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Friday, December 18, 2020

Scrolling Alone

Like Putnam’s beloved bowling alleys, cinemas are an example of the decline of semiweekly gatherings in the United States—even if they’re less chatty establishments. In the 1940s, the average American bought more than 30 movie tickets a year, regularly packing into theaters with scores of strangers. In the past few years, that figure fell below four. In 2020, movie tickets sold per-person will fall below one—possibly for the first time since the late 1800s. The decision by Warner Bros. will likely encourage other entertainment companies, such as Disney, to funnel more of their marquee content to streaming services in the next few years. And the result could be a death spiral for movie theaters as we know them, as the film industry continues its shift from a public, ticketed affair to a private, living-room experience.

This media shift—from the scarce and communal, to the abundant and privatized—also describes the evolution of the news industry. In the past 20 years, newspaper circulation, advertising revenue, and employment has cratered. But overall, news—that is, sources of new information, of varying truthiness—didn’t decline; it exploded. The web created a phalanx of news publishers, not just websites but also Facebook pages, Instagram personalities, newsletters, podcasts, and so on; at the same time, Google and Facebook duopolized digital advertising, creating a situation where publishers were multiplying as advertising declined.

In ecology, the term niche partitioning describes the way that competing species become hyper-specialized in an attempt to co-exist in an environment with scarce resources. I think that’s what’s happening in the news industry. As the number of competing publishers increases, it makes sense for each of them to carve out an ecological niche. This niches-get-riches race leads logically to a set of more outlets that embrace a more unabashedly partisan perspective—just as they did in the late 1800s.

One might assume that polarization is what happens to people cut off from information. But the truth is closer to the opposite: More information means more polarization. Research shows that access to broadband internet in the U.S. has in many cases increased various measures of polarization, as the web introduces voters to a bigger menu of partisan news from which voters select the sites that match their political tastes.

We’ve seen this phenomenon accelerate in 2020. Four years ago, most people would have said there were three major cable news networks: the center-left one (CNN), the liberal alternative (MSNBC), and the conservative juggernaut (Fox News). But in the past few months, the conservative-news monolith has shattered. Since the election, Newsmax TV and the One America News Network have stepped up ... And behold, niche partitioning works: Last week, Newsmax rode the election-conspiracy story to its first-ever ratings win over Fox