Excellent Read: “Does Journalism Have A Future?”

I’m looking forward to reading Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth — I’d suggest it for a Balloon Juice Book Club post, except I doubt there’s room for such in the current era. A semi-review from historian Jill LePore, in the New Yorker:

By some measures, journalism entered a new, Trumpian, gold-plated age during the 2016 campaign, with the Trump bump, when news organizations found that the more they featured Trump the better their Chartbeat numbers, which, arguably, is a lot of what got him elected. The bump swelled into a lump and, later, a malignant tumor, a carcinoma the size of Cleveland. Within three weeks of the election, the Times added a hundred and thirty-two thousand new subscribers. (This effect hasn’t extended to local papers.) News organizations all over the world now advertise their services as the remedy to Trumpism, and to fake news; fighting Voldemort and his Dark Arts is a good way to rake in readers. And scrutiny of the Administration has produced excellent work, the very best of journalism. “How President Trump Is Saving Journalism,” a 2017 post on Forbes.com, marked Trump as the Nixon to today’s rising generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins. Superb investigative reporting is published every day, by news organizations both old and new, including BuzzFeed News.

By the what-doesn’t-kill-you line of argument, the more forcefully Trump attacks the press, the stronger the press becomes. Unfortunately, that’s not the full story. All kinds of editorial decisions are now outsourced to Facebook’s News Feed, Chartbeat, or other forms of editorial automation, while the hands of many flesh-and-blood editors are tied to so many algorithms. For one reason and another, including twenty-first-century journalism’s breakneck pace, stories now routinely appear that might not have been published a generation ago, prompting contention within the reportorial ranks. In 2016, when BuzzFeed News released the Steele dossier, many journalists disapproved, including CNN’s Jake Tapper, who got his start as a reporter for the Washington City Paper. “It is irresponsible to put uncorroborated information on the Internet,” Tapper said. “It’s why we did not publish it, and why we did not detail any specifics from it, because it was uncorroborated, and that’s not what we do.” The Times veered from its normal practices when it published an anonymous opinion essay by a senior official in the Trump Administration. And The New Yorker posted a story online about Brett Kavanaugh’s behavior when he was an undergraduate at Yale, which Republicans in the Senate pointed to as evidence of a liberal conspiracy against the nominee.

There’s plenty of room to argue over these matters of editorial judgment. Reasonable people disagree. Occasionally, those disagreements fall along a generational divide. Younger journalists often chafe against editorial restraint, not least because their cohort is far more likely than senior newsroom staff to include people from groups that have been explicitly and viciously targeted by Trump and the policies of his Administration, a long and growing list that includes people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and anyone with family in Haiti or any of the other countries Trump deems “shitholes.” Sometimes younger people are courageous and sometimes they are heedless and sometimes those two things are the same. “The more ‘woke’ staff thought that urgent times called for urgent measures,” Abramson writes, and that “the dangers of Trump’s presidency obviated the old standards.” Still, by no means is the divide always or even usually generational. Abramson, for instance, sided with BuzzFeed News about the Steele dossier, just as she approves of the use of the word “lie” to refer to Trump’s lies, which, by the Post’s reckoning, came at the rate of more than a dozen a day in 2018.

The broader problem is that the depravity, mendacity, vulgarity, and menace of the Trump Administration have put a lot of people, including reporters and editors, off their stride. The present crisis, which is nothing less than a derangement of American life, has caused many people in journalism to make decisions they regret, or might yet. In the age of Facebook, Chartbeat, and Trump, legacy news organizations, hardly less than startups, have violated or changed their editorial standards in ways that have contributed to political chaos and epistemological mayhem. Do editors sit in a room on Monday morning, twirl the globe, and decide what stories are most important? Or do they watch Trump’s Twitter feed and let him decide? It often feels like the latter. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger; it makes everyone sick. The more adversarial the press, the more loyal Trump’s followers, the more broken American public life. The more desperately the press chases readers, the more our press resembles our politics.

The problems are well understood, the solutions harder to see. Good reporting is expensive, but readers don’t want to pay for it. The donation-funded ProPublica, “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force,” employs more than seventy-five journalists. Good reporting is slow, good stories unfold, and most stories that need telling don’t involve the White House. The Correspondent, an English-language version of the Dutch Web site De Correspondent, is trying to “unbreak the news.” It won’t run ads. It won’t collect data (or, at least, not much). It won’t have subscribers. Like NPR, it will be free for everyone, supported by members, who pay what they can. “We want to radically change what news is about, how it is made, and how it is funded,” its founders state. Push-notifications-on news is bad for you, they say, “because it pays more attention to the sensational, exceptional, negative, recent, and incidental, thereby losing sight of the ordinary, usual, positive, historical, and systematic.” What will the Correspondent look like? It will stay above the fray. It might sometimes be funny. It’s slated to début sometime in 2019. Aside from the thing about ads, it sounds a lot like a magazine, when magazines came in the mail…

Warning: LePore wraps her essay with her childhood history in the newspaper (delivery) business… and there’s a distinct possibility that the closing paragraph will break your heart.






