Journalism Needs a Reformation, Not a Revolution

Part of me sympathizes with ScienceBlogling Bora when he writes about the publishing bidness:

I am excited about the way the Web is transforming society and all they care is how to save their jobs! I get it – they should care. The new media ecosystem can support a much smaller number of professional journalists than the old one. So many (though not all) will lose their jobs. I don’t have an interest in that aspect of the media business at all. If they have any other expertise besides scribbling, they will find other jobs once their media houses lock the doors. If not, tough. But I am really not interested in their livelihoods. Just like blacksmiths found jobs in car factories, the journos will find something else to do. I am interested in the ways new media channels are changing the world, not the parochial or individual insecurities of those whose world is changing. I am an interested observer of the revolution and saving the inevitable victims is not my job.

Any business that allows Fred Hiatt to make editorial decisions (The Kaplan Testing CompanyThe Washington Post) or decides to engage in wingnut welfare and hire Ross Douthat, while laying offbuying out David Cay Johnston (The New York Times) deserves some lumps. It’s analogous to what I thought about the potential demise of the large investment banks: we need banks, bankers, and certain financial instruments, but we don’t need these banks, these bankers, and these particular financial instruments. We will need news organizations, but we don’t need these news organizations (more on this later in the post).
So, when it comes to dreams of revolution, we should be careful what we wish for.

The unspoken assumption is that, when the curent news media falls (what ever that means–AM radio, decades later, can still be profitable), a Glorious Reign of …Something Else will take its place, and we will all be empowered to publish in exciting new media formats, erm, Something Really Groovy.
But there’s a flipside to that vision, and given how so many revolutions ultimately work out (not well), it’s worth considering. Perhaps what we’ll see is more corporate control of information, more massively funded disinformation, and more truthiness, not less.
Why? Because the people who do the Exciting, New Journalism will mostly likely try to make a living at it (we can talk about crowd sourcing and all the other buzzwords, but good reporting will always require time, work, talent, and financial support). Back when I worked at the small non-profit I learned what the most important mission was:
Getting your salaries covered.
The second most important mission was:
Getting your salaries covered.
And the third?

I’ll stop, but the number of times where someone approached us and said, “It would be really great if you did X”–and we agreed–but there wasn’t a way to pay for activity X was, well, lots. Bora may not care about business models, but I guarantee people who want to do journalism do care. They have to care, if they like eating.
And that’s where the dark side of Bora’s revolution comes in. There are no guarantees that completely blowing up what journalism we currently have won’t make things worse. At the small non-profit, there was always the temptation (rarely indulged) to alter what we were doing and saying based on funding. And when we were on mission, we often didn’t have sufficient resources to do what needed to be done the right way.
What’s to stop flat-out corporate propaganda–Fox News but more so–from completely dominating the Exciting!! New!! Media Formats simply due to corporations ability to flat-out buy the news and overwhelm financially-strapped truth-tellers (I won’t even bring up the latest assault on net neutrality[link])? What’s to stop even more viral epidemics of ludicrous lies (e.g., Obama is not a U.S. citizen)? Hell, in the current environment, where there are still pockets of good reporting, I’m half-convinced that in six months, a majority of Americans will believe that the Democrats want to put down people who have the common cold.
So, lets go back to publishing. There are two types of newspapers. The truly failing newspapers, such as The Boston Globe, just won’t make it. But other papers actually still earn a profit. The problem is that they don’t earn enough of a profit–given several waves of media consolidation, these publishers’ owners need higher profits*. But from the publishers’ perspective, it’s not a failing business model–they make a profit (just like many radio stations). It’s the consolidation: bust those trusts, and force the holding companies to take a haircut.
That would lead to a change which is absolutely necessary: publishers need to stop trying to be jack-of-all-trades. Even the largest news organizations can’t do everything. The great thing about the internets is that newspapers can purchase and swap content relatively effortlessly. Publishers need to focus on unique content: local news and niche areas (even if they want to focus on many niches, the point is they can’t focus on all of them). This could be viable, particularly in a ‘paperless’ form, provided people are willing to subscribe to it. And they will, if the content is useful to them and entertaining (after all, lots of people still subscribe to dead wood newspapers).
Finally, publishers need to deliver better product–and readers should demand better product. If people are more confused and misinformed for having read your product, then you’re doing it wrong. This includes eliminating de facto he-said/she-said stenography (as opposed to adding more transcripts which would actually be a good thing). Likewise, making the writing more entertaining would help too–there’s no reason why informing yourself about the world should feel like homework. More to the point, if it does feel homework, a lot of readers will just go do something else.
While I understand the ‘revolutionary’ impulse, there are things we can do that will make our publishing better.
*Yet another wonderful example of high levels of ‘leverage’ (that is, debt).

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2 Responses to Journalism Needs a Reformation, Not a Revolution

  1. Edward says:

    The current “news” system we have is suffering from a crisis of misinformation. The new media is failing to go out and get the important stories, and failing to fact-check, process, and edit the information they do present. Too many are trying to use the wiki model of news reporting.

  2. Joel says:

    Or, as one newspaper editor put it after reprinting an article in The Onion as fact, “We thought it was true so we printed it without checking.” [source][/source]

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