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.