The Real Problem With Journalism In 2015
Adam Popescu
2014

The Real Solutions for Journalism in 2015?

This was well written and true enough.

I’ve read half a dozen articles about being a journalist in the last few weeks. Which is close to the total amount I’ve read each year since I finished journalism school nine years ago.

Negative articles abound, and they’re similarly structured. We’re underpaid. There are few opportunities to specialize. Social media is killing the journalism star. The business model is broken.

Positive articles are not scarce and share many attributes. Pride. A sense of duty. The chance to practice your craft every day. And, of course, freedom.

The pressure has ratcheted up a lot in the last nine years that I’ve worked in newsrooms. The ability to handle it all and stay grounded in the craft of writing or the skill of reporting seems rare.

Seemingly rarer still are the guardians of journalism who love it enough to let it out of the bottle like Thompson, Didion, Talese and Mailer did.

They didn’t have to deal with social media or shrinking freelance dollars, did they?

But they did have to deal with a lack of platform for their work. So they branched out and went where the audience was, places like Playboy, Rolling Stone and Esquire. And when they couldn’t do that, they published books or gave lectures.

It’s no different now, though there is more focus on the platform, and therefore we have the Gawkers, BuzzFeeds and HuffPos of the current day.

Journalist

Sometimes I think there is less focus on the craft of writing today, but then I remember there are just so many more sources of writing that it’s harder to find them.

Fewer platforms meant fewer writers. More people can eke out a living today, and so there is a glut of mediocre writing and wading through it is tiresome for the audience and writers alike.

Traditional platforms are suffering from massive audience behavioral change, and they’ve merely transported their bulky workflow onto digital platforms rather than reinventing it for where the audience now spends its time.

And instead of marketing on billboards and in bus stations, they are asking reporters to push their writing out to the public through social platforms, which is a huge pain in the ass, because who signed up to do their own marketing?

There is much truth in what you write, but I don’t see any solutions, just the same old tired complaints that have been plaguing us for far longer than digital journalism has been a thing.

I remember reporters at The Oregonian, where I worked for a while in 2006, lamenting the fact that it was so difficult to specialize in something. That editors just wanted as many news items as they could to fill the bottomless hole. We all wanted to be like Tom Hallman Jr., the Pulitzer prize winning master of narrative storytelling.

Yes, we had the Internet, and reporters were just being trained to post their stories online on their own without help from the IT folks.

But Twitter was a few months from being born, and Facebook still was something for college kids.

The mood was almost exactly the same as it is today, but there are fewer of those journalists around anymore.

A few of us intrepid idiots tried to use MySpace as a news tool in those early days. There were varying degrees of success. I found some kids at a Portland high school who would talk to me, on the record, about a school resource officer who was handing out weed and alcohol to students.

MySpace later helped me confirm that the same police officer married a former student from the high school where he was working, and that he had dated the girl while she was a student.

An so flowed my career as a digital journalist.

I know it’s easy to blame social media as a culprit in all of this. Few reporters have found much use for it beyond brand building and as a diary of desk lunches.

But yesterday, the AP published a story that used Instagram photos from an Illinois Congressman’s account to help them match his whereabouts with public data about his use of taxpayer donations to take flights aboard private jets and to pay for concerts.

This speaks to the deeper nature of changing behaviors in humans broadly, not just in a news audience. It also speaks to the fact that social media is not just a journalist’s problem. It’s a journalist’s solution too.

One might wish to go back to 2005, before the endless scroll. One might wish that we could just stop using social media in news altogether.

But we can’t preserve what journalism was, because it has to adapt to how people behave today.

It’s so different from what it was, that we (journalists) have a hard time imagining what it could be if it’s not great writing and in-depth investigations meted out in black ink on newsprint.

The most frustrating idea banging around the universe today is that journalism is not for the audience, it’s an institution that exists beyond what an audience wants.

They call it the Fourth Estate, but it might as well live in a fourth dimension.

As if it should be protected like a world heritage site, placed behind glass where we can go and read the dwindling supply of daily front pages while they last.

It’s this idea that is keeping journalism from evolving into the digital age. The idea that we are its caregivers, which means protecting it rather than practioners stretching its abilities.

We need journalists who are programmers and social media editors and producers, because those roles often go to technically proficient people rather than graduates of journalism school.

They are seen as secondary roles, while the journalists do the heavy lifting.

If you want to pick a problem with journalism, this is far more a culprit than the big, bad wolf we call social media.

I have complained about the lack of solutions in this piece, so I want to present a few so as not to look like someone who is simply disagreeing with your assessment when, in fact, I agree with much of it.

  1. Sometimes a thing must die before it can be reborn as something new and better. Putting a new facade on something that isn’t working, be it the business model or the journalism itself, is only prolonging the inevitable.
  2. Social media is not responsible for the lack of good journalism. The lack of good journalists using social media well makes it difficult to find great journalism.
  3. Digital leadership in news organizations is essential. There are too few journalists with deep digital experience at or near the top. This, along with a lack of diversity, is detrimental to journalism adapting to the look and behavior of today’s potential news audience.
  4. Journalism needs to become more audience focused to reconnect with the public. Glass-tower journalism can be too easily ignored today, and journalists need to stop taking pride in doing something because it needed doing even if it had no audience.
  5. The widest possible audience is no longer possible with so many options online. It’s time to start focusing on building many audiences much like podcast networks are doing.

Journalism adapted for almost two centuries. It has flourished and floundered but always served its purpose. The fatigue that is so palpable today, both in journalism and in an overfed audience, must reach a breaking point.

Somewhere, there is the seed of an idea that will take hold. Or, more likely, hundreds or thousands of seeds that will allow for the new growth journalism needs to flourish in the digital age.

I suppose I feel optimistic and fully burned out at the same time, which is why your post both drained me and raised my interest enough to write a reply. My first such reply on Medium, in fact. Take it for what it’s worth. Not a rebuttal, simply a think-out-loud reply about what we can change.