30 replies
  1. 1
    Citizen Alan says:

    Shitgibbon is president because journalism failed America, systematically, at every level. Everything else said about the topic of journalism in America in 2019 is just navel gazing.

  2. 2
    Brachiator says:

    MSNBC’s Richard Lui discusses President Trump’s mistruths about the border wall from this week with Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star.

    https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/toronto-star-s-dale-counts-the-number-of-pres-trump-s-lies-1436517955631

  3. 3
    WereBear says:

    One of the problems of the digital age is how people don’t see electrons as anything they should pay for. It was different when you got handed something, scribbled a grocery list on it, and then used it to line a birdcage.

  4. 4
    jl says:

    Start by repealing the misguided deregulation started by Bid Dawg, who was very convincing explaining economics that he really didn’t understand to voters, and made some huge mistakes in his second term. That is not in and of itself a solution, but needed for a start. Break up the huge media conglomerates.

    And, people, especially younger people, want reliable, accurate, content.that is useful to them, informs them in a useful way so they can help themselves and make good decisions as citizens. They don’t want fraudulent boilerplate crap that is mainly designed to please humungous corporate advertizers and keep as many weak minded dupes as possible buying garbage. That last bit is about all big media news corporations provide, it’s their business model.

    I subscribe to several internet outlets, even a couple with which I usually disagree, because they provide good content.
    (hint to BJ for a deluxe edition, since this blog will pay for itself!)

  5. 5
    Brachiator says:

    @Citizen Alan:

    Shitgibbon is president because journalism failed America, systematically, at every level.

    Too easy and too simplistic to blame journalism.

    Despite shitty electoral coverage, the vast majority of newspapers and news magazines endorsed Clinton over Trump.

    Also, more people voted for HRC than voted for Trump.

  6. 6
    jl says:

    @Brachiator: Agree, And need to distinguish between the beat reporters, who often do excellent work, editorial staff, and the corporate execs. Also need to distinguish between print paper and electronic journalism, versus radio and TV and video media on internet. Quality of the latter is lower. Corruption and malfeasance grows rapidly as you move up from beat reporter to celeb news actor or pundit, to editorial/producer and execs. the top is as rotten as a three day old mackerel left on the sidewalk in a heat wave.

  7. 7
    Brachiator says:

    @jl:

    And, people, especially younger people, want reliable, accurate, content.that is useful to them, informs them in a useful way so they can help themselves and make good decisions as citizens.

    Survey after survey shows that people don’t read long form material, don’t read or watch news, apart from entertainment, and care more about hot takes and opinion more than anything else.

    Where I work, younger people hate Trump because he is like a comic book super villain, but don’t know much about what he is actually done, and many were never moved to vote by his actions or policy. And like a lot of younger people, they are more focused on their own lives than political engagement. Here I’m talking about people in their 20s and early 30s.

  8. 8
    Mary G says:

    The last couple of weeks have been a bloodbath, with more than 2,000 journalists being laid off from McClatchy to Buzzfeed. I have to say that some of this isn’t just an accident or unintended consequence of the internet age. I think there is a great right wing conspiracy to take over TV with Fox and Sinclair. Print press has been under siege for a couple of decades now. Murdoch got hold of the Wall Street Journal the news pages are slowly getting just as kooky and insane as the opinion page always was, the Kochs pitched in to buy Time Magazine, and hedge funders are buying local papers like the Denver Post, strip mining them of assets and resources, then laying off almost everyone and putting out no real journalism at all. We don’t refer to the FTFNYT by chance; Carlos Slim owns a big piece of it, and I think he and Putin are part of a loose association to use giant sums of money to shape the world the way they want it (no clicks or links, it’s a personal theory that I have no evidence whatsoever to back up.) Facebook and Twitter are not liberal; they bend over backwards to please conservatives who scream at them endlessly, and Russian/Saudi/god know whose bots are multiplying like rabbits.

