fourth estate


In a world of rising 24 hour news cycles, online media and the fall of the printing press, what exactly happened to the news?

The Fourth Estate is the moniker attributed to the press and general news media in modern times. The title carries with it a sense of respectability and power as it sees the news media take its place alongside the traditional European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners.

A weighty term for sure – and for the times that saw its popularity rise, it was appropriate as well. The news media has been an institution originally designed to inform the public and perform the duty of the people’s watchdog. In such a duty, it gains its importance as it protects the interests of a functioning democracy and holds the public’s trust.

The advancements of the internet, however, have caused a decline in the traditional press. Being connected to the global world all the time means learning about news events around the world a day later in a newspaper isn’t enough. Therefore, people rarely buy newspapers when the information is readily available at their fingertips. Advertisers, thus, prefer online advertisements that are cheaper, more targeted and – most importantly – get in front of more people, taking away a major revenue source for the print media. The obvious proposition is that the general public cannot let go of something as important as the “Fourth Estate” without a suitable alternative. This suitable alternative is the grand world of social media and online news.

The explosion of the internet has shaken the news media. Every article retains a reading time that’s less than 10 minutes, there must be a 24 hour news feed and most media houses have embraced online advertisements as their main sources of revenue. Online advertisements, however, are simply not enough to sustain the giants of news media though, and many have also flocked to subscription based models to generate additional sources of revenue. Only a few of these, like The New York Times have actually been successful at creating a large subscriber base and thus a respectable income.

Journalism has seen its importance grow throughout history largely due to its contribution in the political atmosphere – especially in democracies. Political journalism – as documented by various scholars – is an institution that has the self appointed duty of looking after the people’s interests. In that sort of self importance, it has, according to most experts, treated lifestyle journalism with disrespect. Lifestyle journalism deals with a number of topics ranging from food and culture to travel and film. Political journalism deals with what is called “hard news” – important economic and political events that are quick, to the point and serious and that people ought to know. Lifestyle journalism or “soft news” is more entertaining, slow paced and deals with more emotional and relatively less important topics.

The 21st century has seen a cultural reform in the field of media which in turn has led to an explosion of this “soft news”. With so many people able and willing to talk to others with the same interests instantly, there has been a huge rise in the number of cultural platforms coming up for specific niches. There are technology related media companies such as The Verge, automobile related media publications such as Top Gear, travel related platforms such as Travel XP and more.

Despite its rising popularity and obvious readership appeal, this cultural journalism still receives its fair share of disrespect from the hard news camp. Case in point: Vir Sanghvi is one of India’s most famous journalists with a long, accomplished career encompassing fields like film, music, food, politics and more. Having been the editor of publications such as Sunday and the Hindustan Times, he has, of course, a good case to make for himself when it comes to dealing with heavier topics such as politics. Try telling that to Twitter, though, where there are always people trying to undersell his political pieces due to his experience as a food blogger. Never mind that the man interviewed political figures like Rajiv Gandhi in his career, he’s got a food column in the Hindustan Times and “what does a food blogger know about this stuff?”.

Most journalism scholars seem to agree that lifestyle journalism merely does away with the self important and serious demeanor of hard news, drawing a boundary between politics and everyday life. After all, there is a reason that there is such a huge demand for soft news – largely owing to people preferring some lighthearted pieces to balance the stuffy hard news. The giants of the industry seem to acknowledge this demand and have shown that they are willing to dive into the field. Forbes, the world renowned business magazine, has a section dedicated to topics like art, dining, travel, etc. Today, 13th October 2022, the New York Times has pieces on Bob Dylan and smartwatches alongside pieces on the US economy, inflation and Donald Trump.

We have to cover the hard news always, but we have to cover the soft news to meet demand, clients are evolving. They need more lifestyle news, more entertainment and more pictures. Newsrooms are evolving and Reuters is evolving with our clients” – Monique Villa, managing director at Reuters Media

However, this is not quite a free, breath-of-fresh-air-from-all-the-seriousness kind of journalistic utopia though. This explosion of online news and lifestyle journalism has also hurt the industry. With online news and social media, there has been a rise in “citizen journalists” and armchair writers. The most glaring example of this situation? Twitter is the #1 downloaded app under the news category of the app store. With so many publications springing up across the internet and the rise of culture specific social media pages, the barriers to entry have never been lower. Almost anyone with a decent enough grasp over language can find a position to write for some kind of online publication. Such low barriers to entry completely do away with the need for experience and qualities such as unbiased reporting, research and journalistic integrity that have been the hallmarks of the press. There has thus been a huge influx of fake news, badly researched articles or simply biased pieces.

This lack of unbiased reporting and reliable journalists has affected the industry almost as harshly as it has affected its readership. The lower barriers to entry mean that journalists getting into the field are either underpaid or unpaid interns with compensation that’s measured in bylines instead of a paycheck. Globally, the trust in mass media has been in free fall for years now thanks to unreliable reporting or private interests taking hold of the hallowed Fourth Estate. In 2022, according to a study by Reuters, only 41% of news consumers in India said they trusted the media – a figure that is actually a positive when you compare it to the rest of the world.

This lack of trust in modern news is an issue with further consequences. It is hard to break into an industry like journalism when readers’ distrust is at an all time high. In fact, with so many people from all sides of every argument ever talking about their perspectives, there is a greater chance of people falling into echo chambers and listening to “journalists” that tend to agree with them. Especially in cultural journalism concerning the fields of food, art, music, film or others, it is hard to fight for the credibility that grabs ears. For a budding Indian film critic, there is no reason why someone should listen to you over Anupama Chopra. For a budding food critic, there is no reason someone should listen to you over Marryam H. Reshii. This is where the catch-22 of credibility begins: nobody trusts you because you do not have the reputation yet, which means finding an opportunity to credibly put your thoughts to the public is difficult. Since you cannot find the opportunity to talk about your reviews of a film, album, food, etc. you cannot gain the credibility and reputation that you need for readers to pay attention.

That isn’t to say there are no ways to build such credibility of course. Social media here is a double edged sword. You can easily get lost in the sea of people droning on about Laal Singh Chaddha’s faults like the rest of Twitter. However, there is also a chance you can create an online following for yourself like the Instagram page @humansofcinema that has 245k followers.

In the end, the news media does not quite hold the same respect that it earned for itself throughout history. The giants are falling over themselves in its pursuit of adapting to the current times, while social media has made credibility easier to build but reliability hard to find. The Estate is in ruin and disrepair – and it is time to fix it before it falls on the people it serves.

Read Also: Fake News Shall Only Worsen the Crisis

Siddharth Kumar

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