Are Journalists being replaced by bots?

Why this picture? Felt this article needed a picture, searched wikipedia for a license free image to use and found this on the journalist page. It was taken by wikipedia user:Cogiati

Journalists need to be put on the endangered species list. Have you met a journalist recently? Chances are very rare. If you work in PR like I do, they are mostly generic email ids such as writers@newspaper.com or editorial@dotcom.com, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have a few journalist contacts (I try to avoid saying “journalist friends” – I don’t think a true journalist can be anyone’s friend.) and I meet with them regularly. Talk with them on what interests them, recent spins, gossip, happy hour pricing… you get the picture. But these numbers are decreasing fast. They are being replaced by “content producers”.

I used to be a journalist. I was young, carefree and enjoyed the sense of “I am someone” for a while. After a few years, two things dawned on me, first, that “I am someone” feeling, like most things in life, follows the law of diminishing marginal utility. Second, it gets harder and harder to keep up with your bills if you are salaried journalist, worse if you are a freelancer.

It’s easy to fall into the lap of public relations, corporate communications or whatever evil term you want to call it. When I switched sides, my journalist colleagues mocked me. I knew inside they were jealous, some a bit worried.

Most of them were too old to move, they couldn’t make the jump even if they wanted to. Too much has changed for them. People expect their work to be free, if you are working for the top three titles, advertisers will put pressure if they read something they didn’t like. If you don’t work for the top three, you will be writing out fluff pieces your publisher wants to further his goals or of his friends.

The fall of print, both in terms of paid subscribers and advertising have driven the once cozy, respected, decent paying journalism jobs out of their natural habitats of large publishing houses. Now, they have to fend for themselves in word count and per article dictated remuneration. You are only as good as the number of clicks on your last click bait article, you don’t have to go out and talk to people, just rehash what you find on the internet and add a sexier headline.

I feel sorry for journalism students. I really don’t know when this trend started but most of the good journalists I know never studied journalism. They are engineers, doctors, unemployed (even though they claim to be entrepreneurs), lawyers, etc. Do you really need to spend four years in a university, spend $40,000 or more to get into a job which most likely will pay you nothing (before taxes) as a starting salary?

There are far too many journalism students going after too few genuine media opportunities. There are very few media focused universities these reputable media companies recruit from. What do you do if you spend four years studying journalism and is stuck without a job?

There are so many people writing or “producing content” that a journalist name hardly carries any gravitas. People refer just to the title, “have you red that buzzfeed article about <insert body part> and <correlate with happiness> and/or <sponsoring brand>.

I am sure I can make this rant sound even more pathetic by adding “back in the day…” but I will spare you from that. Those of you who were around know, those of you who weren’t, why bother?

As a PR professional, this should be good right? It should be easy now to get your clients in the news, add the necessary spin, etc. Sadly no.

Not for me. If you are able to introduce your client to a journalist, supply them with information and be part of a comprehensive coverage which is value to the reader. It means I have done my job well.

Sure it’s easy now to get a press release or an email interview placed, especially online, but is that really any value to my client or the reader? Journalists and editors had powers to curate what they published. It was a test to see if you were worthy to be published, they had a duty to ensure their readers get information they can trust.

Sadly this is not the case anymore. Online publications in particular, since they don’t have any constraints of space, publish almost anything you send them. Some publish 100 to 200 news items a day, hardly any written by them, mostly supplied by PR agencies. Journalists and media titles play their role as gatekeepers without much seriousness.

Readers now discover news by what is shared on social media or by searching for something related online. The more articles you have the more you will be “discovered”. Why bother to restrict what gets published?

The PR industry too is to blame. We jumped on the social media bandwagon too soon and flooded it with cash. Without any accountability, we made it a buzz word and sold it in seductive packaging to our clients. Some of this was done to hide the decay and decline in impact of traditional PR. By the time high of social media wore off, clients realised that “likes” don’t give them any sales and they are stuck with an ever increasing retainer bill, it was too late.

Being ignored, traditional media titles decided to beat the social media outlets in their own game. They introduced native advertising, which basically means featuring brands for a monetary consideration. The PR industry just shot itself in face. If you can pay bloggers, instagramers, snapchattters, why can’t you pay journalists?

There are a few journalists, in the true sense of the word, left. We have to do everything we can do protect them. I do what I can by paying for my newspaper, and a few online titles I respect. I hardly believe anything published on platforms that give me news for free.

When I do find journalists I trust and respect, I try to spend as much time with them as possible. Some of them suspect whether I have an ulterior motive. I do and I make those disclosures upfront.

Let’s not assume all journalists are saints and the evil world of eradicating them mercilessly. There are unreasonable journalists too, perhaps some of the blame is on their part too. There was a time when they were all powerful and they took advantage of the trust placed on them.

But are we ready for a world run by journalism bots? Are we ready to live in a world in which we consume content placed in front of us by design (big data mining) for us to react in a certain way? Are we to be satisfied with content that tells us 10 ways to peel an orange?

Just like bees, journalists are vital for our society. We might not notice their disappearance anytime soon but it will have a tragic impact on they way we trust information.

No, this is not a rant by a PR guy worried about how some algorithm based bot is going to “make-content-publishing-and-discovery-much-more-efficient-and-with-analytics-to-review-performance-and-RoI….” shake up his industry.

That article will come later.