Business

President Trump's challenge to media credibility

Donald Trump Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption For the US media, the Donald giveth, and the Donald taketh away

The Donald giveth, and the Donald taketh away.

That's the verdict of veteran journalist Alan Murray, now chief content officer at Time Inc, the parent company of Time and Fortune magazines.

"Trump has been good for the economic viability of the American media," he says, citing the bump in digital subscriptions at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the increase in traffic at his own business in the wake of the presidential election.

"But I think he has been bad for the credibility of the media".

There is research to back him up. According to public relation behemoth Edelman's latest "trust barometer", the media has become the least-trusted institution in the world. In the US, more than 70% of Donald Trump's supporters distrust mainstream outlets.

This, Mr Murray warns, is having a corrosive effect on the business of journalism in America - despite an increasingly engaged audience.

Image copyright World Economic Forum
Image caption The US media faces an economic crisis and a credibility crisis, says Time Inc's Alan Murray

'Dual crisis'

"The media in the US is in the midst of two simultaneous crises, which predated Donald Trump," he explains, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"One is an economic crisis: how do we make enough money to support what we do?"

"The other is a credibility crisis. In a world where anyone can be a publisher, and people are sitting in their pyjamas in their bedrooms putting out stuff on Facebook and the internet - how do people know what to believe?"

That task, he adds, is made all the more difficult by the man in the Oval Office.

"It's very difficult when the president takes things that simply have no basis in truth and puts them into his Twitter feed," says Mr Murray, referring to when Donald Trump took aim at one of Mr Murray's own publications, Time.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Donald Trump has had at times a fraught and fractious relationship with Washington's press corps

Last November, the president tweeted that: "Time Magazine called to say that I was PROBABLY going to be named 'Man (Person) of the Year' like last year, but I would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot. I said probably is no good and took a pass. Thanks anyway"

This claim, says Mr Murray, was "just completely untrue."

"I was well aware of the thought that went into who was going to be Person of the Year this year, Trump was never on the list."

No one, he says, has ever been Person of the Year two years in a row.

At the time, Mr Murray took to his own Twitter feed to set the record straight, but he says this entertaining saga is emblematic of a more serious attack on the press in the US.

Image copyright Buzzfeed
Image caption Attacks on the idea of a legitimate press are "incredibly damaging" says Buzzfeed's Ben Smith

Ben Smith, editor in chief of what Donald Trump has termed a "failing pile of garbage", otherwise known as Buzzfeed News, agrees.

"For any given media outlet, being attacked by the President of the United States for an accurate story that he is unhappy with, draws attention to that story, draws attention to your reporting," he says.

It also, in the case of Buzzfeed, helps shift some tongue-in-cheek merchandise - "failing pile of garbage" T-shirts and bumper stickers.

"The sum, though, of the president and his allies' attacks on the idea of a legitimate press is incredibly damaging."

Image copyright World Economic Forum
Image caption The New York Times has record readership and interest levels, says Elisabeth Bumiller

'Failing at failing'

For Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times and a veteran White House watcher, the best response to such attacks is robust journalism, which, she claims, is serving her newspaper well.

"I think globally we are seen as very tough on the president," she says, when asked about what the Oval Office has done for the Gray Lady's reputation (as the New York Times is known).

"He refers to us constantly as the failing New York Times," an exhausted Ms Bumiller adds.

"I like to say that the failing New York Times is even failing at failing, and we have record high readership and interest."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg might be having a bigger impact on traditional media than Donald Trump

Mr Murray's publications are also doing well - Time Inc (soon to be subsumed into Meredith Corp) attracts 140 million unique visitors to its sites a month, and its print magazines still have the power to create international headlines.

But he cautions that increasingly, links to stories by Time and Fortune on social media are indistinguishable from less trustworthy - or even downright fake - news outlets.

Mark Zuckerberg, he says, may be a bigger cause of upheaval for the US media than Donald Trump.

"Facebook and Google to some extent have helped lead the confusion that people have about what can be trusted and what can't," he says, echoing a warning from billionaire investor George Soros, issued at the World Economic Forum.

The answer, he says, lies in good old-fashioned branding.

"There have to be strong brands that people trust and believe in, in order for them to get news they can feel confident in," he says, adding that appearing to be fair and impartial is vital to this endeavour.

"Branding is basically a shortcut to trust"

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Buzzfeed is gaining from the shift to social media

'Trends on our side'

Buzzfeed News, which piggy-backed on a popular online entertainment brand, has been growing too, both in stature and audience.

But although the company recently announced layoffs and a broad restructuring plan, Ben Smith says he is "optimistic about the business of news," particularly when it comes to the digital media.

"The underlying trends - the shift towards social media, the shift towards mobile consumption are on our side," he says.

And what of the bogeyman of many an online newsroom, Mark Zuckerberg?

"We are less dependent on Facebook than we were a year, or two years, or three years ago," says Mr Smith, defiantly.

The former Politico writer is also less pessimistic than many in his industry about the proposed changes to Facebook's news feed, which would make posts from businesses, brands and media less prominent, under the guise of cracking down on fake news outlets.

But did executives from the Silicon Valley giant consult Buzzfeed - after all a driver of huge amounts of interaction on social media networks - about the tectonic shift in Facebook's algorithm?

Mr Smith chuckles: "If only".