What has happened to journalism?

Redeeming an institution that is essential to democracy

Robert Kaiser, a 50-year veteran of The Washington Post, has written an extraordinarily thoughtful essay about how journalism – both as a business and as an intellectual project – has failed to adapt to technological changes.

Kaiser explains how print news organizations have experimented with new products and tweaked their business models over the past two decades, but have failed to prove that traditional news-gathering can be a profitable endeavor. He takes this as something of a death sentence, noting that “for those who continue to want access to that kind of product, there is no right to reliable, intelligent, comprehensive journalism. We only get it when someone provides it. And if someone doesn’t pay someone a profit, it’s not likely to be produced.”

Kaiser concludes with an entreaty that tech companies bail out print news organizations, as tech companies indirectly benefit from the work product of traditional news-gatherers, and their survival is important for society:

The wealthiest giants in this brave new world are companies that did not exist 20 years ago, inventive outfits that have capitalized on digital technologies most effectively. Facebook and Google, for example, bestride the globe like modern-day King Kongs, catering to billions of people and earning scores of billions of dollars. Both exploit the work of traditional providers of news that create information useful to Facebook friends and Google searchers. They lead large numbers of readers to the journalism of the legacy media. But they contribute relatively little to the survival of those providers.
These firms were created by a new generation of young people whose self-interest may lead them either to realize the importance of the legacy institutions, or figure out new ways to do what the old news organizations did in the past. Financially, it would be easy for Google to rescue The New York Times. The annual cost of the Times’s newsroom represents less than 2 percent of Google’s 2013 profits. Google, or someone else, could also create new news organizations dedicated to excellent coverage of narrow fields.

I share Kaiser’s concerns about the trajectory of journalism and his conviction that journalism plays an essential role in democratic governance. But it strikes me that in order to redeem journalism fully as an institution, both a financial recovery and an ethical recovery must take place.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the virtual world. As traditional news organizations failed to create cohesive online identities, non-traditional news and curating sites (BuzzFeed, Business Insider, etc.) have sprung up. In many ways, these sites simply hijack the work of earnest reporters at traditional news organizations and other relevant writers. Non-traditional news organizations compete through churn and sensationalizing ordinary events. They have also helped change the incentive structure in news coverage for the worse.

As news has moved online, it has increasingly ceased to be news and instead has become content. And not just content, but fast, disposable content. Reporters appear to have internalized this intellectually as well. There is less concern among the media for developing actual expertise in the fields they write about, capturing events accurately, or providing thoughtful analysis. Some journalists I have interacted with even take pride in their lack of seriousness, which is unfathomable to me. Reporting is less about honesty and more about ubiquity now.

Just as Kaiser worries that news faces extinction, I worry that what exists already isn’t real. The latter is an equal threat to democratic governance.

One of the things I find fascinating (and sometimes infuriating) in engaging and observing financial journalists on Twitter are the sources of information they seek out. I can see where social media would be useful to journalists in trying to gain perspective on events, but for some journalists Twitter is their primary source of information. They aren’t out cornering policymakers in the hallways of the Capitol or scoring interviews with bank executives. They are messing around on social media all day and then writing what people tell them. And usually it’s the same people over and over within whatever ecosystems they’ve established, whether those people are authorities on the topic or not.

In this context, it is remarkably easy for anyone well connected simply to make things up and have it circulated everywhere. Any efforts at fact-checking are lost in the unrelenting avalanche of mindless content, so it’s not like there is any accountability. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised corporations do not exploit the media more. It would be a cheaper way of influencing opinion than lobbying.

I think most people who do not work in finance but read financial news would be shocked by some of the sources of information that journalists treat as legitimate. For example, many financial journalists follow and retweet Zero Hedge. This is a blog that has – without irony – published pieces about how the authors have spotted a “Satan signal” in stock futures and speculated that this is evidence of algorithmic traders communicating with each other, among many other outlandish things. The site reads like it is produced by some mentally ill person that has skipped his medication.

The idea that journalists would pay attention to its authors at all should be deeply disturbing. It’s as appropriate to journalism as White House correspondents getting color on the situation in Syria by polling a Kindergarten class. And yet the site has become an inescapable feature of interacting with journalists since the financial crisis.

A popular contributor on CNBC was Keith McCullough, who holds himself out as a hedge fund manager on social media but doesn’t seem to manage any money at all. He seems to trade only on paper and puts out newsletters.

I could go on and on and on with examples. These are people that even traditional, reputable news organizations refer to now for insight and coverage of events. I recognize this is hardly unique to finance as well. (Let’s ask a novelist about treating Ebola!)

At what point did this become acceptable? What is the corrective mechanism?

I have had some long conversations with Roddy Boyd with the (excellent) Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation about what kind of business model might restore integrity in journalism. SIRF was established as a 501(c)(3) and Roddy argues that people who are willing to pay (via charitable donations) for well-researched, thoughtful journalism will be how the pendulum starts to swing away from pageview-driven, content journalism. And that isn’t all that far off from what Kaiser is proposing to save existing organizations. But it’s hard to see the motivation to save journalism on Kaiser’s scale until some sanity is restored to what is being produced.