Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Journalism Today Sucks

A look at the many, MANY areas where the industry is in trouble. Did I tell you that there were a lot of them?

Many, many moons ago, I published an article called “How to Save Modern Journalism.” Within said article, I listed several actions the entire industry could take to perhaps avert a cataclysmic fate. Of my suggestions back then, the most pressing I considered was the idea of moving journalism out of the confines of an office altogether -- in short, eliminating the bureaucratic, paper pushing atmosphere in favor of an almost always-on-the-street, observe-and-report individualist profession.

I don’t think I can really explain just how much that simple architectural construct -- the office -- damages journalism as a social service. By its very nature, the office is a mechanism of commerce, a highly impersonal assembly line of sorts that squashes one’s personhood into a fine paste. The office seems to change your very DNA, rewiring your brain into this corporate entity that thinks, breathes and eats the bottom line. I don’t care what line of work you are in, being in an office -- corralled in their like cattle and all -- completely dehumanizes you, and strips away the worth of your work to simple business. The office drains one of passion, and instills in said individual a poisonous mentality; you are here, to make money, and that is all. Perhaps such a system is fine and dandy for professions like banking and shipping  -- where everything is based around lifeless objects and abstract figures as opposed to the human anyway -- but for a profession that literally rests upon the soul of man, maybe you can see why the cubicle is such a dangerous obstacle for the journalist who views his or her profession as a social service instead of just a means of making scratch.

In terms of inter-media influences, I think it’s safe to blame a lot of the field’s decline over the last 25 or so years on the Internet. You see, newspapers and magazines and other periodicals printed on that thing we used to call “paper” were once wholly anchored around advertisement placements as revenue streams. Since big-name magazines and papers were the only sources of massively available media information up until the mid 1990s (print could coexist and actually thrive alongside broadcast journalism, you have to recall), it made sense that a lot of people were willing to pay a lot of money to have their stuff pimped inside, oh say, “The Weekly World News” or “Electronic Gaming Monthly.” But then, the World Wide Web comes along, and all of a sudden, print media is no longer the preeminent format for the written word. Indeed, not only did the Internet give you information faster than print, it gave you pretty much ANY kind of information you wanted instantly -- something cable, radio and most certainly, big print media, couldn’t give you. Ever a profession filled with the arrogant and the ignorant, instead of finding a way to harness the Web from the get-go, most traditional print journalism titans either scoffed at the Internet (as if free, constantly updated material could EVER steer readers away from the pricey and the instantly outdated!) or were too slow to incorporate online monetization within their general business model. One of the great media what-could’ve-beens over the last two decades remains how the industry could’ve played out HAD online journalists found a way to utilize things like pay walls during the Web’s infancy; alas, such was not the industry’s fortune, and today, most journalistic organizations face the dual threat of battling an almost entirely free (and monumentally more expansive) Internet journalism juggernaut, in addition to attempting to fleece web users out of money by checking out their sites, somehow.

And so, facing a financial crisis, the industry, as a whole, began going a little insane. Sure, some publishers (alike the New York Times) have found means to somewhat monetize their Web services, but to compare the per capita scratch made off that model compared to the industry’s paper-only model circa 1983 is like comparing the bank accounts of 1990 MC Hammer with 2014 MC Hammer -- same name, but a MUCH less profitable game, to be sure. Seeing as how “long-form” content allegedly doesn’t read well on the Web -- after all, who has the time to read more than 1,100 words, when you could be playing the Pac-Man Google Doodle for the four billionth time -- some publishers have gone to great lengths to cater themselves to as wide an audience as possible. That means that instead of looking at sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy as the chum buckets they are, sites like CNN are actually lowering themselves to their levels, plugging their sites chock full of virtually word-less photo galleries and stories about things so unbelievably inane, you have to wonder if you somehow awoke in the world as prophesized in “Idiocracy.” Call it the industry’s Great Ongoing Pictograph Conundrum; the field of journalism’s ever-shrinking reliance on word count in exchange for the aesthetic -- things like videos, interactive infographics and, god help us, cartoons as substitutions for text. The next level, it appears, is fully interactive tablet journalism. Recently, The New York Times story “Snow Fall” -- a fairly unimpressive feature, in and of itself -- won a Pulitzer, not for its overall quality, but for its integration of new media components in the narrative. In short? It became the first (and quite possibly lamest) video game to ever win the nation’s most prized feature writing honor.

