What's the deal with online journalism?
Not very long ago I started answering questions on Quora, the question-and-answer site. My answers are mainly about aviation because that’s my great hobby and one of the few things besides high tech that I really know a lot about. But there was a question last week about Internet news coverage that I felt deserved better answers than it was getting.
So I contributed an answer that has been read, so far, only 388 times. I don’t like making a real effort that is so sparsely read. So here, with a little mild editing, is my answer to "What are the flaws in online journalism and media today?" And "How can they be addressed?"
I generally agree with Dan Tynan, who is my hero, but think this subject needs more context which I will attempt to provide.
It’s easy to say Internet journalism is crap, but there has always been crap journalism, which we called hack journalism. The only difference between old hack and new crap is that new crap has analytics on its side.
First let’s dispense with the idea of journalistic impartiality. Those who think there is a tradition of impartiality in the press, or that the press has some obligation to be impartial, don’t know their history. What passes for impartial journalism is a commercial expedient that grew out of the wire service business model. Blame Reuters, Associated Press, United Press, etc. for this one. Newspapers were never unbiased. The newspaper owner always took a position and pushed his (inevitably his) candidates. It wasn’t just William Randolph Hearst -- they all did it. Hearst just owned more newspapers and so had a louder voice.
Wire services invented impartial journalism so they could sell the same stories to Republican and Democrat. conservative and liberal newspapers. Appearing to be impartial doubled their revenue, simple as that. For the same reason they also invented the relentless flow of bad news that is most of the news business today, because bad news affects -- and is of interest to -- all types of people. Think of the ubiquitous "bus plunge" story. A bus in Mexico. Albania, West Virginia -- it doesn’t matter where -- plunges down a cliff killing a bunch of people who never mattered to us until they died.
Now let’s consider the First Amendment, which says nothing about press impartiality because it didn’t exist in the late 18th century. The First Amendment is all about government tolerance of dissent. It’s about the exact opposite of impartiality.
So there’s little press impartiality, no real obligation for the press to be impartial, and if you hate Fox News that’s probably because Roger Ailes understands this and you don’t. Ailes sells a particular product. The New York Times sells a very different product. Mother Jones sells a third type of product and the National Enquirer sells a fourth type of product. And they are all -- believe it or not -- news.
Now we come to the Internet. A lot of us first sensed something was changing when we ran into the word "content". First there was "news" and then there was "content". Content was something you could get by the pound. And that, too, isn’t such a new concept since the wire service "inverted pyramid" news writing style was design to be cut to size from the bottom up. A copy editor could theoretically make a story fit the available space without even reading it by simply trimming from the bottom up. Sounds like content to me, but we still called it "news".
Those who are opposed to Internet journalism and who are professional journalists are generally annoyed that they don’t make as much money as they used to. The Golden Age of journalism wasn’t before the Internet, it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then a young writer could live on his or her own in Manhattan, write four national magazine stories per year, drink at Sardi’s, and still put a little money in the bank. Magazine freelance rates have not gone up in 30+ years. And I’m not talking about corrected for inflation. Top magazines were paying $2.50 per word in 1975 and they were still paying me $2.50 per word last week. And I’m lucky to get that. Writers reading this will ask "Who is paying Cringely that kind of money?"
Absent the Internet, then, professional journalism was already going down the tubes in the 1970s. There was a lot more of it (magazine titles, as an example, peaked at 50,000(!) in the 1980s). But you can’t have more channels and the same quality, so quality (and pay) went down.
The Internet just accelerated this trend. The number of channels multiplied yet again, the barriers to entry got lower and lower, new forms of media appeared to stratify the market and create new stars. Advertising changed, newspapers faltered, and that brings us right to the start of Dan Tynan’s answer to this question.
So read Dan’s answer if you haven’t already then come back here because I have more to say.
For all the economic forces that are guiding journalism and that have always guided journalism, despite the rise of Search Engine Optimization and despite my own aged cynicism, there’s a lot that is right with journalism today and a lot that could be better.
How do you measure story impact? Well nobody does measure it. And since nobody measures it, in a world where everything of value is measured that implies impact isn’t valued. And yet it is valued: we just don’t know how to measure it. I have had online editors, for example, telling me for the last 19 years that my blog posts are too long. Editors like something around 600 words but can never explain why. Maybe it just gives them something to do. Yet my average blog post is double that length and the longest I can recall off the top of my head was 4400 words.
Now here’s the thing about that 4400 word blog post, which you can read right here if you like: at least once a week some reader contacts me about that post. They either love it or hate it and they want me to know why. Sixteen years after the post was first published, people are still talking about it. That’s impact. And if that’s unmeasurable it’s a problem with SEO, not the Internet.
But the fact is that this kind of writing is out there and will remain there probably forever. This long tail is the saving grace of Internet journalism and maybe of all journalism.
Yet for all the bloggers and conspiracy theorists and journalism disintermediaries out there I remain amazed at how hard it is to reach a large audience. The idea when I was teaching was that there were gatekeepers at big newspapers, magazines, and news networks who decided what was news and what was not. Well the Internet was supposed to change all that. But it really didn’t. I still have stories I can’t get told. Books I’d like to write, Frontline episodes I’d like to produce, but it’s really no easier -- maybe even harder -- than before.
Maybe what we need every day is a tiny section in TMZ called interesting news we wouldn’t normally publish.