tensions in their contribution to the contemporary public arena. As we we have discussed in the section on institutions, journalism can be understood as an institution. Journalism can be understood as a binding set of rules for organizations and people belonging to the institution. These rules can relate, for example, to the selection of news items, the representation of political factions in a society or the quality assurance of coverage. Violations of these rules are punished either within newsrooms and media houses, by professional associations or in public. Violations of rules can lead to the exclusion from newsrooms for individual journalists or to punishment by professional associations or the public for media organizations. In extreme cases, particularly intense violations of the rules and regulations can lead to a general population-wide loss of trust, which can also be associated with a general loss of legitimacy for the institution journalism.

Traditional journalism in the Anglo-American mold is characterized by a shared set of institutional norms among media organizations and individual contributors. This includes commitment to the impartial coverage of politics and societal conditions, a clear division between coverage and commentary, and reliably policed quality standards. Importantly, this does not mean that news media had to remain neutral and impartial on issues or accept politicians at their word. It simply means that there is a commitment to impartial coverage of events and facts while comment and opinion remain in clearly marked sections. These principles set normative goals for what journalism is supposed to achieve. They are institutionally maintained and transmitted within organizations, education programs, and professional associations.

While specific articles, journalists, or outlets might fall short of these norms and ideals, these publicly communicated norms formed the basis for public debate, critique, and contestation of news items or news media. This made clear what people could expect from media infrastructures and enabled challenging specific outlets or individuals if they were seen to be deviating from these norms.

Challenges of news media and their contribution to democracy abound. These challenges run the gauntlet from succumbing to economic pressures, dumbing down political coverage, sensationalism, or excluding marginalized voices and groups. Looking closely, at these critiques we would find various signs of what Offe [2006] has characterized as crisis and conflict of institutions. Later, we will discuss signs of crisis, a mismatch of foundational principles and conditions of the institution news media with current economic conditions in the contemporary public arena. But first, let's focus on conflict, a mismatch between established institutional values of neutrality and impartiality and a growing sense that news organizations and journalists need to take clear position in societal conflicts.

The norms of impartiality and separation of neutral coverage and opinion are not necessarily shared by new entries in the digitally expanded public arena. Instead of one type of news organization, sharing the same set of norms and aiming to more or less appeal to the same mass audience, we find a plentitude of different news organizations with different normative goals and target audiences. There are news organizations explicitly aligned with political factions and dedicated to providing partisan coverage, news organizations funded by nonprofits or philanthropists supporting specific societal goals, news organizations that exclusively follow a for-profit logic with no further consideration of their democratic or societal impact, and news organizations run by volunteers dedicated to shared goals or issues. These diverse organizations and their staff follow different economic incentives and societal missions. While many important news organizations still follow the norms and practices associated with the institution journalism, many new organizations do not and even would negate the validity of one binding approach. Instead of one journalism with globally adhered to norms and practices, we have many journalisms competing in the public arena for attention.

One such rift within journalism as an institution is the growing conflict about the normative bindingness of neutrality or impartiality in the coverage of events. Multiple societal and political crises and norm violations have contributed to a growing call for journalism to take sides in political and societal conflicts. This is especially true among young journalists. Drivers are experiences during the presidency of Donald Trump in the US and the growing sense of global dangers following unmitigated climate change. Instead of an objective and neutral journalism, there are calls for a journalism that takes a clear position on social, moral, and political issues, a journalism based on moral clarity. Proponents of this position use digital media to advertise this normative reorientation and to illustrate its broad societal acceptance.

While the calls for greater advocacy within journalism is most prominent among contributors to new digital born outlets, it is increasingly also carried into traditional news organizations that, institutionally, would feel more aligned with the traditional norms of impartiality or neutrality. As legacy news organizations adapt to the new business of news in digital environments, they start to learn from digital-born competitors. And as they start to hire from the pool of contributors to digital born outlets, conflicting views of the role of journalism have come to feature within these traditional organizations. This normative shift away from news organizations as structures committed to the goal, however imperfect, of impartiality in political and societal competition and toward open advocacy raises questions concerning their role in hosting, enabling, and adjudicating discourse and political competition in the public arena.

The institution journalism finds itself challenged on multiple fronts in the contemporary public arena. For one, the multiplicity of different organizations providing information in the public arena makes it difficult to develop, maintain, and police a common set of shared norms, rules, and procedures that would form an institutional basis. Also, established norms from the past, such as the primacy of impartial and neutral coverage, are also contested by new entries among news organizations as well as young practitioners who feel that traditional institutional norms do not conform with the political and societal conditions they find themselves in or their own professional goals and aspirations. These shifts raise the question in how far and under which conditions news organizations can be understood primarily as hosts of the public arena and not as participants or competitors. In other words, do news media still function as what Müller [2021] has called intermediary institutions for democracy or are they better understood as competitors in social or political conflict? And what implications does this have for their fulfillment of the democratic functions supporting self-rule discussed above, such as visibility and representation, group formation, and collective problem solving?

