A digital journalism revolution with strings attached

Bring more than a thousand journalists together, many of them young and most of them brimming with skill in handling today’s most dazzling information tools, and you’d expect feverish talk about producing the kind of reporting that moves nations. Apart from dropping names and looking for jobs, that’s what journalists do in their off-hours—they talk stories, they talk opportunities to do the kind of work that matters.

And that’s what I expected when I rejoined the Online News Association, the premier organization of digital journalists, and went to their recent annual conference in Boston.

Boston did have some of that, notably sessions on the Arab spring, on telling in-depth stories better, and on the largely overlooked history of racial and sexual diversity in the digital revolution—which was fomented, as it happens, by lots more minorities and women than the standard fable of white boys in the garage might suggest.

So the rising generation of journalists didn’t seem wholly indifferent to the needs of a world that the rest of us hope they’ll dedicate themselves to serving, if not saving. But the conference sessions that generated the most buzz, and which had people sitting in the aisles and clustered at the doorways, weren’t about rooting out corruption or feeding the hungry.

They were about entrepreneurial journalism, which isn’t some new catchphrase for street-smart, down and dirty reporting. It’s a term for turning news and comment into a perpetual hustle. They were about transforming yourself into a “brand,” a recognizable label that can be monetized, thanks to the online traffic successful brands draw via New Age social media. They were about “cooking up tasty apps,” which is tech-speak for clever new interactive feeds that slice the informational customer base in novel ways.

And throughout the conference was the hip, deft, never-heavy hand of the affable lords of the online world. On the panels, at the booths, on the podiums were representatives of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, even Microsoft, which sponsored the first-night reception. They were welcomed as authoritative guides to the sophisticated, market-savvy journalism of today. They were envoys from colossal corporate enterprises, but they were embraced as ambassadors of a revolution—not because they know anything about news, but because they tend the meadows where the customers browse.

I had seen this phenomenon before, last spring, at the annual conference of the American Society of News Editors in San Diego, where ASNE was carpet-bombed by Facebook, whose emissaries were sprinkled generously throughout the proceedings to urge the country’s newspapers to set up Facebook sites as their shop windows on the Internet. They argued that online readers would be more likely to find, say, this newspaper’s offerings if displayed as a Facebook page than if they went to its website directly or, heaven forbid, clicked to its articles through Google, which Facebook is challenging for search supremacy.

Less well explained was the business reality that when you’re a news organization and your readers read your headlines on a Facebook page, it’s Facebook that collects most, if not all, of the associated advertising revenue—and, more important, it’s Facebook that archives priceless information about your readers and their pals, and uses that to sell still more advertising. All thanks to the draw of your coverage, which Facebook does nothing to create.

The narcissism of the ONA sessions in Boston was disquieting, the idea that journalistic success should be measured by reach, click-throughs, retweets and other metrics of effective self-promotion. (Once, reporters counted indictments.)

You would think there was no longer any reason to bother with a conundrum that has long plagued the news business: What to do about the fact that the civic realities people need to confront are rarely the things they’re most interested in, that journalism can be both wildly popular and worthless.

But what was most disquieting was the obliviousness to a larger reality that seems glaring: That the entire news business is being played. What’s under way is a deliberate marketing campaign to deputize the rising generation of journalists as auxiliary recruiters for an industry of social media giants whose business requires assembling vast populations for advertising targeted by age, location, interest, taste, preference, alignment—and dozens of other factors that can be inferred from the news they watch and the comments they post.

Yes, these tools are remarkable, and the news business has every reason to grab them and use them wisely. But they aren’t a substitute for public purpose. And the toolmakers have their own agendas, which have the potential not just to assist, but also to corrupt, the revolution they purport to be creating.

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5 thoughts on “A digital journalism revolution with strings attached

  1. A timely reminder that journalism is should be about entrepreneurialism (although we will all need some of that as well) to serve the people, but not serve them up. When Steve Jobs died, there was an outpouring for the loss of a genius entrepreneur who will no longer be there to give us the tools and the toys. But the ONA folks are missing the point – that Jobs was able to be where we needed to go. And he waited for us there with the right tools (and toys). Media management is not about being where we are going. Just about being where we are now. It remind me of Wayne Gretzky’s explanation: “I go where the puck will be. Not where it is.”

    1. Good point about Jobs. I have to say I’m waiting for a more sober appraisal of Apple’s cumulative impact on the digital world. Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch, suggests a faceoff between Apple and Google, with Google championing the open Internet and Apple pushing for the “walled garden” of proprietary apps (much like the original AOL conception.) I think Wu is excessively kind to Google and underestimates how toxic its surveillance/advertising model is. But I have to say I find my iPad more of a consumption conduit than an invitation to create content. In that respect, it’s not respectful of the things I most value about the Internet.

  2. Excellent points made here. But here’s what’s missing in the analysis- in my opinion as a freelancer for 14 years (and a one time ONA award winner)- survival. Yes, it would be wonderful if 10,000 e-readers clicked on the coverage of the school board’s tooth-and-nails fight over teaching creationism, making sure that the local newspaper paid the reporter a good living wage to keep going back to the meetings. Yes, it would.

    But that public service journalism, these days, is mostly the realm of new j-school grads, sharing an apartment, living on $30,000 and watching school loans and credit card bills mount.

    The excitement you witnessed, however tainted by the strings attached, is actually about a new model that is rising, where great writers and reporters can produce great stories and offer them for .99 cents, looking for that 10,000th reader that will enable them to write that great book, or that new series of real importance. It is about having lived under the pall of the senescence of journalism as envisioned by hidebound, risk-averse, advertising-dependent editors with sinking budgets. The strings you define here in this story, while real, are far thinner and more elastic than the strings that bind journalism right now.

  3. The Charlotte Observer ran the essay on Oct.12 about Facebook’s influence on Journalists.The Observer,a McClatchy paper now but formerly of Knight-Ridder,continues to struggle given the low McClatchy stock price to maintain a proper news staff after multiple rounds of layoffs. Its business coverage especially has suffered and while it boasts 125 years of survival and over one million internet hits,its subscription base is down to 155,000 on weekdays including me. We understand in the 21st Century that internet news in Google,Yahoo,or Facebook form will continue to grow while the NY Times and Washington Post try to hang on to old school investigative,public service writing. It appears that the McClatchy model is a failure and without a better financial base including some form of advertising or paywall,readers will continue to be shortchanged by old school media. The local tv news channels learned a long time ago how to exploit the news in favor of helicopters over crime scenes or car wrecks and way too much weather chatter. Mr. Wasserman may not have a prescription for newspapers but technology is not going away and readers who care about newspapers or Journalism will have to be more careful as to which source they can trust.

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