Product X will not save journalism.
I'm writing this so I can link back to it regularly. Because roughly once a year, someone invents a new device or service that moves words around, and at that point the media punditry proclaims it the second coming for poor beleaguered Journalism. This is the flip side--and direct result--of the industry's "The Internets Are In Ur Base, Killing Ur Journalisms" meme. And they're both wrong, consistently and repeatedly, but no-one ever seems to learn.
How do we know it's wrong? Well, for one thing, because Product X keeps Not Saving the industry. The Kindle didn't do it. Twitter isn't doing it. Smartphones aren't doing it. Past experience isn't a perfect guide to future performance, but there does seem to be a trend here--namely, that a single technical innovation is not enough to single-handedly stop journalists from A) ruining their industry and B) loudly complaining that their industry is being ruined. To be fair, "complain loudly" is basically the sum of the journalist's credo.
The issue with Product X is invariably that it solves the wrong problem. Usually, this means monetizing digital distribution channels, which media pundits find fascinating for no good reason (see: "The Internets In Ur Base etc."). I say no good reason, because we've known how to monetize distribution over the Internet for literally years now. These are solved problems, technologically. We know that advertising can work (for certain values of "advertising" and with sufficient infrastructure), and it's not like we didn't have ways of selling subscriptions via standard web browsers, which are the great leveller of access and audience. It's not that we don't have the capabilities--it's that people (with some notable exceptions) don't want to pay for journalism this way.
And yet, every time Product X is announced, editorialists shout from the mountaintops that publishing will be saved by its peculiar virtues. Because if they couldn't sell subscriptions to the whole Internet at the implausible profit margins demanded by Wall Street, surely they'll be able to sell them to a much smaller audience through an expensive gadget and its specialized storefront--which demands a cut off the top. And this is their idea of a sustainable business plan!
What it comes down to is this: you can't solve journalism's problems with technological Product X because its most pressing problems aren't really technological. They're social, commercial, and editorial (see: Your Plan To Save The Media Will Not Work, A Checklist). And anyone claiming that Product X can solve those problems has been reading their own marketing materials for too long.
It's intensely frustrating to me that of all the possible professions where this kind of thinking could occur, journalism is so prone to this kind of reductionist thinking. Perhaps it's a symptom of the industry's current obsession with horse-race narratives. But if it were up to me, we'd make this an interview test for news executives. Do you believe in Product X? Yes? Then you should maybe stay on your beat a little longer, until you figure out that's not the way the world works.
Shorter Washington Post:
Have you ever been to an Asian supermarket? We hadn't! They sell all kinds of different food there, which is not like real American food at all. Apparently it is from wacky countries that are far away from us--and it could be infested with poisonous bacteria. Awesome!Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but it might say something about the composition of the newsroom--or who the Post thinks buys its papers--when the story itself says that these stores are in neightborhoods where Asian Americans make up 20-40% of the population, half the store's customer base is not East Asian in descent but also includes South Asians, Latin Americans, the mildly inquisitive, and the poor (thus including everyone except wealthy, sheltered white people)... and yet an article that's basically a catalog of the shelves was still considered "newsworthy" instead of "familiar."
But hey, it's the Internet that's killing journalism, right?
In the last week, Gannett (owner of USA Today and a whole host of regional papers) laid off a large chunk of its workforce, currently up to about 1,900 people. Gannett Blog has been collecting layoff stories--short notes from those who have been cut loose. They're interesting reading.
I've linked to this before, but it should be highlighted again: Gannett papers participating in the layoffs typically have very healthy profit margins, the highest of which is the Green Bay Press-Gazette with 42.5%. You can find the cuts for each regional paper here. Green Bay has cut 22 jobs, amounting to 7% of its workforce.
This is, sadly, not out of the ordinary. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism notes, the average newspaper recorded 18.5% pre-tax margins in 2007: "The industry remains profitable, but it has come time to take the 'obscenely' out of that commonplace observation." In a world of news management that's driven by Wall Street stock prices, there's no place for profits that aren't 'obscene.' And newsrooms are taking the fall.
The word on the street is that the Internet is killing newspapers, and there are two points of view on it: Jeff Jarvis and the new media pundit class see it as cause for rejoicing, while everyone else bemoans the loss of the industry to the filthy, basement-dwelling bloggers. Both are, I suspect, operating from false premises.
(As First Draft points out in Athenae's continued series of "how I'm killing journalism" posts, newspapers are far from dying. They're just not growing at the same rates that the owners would like. Indeed, if anything's killing journalism, it's management.)
But I'm going to play devil's advocate for a minute: I think there's a very plausible way that the Internet actually could kill journalism (as in the public service of reporting), and it would be a real tragedy. Ironically, it would be caused by the advances in ad-driven revenue and reader-tracking made possible by the Internet.
