Is Fox News the future of news?

I’m a journalist by training. While I no longer practice that trade on a full-time basis, I still take a great interest in the field.

At this time 15 years ago, Fox News Channel didn’t exist. Now, if you look at the its viewership compared to cable news competitors CNN, MSNBC and CNBC, you’ll see that it is not only leading its competition, but crushing it.

Fox News gets accused of having a conservative bias in its reporting. Its top commentators, such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, are both very conservative and very provocative, and don’t make any bones about it. And Sarah Palin, Karl Rove and other prominent conservative political personalities make frequent guest appearances and/or have their own shows on the channel.

Many people love Fox News. Many people hate it. But there is no question people watch it. Which begs the question: is Fox News the future of news? Will news channels have to follow Fox News’ model – in terms of political bent and/or reporting style – to succeed in the current media environment?

I don’t think anyone will deny that journalism – and television journalism in particular – has changed dramatically over the decades. The days of stately, dignified legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite beaming into our living rooms each night and delivering stately, dignified news, as my parents experienced, are gone and not coming back. This satirical cartoon from JibJab (famous for their 2004 Presidential election satires) sums up the changes to news quite well, in my opinion:

There are far more messages competing for the audience’s attention than ever before. The louder and more provocative you are, the more likely you are to get noticed. And it doesn’t matter how good the substance of your message is if no one notices it.

Fox News seems to realize this. Whether you disagree with Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly or not, you can’t deny that they know how to get people to listen to what they have to say. Same with Sarah Palin. Fox News’ ratings reflect as much. And the higher your ratings are, the more you can charge for advertising, and the more money you make. With so many news media outlets now owned by major corporations with diverse holdings and profit-driven shareholders to appease, ratings, regardless of substance, are more important than ever.

As for the political slant, many accuse MSNBC, in particular its prime time hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, of having a liberal bias. Even if that is true, the fact that it trails Fox News in the ratings by a significant margin suggests that the viewing public does not buy into that bias.

All of this suggests that Fox News is on to something. Whether you never watch it or watch it every day, whether you love it or hate it, Fox News may become the model that news, or at least cable news, needs to follow.

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