Editors can’t save us; we can only save ourselves

Editors can’t save us; we can only save ourselves

Maria Popova over at Brainpickings wrote up an insightful post on what she terms “churnalism” has done for media in general and why SOPA exists today:

“…so long as we have a monetization model of information that prioritizes the wrong stakeholders — advertisers over readers — we will always cater to the business interests of the former, not the intellectual interests of the latter.”

I’ve been feeling the sort of cognitive dissonance lately when I think back on some of the class discussions I had in grad school. There was a minor debate on where advertising goes and how it should correspond with the article being read in an effort to be more useful to the user. At the time I thought that this made practical sense. Maybe I’m becoming a romantic in my old age, but this has become a jarring echo.

When I met up with a local publisher, I asked her about the tenor of the journalism industrial complex of D.C. and some of her thoughts on the whole “journalism is dead” thing. She explained to me about how advertising and reporting are becoming more and more muddled in newsrooms so the onus is on journalists to churn out articles that get those precious hits and unique views.

Indeed, the current experiment over at Gawker is an example of this – half the staff is tasked with putting up salacious stories while the other half do something…else. I don’t know what because Gawker isn’t exactly a bastion of journalism. They break stories all right but rarely are they earth-shattering and more often scandalous.

Popova laments the state of journalism repeating stories and beating a fresh story into a dead carcass while will continue to be beaten,

“The homogenization of curiosity is something that keeps me up at night, as does the thickening of the filter bubble, from mainstream churnalism to smaller and niche publications’ propensity for regurgitating MetaFilter or Reddit headlines — our modern-day newswires.”

This piques my interest because as my conversation with my friend revealed (and some experiments with hyper-local news adventures), people don’t care that much about local news. And this is really where a lot of original content will come from. They become grander when other news outlets pick up on it and notice a pattern. [This may someday become easier with the implementation of the semantic web and the Open Government movement, explained here by another friend, Kristen Milholin.]

So if people aren’t actually curious about things that are closest to them and are driven by the scandals of tabloids and visual candy of slideshows – then what are we, as serious journalists, supposed to do about that?

Popova has one idea:

“Until we, as an information culture in general and as media producers in particular, figure out a way to reinstate the editor as the visionary and the reader as the stakeholder, the Internet will remain a dismal landscape for intelligent, compelling media.”

I take issue with the whole “dismal landscape” gibe. I find all kinds of wonderful things on the outer reaches of the Internet. So I don’t think editors have any power over what readers do; readers are stakeholders no matter model you come up with. It’s just that they don’t behave in ways we want them to.

There are two ways to look at this problem:

1. The problem is us. We as a culture need to value the importance of our role in local and national society. Instead of putting our interests first, we need to think outside of ourselves and pay attention to what’s happening to our neighbors.

I know, that sounds all kinds of preachy. But what will anyone care about an environmental spill in the Gulf of Mexico if we don’t feel we can do anything about it and if we don’t see how something matters even if it doesn’t affect us directly and immediately? Harder still, if we don’t think we can do anything about anything, who cares about the next bill to come through city council – good or bad?

There are no business models that will change journalism and the market. The market needs to get over itself and its endless search for entertainment.

2. The problem is the Internet. On the internet, information is free and some bloggers, out of the goodness of their heart, report on events that some local journalists won’t or can’t. They are flooding the market with free information. And there isn’t anything to be done about that. There is great stuff out there…there is also horrible stuff.

As media outlets lose control and information becomes decentralized, there’s no way any editor – even at CNN – can change the digital landscape. Otherwise, no one is going to pay for something they can get for free and agrees with their sentimentalities.

We’re left with the quandary of: is commodifying information ethical? Is not paying a writer, researcher, or journalist to find that information and present it ethical? What’s the third alternative?

Beats me, dude. But I will continue to write about stories that I find important, entertaining, fun and serious. I hope Popova does the same.



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