5.2.2. Economic foundation of news

One important feature of the contemporary public arena is the weakening of the economic foundations of news production and distribution. Traditionally, commercial news organizations worked as two-sided markets. News organizations sold bundled information to audiences while at the same time selling access to these audiences to ad customers. This was a highly profitable business.

News organizations very actively constructed their audiences and thereby strengthened their value to ad customers by allowing for the targeting of ads. For example, news organizations aiming for undifferentiated mass audiences provided a set of broadly relevant information, catered to mass tastes, and used a broadly accessible and compatible style. Examples include tabloid newspapers, such as the German Bild. News organizations like this were of interest to ad customers who wanted to reach large audiences and the broad public.

In contrast, other news organizations construct specific subsets of people by focusing on specific information that is relevant to specific sections of the public. Examples include trade publications, newspapers like the Economist or The Financial Times targeting audiences with comparatively high income and education, or newspapers like The Guardian targeting a politically and socially aligned audience. By providing ad customers with access to thus constructed and known slices of the population, specialized news organizations allowed ad customers to focus their ad-based appeals and ad-money on audience segments of interest to them. While in light of today's fine-grained digital targeting opportunities, these approaches to targeting might seem quaint, they provided the economic basis that made news such a lucrative business up until the nineteen-nineties.

One of the driving factors behind the success of digital media companies is the promise of ad display in digital communication environments. The empires of companies like Alphabet/Google and Meta/Facebook are built to a large extend on their ability to sell ads to customers with the promise of providing them with just the right kind of audience at an comparatively cheap prize. Digital media build on the promise of customized audiences offered by news organization but do so at a much higher granularity. While news organizations in the past could offer coarse targeting, digital media companies promise access to much more precisely tailored audiences. By using information they have about their users, companies like Alphabet/Google and Meta/Facebook can offer ad customers access to audiences who share specific demographic characteristics, live in specific geographic areas, or share specific interest.

This has clear advantages for ad customers. By restricting the audience for an ad to specific audiences, people can spend their ad budget with much greater focus. This brings advantages not only to business. Instead, many societal and political actors can now increase their reach to people through targeted ads who were not able to do so in the past. Think of your local blood bank reaching out to people in your area through Google or Facebook ads to alert you about an upcoming donation drive. Or think of your local party alerting people to an important council meeting in which an important local policy issue is discussed. By giving actors with small budgets access to people, digital ads can contribute to a strengthening of local political activity.

Yet, in public debate negative visions of digital targeting dominate. Some fear that allowing political actors to target ads too precisely would allow them to run dark campaigns that remain invisible to outside observers. The associated fears are that in these dark campaigns selected publics are promised different and potentially conflicted outcomes. Or that politicians use dark campaigns to attack minorities or other political factions while appearing conciliatory in the main campaign visible to all. Going further, others believe that targeting would allow the identification of psychological traits making people more susceptible to appeals specifically designed for their psychological weaknesses. Campaigning would thus shift toward psychological manipulation instead of argument driven persuasion.

While these dangers are forcefully argued, there are good reasons to expect the promises of digital targeting to be exaggerated by digital media and digital ad consultants, concerning its reach as well as strength of its effects. Still, the promise alone has led to the development of large data collection and aggregation efforts in the background of digital communication environments. While the expectations of broad surveillance economies might be overblown, there is good reason for regulators to restrict these ill-regulated and intransparent efforts.

Overall, the shift of ad dollars to digital platforms and the shift in the delivery mode of information from physical to digital media has weakened the economic position of news organizations considerably. The associated challenges put every news organization to the test. But while large international news brands like The New York Times or those with a strong identity and loyal readership like The Economist, The Financial Times, or The Guardian can weather these challenges and potentially even emerge strengthened, other organizations will struggle or go under. This clearly impacts the quality and breadth of the public area.

Structurally, the public arena will be fine if some national news organizations go out of business. After all, other organizations will pick up the slack and cover national news. But on the local and regional level, the weakened economic basis of news is more troubling. While on the national level, there might be a set of competing and more or less comparable news sources available, on the local or regional level, there probably is only a limited set of sources available. The economic basis for producing and distributing news in these contexts is fragile anyway and through the digital transformation might break the few remaining sources available, thereby negatively impacting the basis for local or regional democracy. In the US this has been discussed under the term news deserts.

Overall, digital media have introduced shifts to the economics of traditional news organizations. This raises questions how societies can ensure the reliable and continuous production and distribution of information relevant to the pursuit of the public good and self-rule in democracies irrespective of its commercial viability. These developments reinforce the importance of models allowing for the public funding of news media, such as public service media in Germany.