    Bright spots are WaPo, where Bezos seems to keep his mitts off content, and the LATimes is improving since a doctor who also ran a hedge fund bought it from the Tribune Co., may their name be cursed, and has spent a fortune on all kinds of new and modern office space and technology, and has worked with the newly formed union so far.

    I’ve cut way back on some of my medical charitable contributions and tried to support independent ventures, like ProPublica, Jon Ralston’s Nevada Indy, the Texas Tribune, Mother Jones, and the ACLU, which while not doing journalism per se uncovers all kinds of stuff through lawsuits and is good at getting the information out to the wider press.

  9. 9
    NotMax says:

    We had the age of yellow journalism. Now we have the age of orange journalism.

  10. 10
    Brachiator says:

    @WereBear:

    One of the problems of the digital age is how people don’t see electrons as anything they should pay for. It was different when you got handed something, scribbled a grocery list on it, and then used it to line a birdcage.

    TV and radio were free.

    But yeah, people want news to be free or super cheap for an infinite amount of content. Perversely, people also don’t want to see ads, even though ads might underwrite content.

  11. 11
    Brachiator says:

    @NotMax:

    We had the age of yellow journalism. Now we have the age of orange journalism.

    You win the Internets.

  12. 12
    jl says:

    @Brachiator: OK, fine. But, print journalism doesn’t mean long form, and you seem to identify the two. Second, the issue is not whether we have excellent mass market journalism. I don’t know if we have ever had that. The TV and radio evening news has always been basically a headline service.

    We need a critical mass of people willing to pay for some kind of good journalism at local, state and national level. That is different from getting mass market to pay for excellent news. That can be a relatively small segment of the population. Not a whole lot of people keep Talkingpointsmemo or Pro Publica going. I am one, I don’t really care how many others there are, as long as enough to keep the organizations afloat doing good work at an affordable price. They provide enough free content so its like a good economic externality. And I think, historically, there never has been a really big mass audience for good journalism, its availability to everyone has always had to depend on some sort of spill over externalities. We need new mechanisms , is the problem.

  13. 13
    Another Scott says:

    @Citizen Alan: Dunno.

    The polling evidence says that Donnie won because of James Comey.

    Other obviously contributing factors are FTFNYT and their obsession with e-mails. And too much of the press’s laziness in letting FTFNYT set the daily morning agenda in their reporting.

    I blame headline writers and those who distill complicated stories down to a 20 second sound bite for much of the problems with today’s “journalism”. It doesn’t help understanding and the truth to put all the caveats and nuance in the 14th paragraph that few will read. And even when complicated stories are correctly distilled into an abstract or executive summary, the pressure to be “first” means that too many reporters don’t bother to understand before they start yapping.

    We haven’t subscribed to a newspaper since the W years when we dropped the WaPo. I mainly skim Reuters headlines, the BBC headlines, and various blogs these days. I don’t think I’m that much less well informed than I was when I was getting the Post and the Economist and InfoWorld and Car and Driver and National Geographic and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Scientific American and all the rest of the dead tree stuff that I used to try to read. There are only so many hours in the day.

    I don’t know what the solution is. The public needs to be informed, but it’s not clear to me that corporations that are so beholden to advertisers and “celebrity” reporters are the best way to do it these days. And we shouldn’t forget that in a very real way we do already pay for the stuff that we see on our screens. Internet connections aren’t free. PCs and phones aren’t free. We pay for that stuff. The problem is the way the money is distributed.

    Newspapers, magazines, TV news outfits, could charge ISPs (Verizon, AT&T, Xfinity, Cox, etc.) for their stuff that gets transmitted on the networks. There are all kinds of funding arrangements that could be made beyond or instead of “5 free articles per month”. Radio stations pay to play music. Cable companies battle with HBO and Netflix and ESPN over who pays what. The UK charges a tax on TVs, etc., to fund the BBC. There are lots and lots of ways to make sure that the public has access to information.

    tl;dr – It was Comey. Journalism? Meh.

    Cheers,
    Scott.

  14. 14
    joel hanes says:

    @WereBear:

    I’m happy to pay for electronic information, and do.
    I am not happy to pay for bandwidth for advertising, which is disinformation disguised as information.

    News mixed with advertising is the equivalent of food mixed with strychnine — the food is nutritious, the adulterating strychnine is toxic.

  15. 15
    Brickley Paiste says:

    Democracy can’t exist without a functioning press.

    So if you want democracy, subscribe to at least one newspaper, preferably several.

