Mar 25, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Shards of glass: Inside media's 12 splintering realities

Illustration of an American flag broken into shards of glass

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

You can't understand November's election — or America itself — without reckoning with how our media attention has shattered into a bunch of misshapen pieces.

  • Think of it as the shards of glass phenomenon. Not long ago, we all saw news and information through a few common windows — TV, newspapers, cable. Now we find it in scattered chunks that match our age, habits, politics and passions.

Why it matters: Traditional media, at least as a center of dominant power, is dead. Social media, as its replacement for news in the internet era, is declining in dominance.

What comes next: America is splintering into more than a dozen news bubbles based on ideology, wealth, jobs, age and location.

  • This means where you get your news, the voices you trust, and even the topics and cultural figures you follow could be wholly different from the person sitting next to you.
  • So instead of Red America and Blue America, we'll have a dozen or more Americas — and realities. This will make understanding public opinion, and finding common agreement, even more complex and elusive.

Disclaimer: No, this doesn't mean The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or CNN are dead. It just means their influence will wane with most people in the other bubbles. Nor does it mean Facebook and Twitter will lose relevance. They simply will be influential in tighter bubbles.

To help get your head around this shift, we'll generalize in describing some of today's most powerful bubbles (which are of widely varying sizes). We talked to influencers left, right and center; media executives; political operatives; C-suite executives and more. What we found:

  1. The Musk-eteers: This is a fast-growing, mostly male group who feed off Twitter, podcasts (especially "All-In" and Joe Rogan), and follow independent reporters, led by Bari Weiss, through social media or newsletters.
  2. Instagrammers: This is mostly young to middle-aged women in college and the professional class. They're very engaged with this more visual form of journalism, and gravitate toward influential voices in the creator economy — including Jessica Yellin (New Not Noise), Betches News, Emily in Your Phone (former Democratic strategist Emily Amick) and Sharon Says So (Sharon McMahon, an educator who does history and civics explainers).
  3. TikTok kids: This is where most kids get most of their information about the world and hot news topics. They scroll, fast and furious, through pictures and microbursts of information — and trust people most parents have never heard of. Think MrBeast, Addison Rae and Zach King.
  4. New-age grandmas: Consumers of news on Facebook have been trending older. Yes, Facebook has deliberately deemphasized news over the past three years, emphasizing what Meta global affairs president Nick Clegg calls "babies, barbecues and bar mitzvahs." But a lot remains.
  5. Right-wing grandpas: Senior citizens, especially men, still flock to Fox News — especially in prime time, and especially around popular personalities. They would have been big Rush Limbaugh fans back in the '90s.
  6. MAGA mind melders: The new conservative news ecosystem would seem like a distant planet to anyone whose habits were formed pre-Trump. People like Charlie Kirk (massive because he's multiplatform), Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich are dominant voices. Then there are folks who are taken seriously only in Trumpworld (Laura Loomer, Alex Bruesewitz), but can really move the needle there. No one rivals Tucker Carlson with the base, even without his Fox News platform. Don Jr. is second, with his massive X, Facebook and Instagram engagement. "He's the meme lord of the right," a MAGA insider told us. Steve Bannon's WarRoom remains a juggernaut. Breitbart's Matt Boyle is a go-to newsbreaker on the right. Plus there's a potent crew of video clip guys.
  7. Liberal warriors: Think of Rachel Maddow as patron saint of this bloc. Hence her sky-high ratings. This crowd feeds daily off The New York Times (especially opinion pieces) and prestige magazines (especially The Atlantic and The New Yorker). They once were addicted to Twitter but left, or lessened their dependency, after Musk turned it into X.
  8. Elite power-consumers: This is the Axios base. These are mainly college-educated, ambitious professionals — we estimate 25 million-45 million nationally — who seek out news near-daily, partly for passion and partly for professional enhancement. This group is most likely to overlap with other bubbles and lap up "Morning Joe." These power-users are huge fans of newsletters, which in some respects mimic in shrunken form newspapers: a beginning and end, punctuated with pictures and visuals. LinkedIn is a hot, if still small, pipeline for content.
  9. The financiers: This is the base of The Wall Street Journal, CNBC (especially "Squawk Box") and DealBook, the newsletter by New York Times and "Squawk" star Andrew Ross Sorkin. Lots of rich, white, older East Coast or big-city professionals live here.
  10. Niche-ers: These are professionals who exploit the abundance of high-quality, in-the-weeds news about their job, industry or specific role. The internet is Nirvana for ones who know who to follow, what newsletters to get, and what specialty pubs to buy. This is often a subset of elites. Reddit is a hotbed. WhatsApp is also a shard/bubble: A huge number of people, especially immigrants and people with family and friends in other countries, get news and memes from WhatsApp groups — which can be a big conduit of misinformation.
  11. Emerging majority: There are upwardly mobile, college-educated Latinos and Black Americans who no longer have Black or bilingual publications to read. They've turned their attention to trusted journalists in mainstream outlets such as NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and L.A. Times metro columnist Gustavo Arellano to make sense of the world. Also, they turn to Black and Latino influencers around tech (Marques Brownlee), financial planning (Yanely Espinal) and fashion (Black in Fashion Council).
  12. Passive-ists. On most days, this might be the biggest group. It's people either too busy or too disinterested in news to hunt for it. They bump into it, often accidentally, as they chat or buy things — or scroll through fun stuff.

The bottom line: All the shards mean it's much more effort for you, the consumer, to find healthy news that doesn't waste your time or insult your intelligence. And much harder to make sense of the realities around you.

  • Sara Fischer, Russell Contreras and Zachary Basu contributed reporting.
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