Now, news has long been funded by advertising. And it has mechanisms for keeping ads separated from editorial control--a much-vaunted firewall preventing money from corrupting the reporting process, at least in theory. But advertising online is a fundamentally different proposition from newspaper ads: the former is a pay-per-clickthrough or viewership-based scheme, while the latter was (like its vehicle) more of a broadcast package. Online, as opposed to offline, editors can directly see which stories are getting more attention, more hits, and thus creating more clickthroughs. And in a world where journalists are pushed harder and harder to keep profits high, that's possibly a recipe for trouble.
Because the thing is, the stories that get the hits are not necessarily the ones that journalism-as-a-public-service should be pursuing. People don't always read about foreign affairs, or financial news, or social issues with the same energy that they'll pursue, say, gadget blogs and novelty videos. The hard news can be turned into interesting, compelling stories that get readership commensurate with their importance--but it takes a lot of work. In a physical newspaper, that work has been basically subsidized by the rest of the paper: since everything falls under the same ad revenue package, editors are free to pursue stories that they deem important, such as series about complicated issues or investigative reporting. Split them out, and the picture becomes a lot more complicated.
I'm not saying, of course, that online editors will immediately turn to fluff in order to grab eyeballs. The process is one of slow erosion. When certain stories get disproportionately large visitor numbers (and therefore contribute larger amounts to ad revenue), it's only natural to go back to that well for a similar story. And if the stories that get visitors tend to be lighter and easier to produce than long investigations, even if the cost/benefit equation is roughly equivalent, given a choice between the two it's an easy decision to go with the less work-intensive article. Indeed, it's even easily rationalized: you're just giving the people exactly what they want (or at least what they respond to, which is not quite the same thing). Over time, that adds up. It's roughly the same problem as that faced by television news: when white women in trouble get higher viewer numbers, even without an overt editorial decision, there will be a tendency for more stories about white women in trouble. And now CNN's unwatchable.
Again, these are not new problems. The fact that investigative journalism is expensive and may not pay for itself has been a truism for a long time--but I don't think it's ever been directly provable. Now, it can be quantified. And while journalists are distracted (perhaps rightly so) over the industry's buyouts and complaints about profitability, the question of influence in the role of journalism gets short shrift. It's not helped by publishers who think the way to save their "ailing" paper is to replace back sections with lightweight, locally-focused supplements.
This is why philanthropic (or non-profit) models of journalism fascinate me. I think they have the best possible shot of creating good, public service journalism that ignores click-based feedback in a digital format. Of course, they're also vulnerable to funding loss and accusations of populist bias even beyond that of the corporate media. I'd like to think that it's not a case of the devil we know against the devil we know even better, but then I don't write here because of my sunny, optimistic viewpoint.
I'm still obsessed with This American Life's Giant Pool of Money show. The reason for my obsession is that it won't go away: I see this thing getting press from all kinds of people. Music blogs post it. Game blogs link to it. Of course, every political blog on Earth has mentioned it.
If you're trying to get people to read/view your news site online, which has been on my mind for obvious reasons, you have to look at that and ask: What did they do right? What makes that different? How do we get that kind of traffic and acclaim? Especially if you're a business reporter or editor--when Ira Frakkin' Glass is producing the best financial coverage of the year, you really need to re-evaluate your product.
The obvious tactic is "do good journalism," but there's more to it than that. TGPoM is good journalism, but there's lots of good journalism out there. The mechanics of the piece are not what makes it special. It wasn't researched more thoroughly than the average NPR report, or edited differently from many TAL shows. I believe that the difference between TGPoM and the financial coverage elsewhere is a simple one, but one that illustrates a wider, more fundamental problem with the American press: it was about policy instead of politics.
What I mean by that is that the reporters for the Pool of Money piece worked hard to make the mortgage crisis relatable to listeners. They didn't approach it as bickering between Wall Street and Main Street, and they didn't go for quick partisan soundbites, then call it a day. They answered simple questions: what is this thing? How did it happen? Could it happen to me? What are the real stakes? This sounds like it should be easy to do, but a vast amount of reporting--particularly business and political reporting--doesn't bother to do it. Business coverage is often wonky, detailed stuff aimed at elites. Political journalism has devolved into either he-said-she-said parroting of campaign lines or grossly-inflated trivialities. When the two meet, as they did recently, the results are typically disastrous.
Covering policy is hard. It requires expertise, or talking to experts. It requires a journalist to sometimes make a call as to whether one side of an issue is more accurate, likely, or truthful than the other. And more importantly, to do it right, you have to be able to look at an issue and make connections, putting the news into context.
