The Real Problem With Journalism In 2015

Hard truths by a so-called *real journalist*

By Adam Popescu

It’s not that every publication sounds the same, although this is a real problem.

Pubs are valiantly trying to be all things to an ever-expanding audience. While ambitiously noble, it’s unrealistic. Because when the soap boxes with which pubs post from end up looking and sounding identical, they become doomed to mediocrity.

Quick, ask someone who wrote that stellar feature in the new New York Times Mag? You know, the one about amateur journalism in Rio’s favelas, by, um, what was her name? Oh, it was a he? You can’t remember? That’s because, sadly, most aren’t worth remembering (although this writer is). What good journalism, and good writing really need are unique voices—people like David Carr, Bob Simon, Michael Hastings, all extinguished far, far before they should have — and that can’t happen when most journalists are too busy trying to sing like everyone else, rather than refine their own sound. Which brings us to the next point…

It’s not that many reporters seem to define original reporting as whatever you can copy — sorry — aggregate the fastest.

“Paraphrasing” press releases, interns that ghostwrite your work, outright plagiarizing. These are sins, inherent problems we all face in the era of hamster wheel production. The best way to describe these blunders, is, excuse my language, to call them exactly what they are: fuck-ups. And when these fuck-ups happen, and they happen far more often than we’d all like to admit, most (alleged) perps aren’t properly punished. Hell, sometimes those same fucks-ups can even land a job from the place they plagiarized from. That can’t be right, can it?

I’m all for second chances, within reason, but some breaches of the public trust don’t deserve to be forgiven. Brian Williams aside, the likes of Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass or Mike Daisey are all beyond approach (when I got the chance to speak to Daisey online back in 2013, he described himself as a satirist, not a journalist, a man with mightily obscured vision). When the public perceives our role as bastions of facts, conduits of reality, we owe our readers to provide those truths. If you can’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. And copying from someone else’s CliffsNotes on the test is no answer, either.

It’s not that there aren’t enough jobs for recent grads.

I have a master’s degree in journalism. My school’s media program is regularly named among the best in the country (although how you quantify what’s best in this crowded landscape is beyond me). While that experience hasn’t necessarily gotten me a job in the five plus years since I’ve graduated, it hasn’t hurt. Unlike law or medicine, a degree in journalism doesn’t translate to employment. But it does help provide the training, confidence, and (hopefully) connections needed to secure that employment. Unfortunately, there’s a ton of intangibles here, intra-personal skills involved that take years to manifest and develop, a sense of hustle and entrepreneurialism, traits that can’t be taught as much as learned. That means learning by failing, something every real journalist has done more times than they’d like to admit. Sure, according to a Georgetown report released this month, unemployment rates are falling for everyone but journalism grads. But there’s a reason recent grads are having such a tough time. Many are told they must master social media, design, and coding to become employable. As a result, most don’t specialize in any one skill, and this focus on skills has made the masses neglect the real craft that, despite all the talk of disruptive technology, is the basis for the profession: writing.

I’m 30. I was raised by professional writers, watched as they pored over pages, celebrated victories, cried over defeats. Writing is in my blood. I penned short stories as a kid, my first screenplay as a teen, fantasizing about dropping out of high school and selling my first feature.

My reality is different. I’m not in Hollywood although I live in Hollywood. And I’ve yet to sell a script. But I have been published by more than a dozen major publications, and this past year I finished my first book. What I’ve learned is that I only truly became a real writer, and started to understand the craft of writing, in the past few years. And I still have a long way to go.

Most young writers don’t get the chance to hone their skill, and they don’t get the chance to develop and grow. And when they do get a gig, they’re expected to pump out multiple posts a day, on in-depth topics that their 22 year-old mind can’t possibly have experienced, let alone know about. Which is why so many take shortcuts and lift from others. Because when there’s little institutional history, tight deadlines, and editors with unrealistic expectations, well…the recipe ain’t right. Or rather, it’s ripe for failure. And when your skills are mediocre at best, it’s hard to make a case that you’re worth more to a publication than, say, a proven vet who can pen with the best of them, yet can’t fathom the value of Snapchat. This is the problem the youth faces.

It’s not that the business model is broken.

Pandora’s box is forever open, it’s not a matter of good or bad. It just…is. The question is how to make it work.

2014 was in many ways a pivotal moment. Silicon Valley invested heavily in publishing. Jeff Bezos nabbed the Washington Post, Pierre Omidyar tapped Glenn Greenwald to launch First Look Media, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the floundering The New Republic. 2014 was also the year of the j-startup, the year of entrepreneurial journalism. The Kickstarter-esque platform Beacon debuted, so did the content studio NewsCred. Ex-NY Times executive editor Jill Abramson announced a new subscription site focusing on long form stories, even claiming she would actually pay writers living wages. Oh yeah, and 30-year-old boy wonder Ezra Klein scored millions in funding to launch the very ambitious (which despite big hopes, has had a hard time setting itself apart from the pack and determining its identity). And let’s not forget BuzzFeed, Vice, Mashable, all received millions in investments, pushing their valuations higher than the Burj Khalifa.

