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December 1, 2008

Filed under: journalism»industry

Paved with Good Attentions

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.

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