  16. 16
    geg6 says:

    @jl:

    I hear you. I, too, subscribe to ProPublica and TPM because I find value in their independence and content. I don’t know about other places but locally we have an online upstart called The Beaver Countian that covers local new and does local investigative reporting that blows our local newspaper out of the water. I used to believe the guy who started it was a crackpot. But he’s really done some great work over the last several years, uncovering corruption and graft in local municipalities and county government. He got the corrupt asshole county sheriff run out of office and he’s got a local police department in his sights after the murder of the daughter of one of the officers (the chief and two captains had to step down) just to name two big stories he’s broken. And it’s free content. Every town or county should be so lucky.

  17. 17
    Ruckus says:

    @Brachiator:
    Family got it’s first TV in 1953. I was 4
    TV wasn’t free, we had ads.
    Today, even if you can get TV through an antenna, it’s not free, those ads pay for it.
    Ads are the cost of “free” TV. And radio. And have been with us forever. What really galls is that we now pay just for the access to see those ads at the rate of approx. 15 minutes per hour. That’s 25% of our time is paying for the content and we are paying extra for the access.

  18. 18
    Fleeting Expletive says:

    I’ve been thinking for a while about changing up my media sources. How much makes sense for television/internet (one source) and subscription internet/print? My local papers aren’t great, but I’d like to support union journalists and good investigative work and good writing. Not fond of Millenial-speak and cutesiness.
    LAT, one of the Texas papers, MoJo, maybe, WaPo possibly? What do y’all like?

  19. 19
    geg6 says:

    @Fleeting Expletive:

    I highly recommend subscribing to TPM. It supports a good site and you get content, including investigative stuff, you can’t get unless you subscribe. Plus it’s very affordable. I pay $50 a year and they have new ad free version for $100 a year.

    ETA: I also like New York magazine, despite Andrew Sullivan and (sometimes, especially when it comes to education) Chait. I subscribe to that, also.

  20. 20
    Fleeting Expletive says:

    @Another Scott: Should have read your comment first. Well Said.

  21. 21
    Fleeting Expletive says:

    @geg6: And your suggestions too. I read TPM every day but haven’t paid yet. I don’t tweet or FB but I follow my favorite journalists, lawyer, news sites, etc. on twitter. Thanks. I have to go now as my show starts in 7 minutes!

  22. 22
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @jl:

    hint to BJ for a deluxe edition, since this blog will pay for itself!

    Interesting idea. What content would you choose to keep from readers and commenters who are having trouble making ends meet?

  23. 23
    jl says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Could have sliding scale membership fee, or other members buy scholarships. Would have to have some system to verify eligibility.

    Or… a panel of experts could choose more abstruse and technical Anderson, Rofer and Silverman posts for behind the paywall.
    Or, maybe some would want to pay a small fee to see most unhinged Cole rants.

    Or, could have perks for paying members, like they get one free guest post per year, or paying members don’t have ads.

    Readership could decide democratically.

    Edit: serious point behind the spray of ideas out of my ass and jokes, you don’t necessarily have to deny anyone any content.

  24. 24
    NotMax says:

    @jl

    Except it’s a Coleocracy, not a democracy.

  25. 25
    WaterGirl says:

    @jl: Ugh!

    @Omnes Omnibus: Thank you. Doing something like that would be a sad day for Balloon Juice. A caste system is antithetical to everything BJ is about.

  26. 26
    jl says:

    @NotMax: I have some info from * and ^ and $, one of them splashed on the front page, not private communication, that a Coleocracy means sometimes Cole doesn’t want to be bothered to know what the hell is going on. So, anything can happen at BJ blog!

  27. 27
    jl says:

    @WaterGirl: OK, then Cole needs to flog the contribution link. I’ll throw something in today to pay for my commenting sins.

  28. 28
    WaterGirl says:

    @jl: Appreciate you leading by example! :-)

  29. 29
    Geeno says:

    Totally OT: I’ve been letting this eat at me for a while. My sister – the only other surviving member of my immediate family – was diagnosed with “late stage” laryngeal cancer in December. She’s having surgery 2-11. I’m in Rochester,NY; she’s in Augusta,GA. I don’t have the money to get down there – so we’re texting as we can. She wants to talk as much as she can, because she won’t be able to soon; so she calls and hoarsely whispers with me.
    I’m sorry – I just had to vent.

  30. 30
    Another Scott says:

    @Geeno: Nothing is OT on Balloon-Juice. ;-)

    I’m sorry. :-(

    I hope that everything goes as well as possible and that you can have meaningful time together.

    Fingers crossed.

    Best wishes to you and your sister,
    Scott.

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