Sure, there were failures too, too many to list, and some notable hiccups (including Paul Carr’s NSFW Corp, and most recently, Andrew Sullivan’s decision to call it quits after burning out on his blog the Dish). There are ways to make it work. BuzzFeed, Vice, Mashable, all are examples of former upstarts now morphing into “old” new media properties, as David Carr wrote a few years ago. Now they’re even further along the path, relying more on the deep pockets of brand partnerships than ad clicks. And that model can work, on any scale. Case-in-point: AllDay (co-founded by a guy I worked with a few years ago at Marketplace Radio), a multi-million dollar mini-pub staffed by a handful who rely less on content than distribution. They use multiple social media accounts (such as History In Pics) with millions of followers, and affiliate marketing, to arbitrage traffic. The model isn’t broken. But to a large degree it’s become a win or lose based on your social standing. Which can translate to a pub looking at your social numbers before your prose. Which is troubling, but a fact of the industry.

It’s not that the media-elite practice the same bad behavior as they criticize.

A few weeks ago, Fusion’s snark-in-chief Felix Salmon and the aforementioned wunderkind Klein got into a war of words — philosophies, really.

In his “To all the young journalists asking for advice,” Salmon basically described himself as a privileged guy that got lucky. Don’t ask me for advice, ‘cause I ain’t got it. In short: don’t become a journalist. Meanwhile on Vox, Klein wrote the exact opposite, taking an almost laughable stance eschewing the harsh realities of the game. This turned Twitter on its ear, (for a few days, at least) with most bickering back and forth in a he-said, she-said that felt a bit like the soap boxing I alluded to in the beginning of this post (if you can remember that far back, sorry, I’ll be wrapping up soon). While I find myself in the middle, the best advice is to listen with a grain of salt.

The problem is just how cliquey and insulated the top tiers of media really are, especially on venues like this era’s so-called idea salon, Twitter. The idea is simple: build a following, write whatever drek that tumbles out of your head, sandwich it in between RTs and other garnishments that show you’re on top of all the data whooshing by, and a blue verified check marks follows. Now in between your pretense, you’re now free to post about your love for your pets or your favorite breakfast food. Pundit in training. The truth is, many of us are notoriously poor communicators, over-extended to the Nth, and often quick to flip-flop when it comes to what we want. Which inevitably makes us flaky, hard to pin down, and even worse company in person (head hung low, swiping on our devices).

When it comes to advice, all this amounts to a nightmare, especially for freelancers. Most of all for invoices and collecting payments, a discourse in itself, one that could make you want to seek a new profession if you’re not fortunate enough to be on a timely staff payroll.

So…what is the real problem with journalism in 2015?

The truth is, this whole post has been a lie.

The real problem isn’t one thing. It’s all of the above.

Most writers can’t write. Most writers don’t read. Most writers post things they don’t read. And as many writers know, the idea of being a writer is much cooler, and infinitely easier than the reality.

Most editors don’t know how to communicate, much less edit. Most are stuck behind the 8ball of page views, shares and likes. And they don’t like it. But they have no choice, with the majority forced to do more with less. A great editor will make a story come alive, ask the kind of questions that make you a better reporter, and lead like a coach with the game on the line. When you find one of those, stick with them. They’ll take you to the goal line and into the end zone. And you’ll thank them for it.

We’ve traded access for accountability. We’re not asking enough difficult questions because we’re too in awe of celebrity, fame and money, and it shows in our work. Perhaps worst of all, most reporters are too lazy to leave their computers to report, and with their production quotas so high, they’re now more churnalists than journalists.

When most of us do write, we end up copying each other, or our PR liaisons. We’re afraid to be different, have an opinion, or give our stories teeth. Sometimes our words need to cut. Sometimes we need to take chances. Instead, we’re fighting with dull weapons, and we can’t win with those kinds of tools.

We accept too little money for a profession that takes too much time. And there’s a stigma that making money and working in journalism are somehow mutually exclusive. It’s not and it shouldn’t be. Arianna Huffington, Jonah Peretti, Shane Smith, the list goes on and on. Money can be made here, but like most industries, it’s concentrated at the top.

We’re all too busy (or act it), and as result, we’ve lost our manners. 99.99% of us are running around like chickens with our heads cut off. At the very minimum, we can be nice to each other. And honest. If you get nothing out of this post but this, please return an email or follow through on what you say you’ll do. Don’t if you won’t. Tell someone you’re not interested, don’t make them wait in suspense. If we can do that alone, morale improves, and that’s big.

If this post comes off as angry, I’m sorry. Maybe I am a bit angry. Maybe I’ve been burned by the fire. But I love journalism, and I think it deserves better. And I think we journalists have a duty to take it more seriously — and improve the product.

The realist in me is determined to keep trying, keep fighting, keep pushing. This is my life, my livelihood. And I don’t have another to fall back on. I’ve invested too much, and I want it too much. If I could change one more thing, please, let’s all stop saying content. I hate that word. Let’s call this form of media what it really is: journalism. The medium deserves better.