Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The hamster wheel of news

The Columbia Journalism Review has a piece warning that journalists are pursuing quantity rather than quality in their stories. This is largely driven by the perceived value of providing a constant stream of new information, rather than chasing down stories that might be more significant but that require more time to nail down (and thus prevent the reporter from writing other pieces in the meantime). This is the "hamster wheel" on which reporters and their publications are running -- and getting nowhere.
The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.
The lament that journalists don't do enough long-form investigative pieces isn't new: I remember hearing this as far back as the 1980s, when newsrooms were already suffering painful cuts. The McPaperization of our newspapers probably has gotten worse since then, though. Back in the '80s the New York Times could reasonably be considered a luxury if you didn't live in New York. Today, in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's the only paper that provides enough context to its stories for them to make any sense. If the best-known of the area's local papers, the lamentably bad San Francisco Chronicle, had any good investigative pieces on any kind of regular basis, I'd consider subscribing to it. Hell, if its ordinary stories had any kind of depth, I'd consider it. As it is, though, it's a ridiculously easy decision to ignore the Chronicle's periodic importuning for my business. (Sorry to Tim Goodman, the paper's sardonic TV critic and a longtime favorite of mine.)

The piece also reminds me that "information" in some contexts is, as Wikipedia's definition puts it, merely "an ordered sequence of symbols." Information as such isn't necessarily valuable: radio static, for instance, can be considered information. That's what today's Web reminds me of, radio static. That's what the CJR piece is warning against: mindless, meaningless, valueless noise, peddled as journalism.

A non-obvious side effect of running on the hamster wheel is that, "for all the activity it generates, the Wheel renders news organizations deeply passive," making them easily manipulable by public relations specialists. Ask yourself how beneficial that is for the average person. You can't even rely on a finely honed bullshit detector, because there is nothing but bullshit being flung far and wide on some stories.

The piece concludes that the hamster wheel is a dead end both journalistically and financially. I don't know about that. The elephant in the room is that back in the 1980s, USA Today showed that people will buy the journalistic equivalent of mediocre tapas plates, little bites that, if consumed in sufficient quantity, leave you with the impression you've had a full meal. The paper's malign influence spread throughout the industry, and now a whole lot of people consider that kind of short, context-free writing to be sufficient for their needs. How will the journalists and publications who won't run the hamster wheel make a living in the face of the public's degraded taste in news?

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