5.2.3. Alternative news media in the public arena

Digital media have also impacted the position and role of news media as structures of the public arena. By lowering the costs of information publication and distribution, digital media have enabled new actors to provide information in the public arena. The motives and business models of these new entries vary, but all are challenging the former monopoly of traditional news organizations.

The emergence of these differently motivated sources providing alternatives to the coverage of traditional news organizations fundamentally weakens the powers of traditional news organizations to act as gatekeepers to the public arena - deciding what actors, voices, or agendas to allow access to the public arena and to compete for collective attention. This can have positive as well as negative consequences. On the one hand, more and alternative news providers can provide more and more diverse access points to the public arena. This can give voice to marginalized groups and agendas in society. This could improve the representation of societies' different groups and agendas within the public arena. On the other hand, some voices and groups are marginalized for a reason. Discriminatory, hateful, or incendiary voices are excluded from the public arena for a reason. But new and alternative news providers offer these voices access the public arena as well. This contributes to a deterioration of discourse within the public arena. Be it by actively attacking people supporting other political factions or societal groups, by knowing invention or careless distribution of misleading or downright false information, or by actively attacking the participatory rights of others these actors weaken democracy and contribute to political competition in the public arena turning hostile and antagonistic, potentially leading to the withdrawal of others from political information and exchange.

New providers of news in the public arena come in different shapes and sizes. There are new entries that resemble traditional news organizations and share their commitment to institutional norms and practices, examples for these digital born organizations are Politico internationally or The Pioneer in Germany. These organizations pursue news as a business and hope to provide alternatives to established news organizations by running a smaller and more nimble and independent organization or through providing more in depth coverage of niche topics of little interest to mass audiences but that nevertheless have an audience willing to pay a premium for information that otherwise might remain unavailable.

In authoritarian regimes and transitional democracies, digital media have also led to the emergence of independent news organizations critical of the regime and its willing executors in news organizations aligned with the regime. These organizations fulfill a crucial function for the public arena in their society in providing critical information on the workings of regimes and pursuing independent investigations into important but neglected issues. Unfortunately, this service is not always rewarded by the public and often editors and journalists contribute to these organization under considerable professional and personal risks. An example for an organization like this is the Rappler from the Philippines.

Other organizations might be funded by philanthropic foundations or individuals. Usually, these are pursuing societal goals. Be it the coverage and investigation of otherwise neglected topics, like the US organization ProPublica, or the explicit support of specific factions or societal groups. These organizations can contribute positively to the public arena by extending the scope of covered voices or agendas. But there is also the risk of these organizations becoming uncritical executors of the interests and goals of their funders. In these cases, they are less structures of the public arena but more active participants in the competition for attention and power. And of course it takes a truly courageous person to put their fate in the hands of benevolent billionaires.

But of course, there are also openly partisan news sources in digital communication environments. Countries with primarily commercially funded news are no strangers to openly partisan news organizations. The most prominent example for openly partisan news organizations can probably be found in the US and their openly partisan news channels, like Fox News or MSNBC. But the comparatively open digital communication environments provide even more options for the establishment of openly partisan news organizations. Again, the US offer the most striking examples for this with news sources like Breitbart News or Jacobin. Again, sources like these can probably be understood more as participants of political competition in the public arena, than as neutral structures. These media are not hosts for the public arena, to make society and political factions visible to each other, and to allow the exchange of views and negotiation of the public agenda. Instead they are actors actively pitching for one side or the other.

A striking example for the instrumentalization of partisan news organizations in campaigns can be found in the role of Steve Bannon first as executive chairman of the far right news site Breitbart News and later chief executive of Donald Trump's 2016 run for the US presidency. The site was instrumental in pushing stories in open support of Trump and his agenda and contributed to shifting the coverage of other news outlets like Fox News and even mainstream coverage during the campaign to converge on Trump's agenda. Cases like these illustrate the danger that openly partisan news outlets can pose for the public arena by imitating the style of traditional news while being only interested in pushing the agenda of selected political factions. In the extreme, this can also escalate to the fabrication and distribution of false or misleading information, further contributing to a deterioration of the public arena and legitimate political competition.

The broad extension of sources in digital communication environments challenges the role of news organizations as structures for the public arena. For one, there simply is more information available - reliable or not - this weakens central control over access to and content in the public arena - for good or bad. But the increase of news sources might also further weaken journalism as an institution as it will become increasingly difficult for all news organizations and their contributors to agree on a binding set of shared norms and practices. The contemporary public arena is therefore more diverse and noisy than its past manifestations. This will take some getting used to for journalists, political elites, and the public.