By contrast, covering "politics" is easy. You still have to talk to people, but you don't have to work nearly as hard to understand it, or double-check it, or figure out what it means for the average reader. There's no "translation effort." If you're covering campaigns by politics instead of policy, you don't check whether a given candidate's plan actually does what they say it would. When you fact-check, you only check whether their statements are superficially true or false, not (for example) whether their plans would actually be effective when applied to national policy.
But clearly, the rewards for doing accessible explainer pieces are great. Which is why it amazes me that no-one else seems to have done it for the bailout. The New York Times does not have something along these lines. The Washington Post doesn't. CQ, much to my chagrin and shame, certainly didn't, although our in-depth coverage of the bailout bill was phenomenal. (Actually, someone may have done an explainer. But since there's not a single newspaper in the country with a decent search function, I can't find it if they have, so it might as well not exist.)
Until this weekend, that is. Because then This American Life did it again. They put together Another Frightening Show about the Economy, and it is just as good as the first program. It can stand alone, or it can fill in the gaps. As with the previous version, after listening, I can not only read other coverage and understand it (not, I might add, a minor point), I can also teach it to other people. It really is an extraordinary piece of explainer journalism.
There's nothing wrong with reporting the details, or providing journalism for topic experts. I suspect that many business reporters have trouble making a transition to a general audience, exactly because most of the time their audience is not general, but an elite. They're reporting for business junkies. Political reporting, similarly, is written both by and for people who thrive on little nasty details of the process, instead of people who will actually be affected by its implementation.
And while the business press can possibly be excused (no-one was exactly clamoring for a detailed look at the commercial paper market before it clammed up), there's no excuse for journalists who choose to cover politics instead of policy. The latter--the outcomes that affect all of us in much more direct ways--is vastly important for a functional democracy. Deficiencies there don't just help to explain why the media is considered untrustworthy, and why the industry's revenues are falling. They point to a wider fracture in our civic life. When journalism obsesses over nitpicks in a speech or comment, rather than the details of applying governmental power, everyone loses.
The Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has released its report on The Changing Newsroom, and I've got some reactions:
Ars Technica has been acquired by Conde Nast, who also own Wired Digital. They'll be expanding greatly but will remain independent. Sadly, they're not opening an office on the East Coast.
I'm not sure what this means for me--Ken's post seems to say that it will be basically business as usual, just for larger values of "as usual." At the very least, it looks like I picked a pretty good time to start contributing to them.
My problems with the Newseum are personal, I think. When I visited it with Belle and my parents last week, they had a good time. As did I, for the most part. But there are still a few things that bug me about it a little.
First of all, in a town stuffed to the gills with great free museums, it's hard to believe that they want $20 a head. I understand that it's a brand new building with state-of-the-art equipment, but I can't imagine many families choosing to visit it over the Air and Space, American History, or Natural History museums, which are also filled with some pretty neat--and probably more kid-friendly--materials. I'm not even sure I'd choose it over those museums, and I work in the news industry.
Second, several of the exhibits rub me the wrong way. Like the room on reporting history, sponsored by News Corp, which seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing journalistic errors, partisanship, or malevolence (and who benefits from that perception, I wonder?). More pervasively, there's a tone of self-congratulation to some of the rooms, like the section of the Berlin Wall that stands in the basement. Yes, journalism covered many groundbreaking events. But there's a fine line, for me, between acknowledging the role of journalism in spreading the truth, and crediting it with a crucial role in those milestones. The important story about the Berlin Wall wasn't the reporting of its fall, it was the activism that brought it down.
There's little modesty on display, is I guess my point, if that makes any sense. And part of the problem with modern journalism, in my opinion, is that it thinks it's a lot more important than it really is.
But for me the central irony of the Newseum--a last gasp by an industry rapidly being overtaken by the Internet--is that it probably would have worked just as well, or better, as a web site. Snarky, I know, and you can say the same about many museums. But take the Pulitzer photography exhibit: a few photos are blown up and hung with explanations on the wall, and that's genuinely interesting. But the majority of the exhibit is every prize-winning photo, printed at 5x8 scale and mounted in a mass around a central column with no particular organization or order. It's a bottleneck for foot traffic, and really a poor way to display what are supposed to be the best news photographs taken each year.
A Newseum Online wouldn't have to replace the current museum--there are always exhibits that work better in person, like the collection of newspaper front pages going back to the start of the United States. But there are many things, like the Pulitzer exhibit or the interactive features, that it could do with more depth and greater diversity. And as such, it'd serve the purpose of advocating for journalism far more widely than a $20 glass shrine behind the National Gallery of Art.
Bonus picture: While we're on the topic of the website, this is some fantastically poor subhead writing.