Not surprisingly, some organizations in the Reddit era have turned towards advocate-journalism (in which gargantuan foundations more or less pay companies to write about issues in a manner that behooves them) to remain financially upright. Needless to say, there’s probably some conflicts of interest there (is it ever truly journalism when a think tank is picking up the tab?), but I suppose things could be worse: at least the nation’s largest newspaper isn’t selling itself out to state-published newspapers in former communist strongholds or anything

Which brings us to the topic of objectivity. We could yammer on and on about perceived biases in the media old guard, but what is unmistakable are the ACTUAL biases within the new media “journalism” empires, like The Huffington Post and Reason. Hell, sites like Vice can’t even be passed off as masquerading as objective print literature; it’s entertainment and first person observations passed off as journalism, sans any of that pesky “reporting” and “fact checking” stuff that makes that other kind of journalism so mundane and unreadable. Journalism -- which I define as “the intentional dissemination of accurate information, sans any pretense” -- is just too blah for today’s ADD-addled masses. We need conflict, and contention, and of course, lots and lots of sensationalism and emotional pornography -- and if you’re reading some of Rupert Murdoch’s U.K rags, actual pornography, too. It’s a perfect storm, really: the collective masses want rubbish, and cash-strapped journalistic organizations want some eyes on them. The end dividend, I am afraid, has been the overall Good Morning America-ing of the entire industry.

Of course, you can’t talk about the general suck-ening of the format without talking about the publishers, whom are in fact the most culpable individuals pertaining to the industry’s current decayed state. Whether we’re dealing with old money landed gentry small town piss rag owners or the fly-by-night, hooray-for-capitalism bankrollers of pop culture and techno-speak fluffery, 99 percent of the time, crappy journalism is a direct result of top-down mismanagement. For publishers of the like, the whole point of journalism, as a concept, is to rake in the dough and/or push fiscally-rewarding incentives for themselves; oftentimes, they know about as much about authentic journalism as the common muskrat understands quantum physics.

Of course, the journalists themselves do play a role in the general de-qualification of the field. When you look at the big time players in the U.S. media industry, something mighty peculiar becomes apparent: all of these big-money journalist folk all appear to have gone to the same “prestigious” schools, like Columbia and the University of Chicago -- schools, I might add, whose tuition per semester exceeds $50,000. If graduating from institutes like those are the unspoken passkey to a lucrative career in journalism, than it appears as if the entire medium is only accessible to those with the richest of mommies and da-das -- meaning those with actual insight into the ways of the commoner are left reading the news instead of penning it themselves.

Classism is very much ingrained in modern journalism. The irony of an NYU grad writing stories about the poor and the marginalized appears to be one of those verboten topics among industry-insiders; it’s a bunch of upper middle class folks appointing themselves, more or less, as the “official voices” of the American proletariat. Clearly, if the nation’s proles were in charge of running American media, I assure you the entire national context of news would be something altogether different. And although the field of journalism is quick to pride itself on being one of the more forward thinking industries out there, let’s not ignore the seeming racial prejudices that run rampant throughout it -- I speak of publishers whom take advantage of unpaid interns, and often use African-American and female employees as low-wage entry-position fillers -- not so much out of a concern for diversity, as much as it is a way of meeting quotas for grants and other self-funding mechanisms.

Sure, the CNN and The New York Times types may be doing well for themselves, but if you’re working elsewhere -- a small-town newspaper or any online gig, for that matter -- it’s pretty much a guarantee that you, as a journalist, will be treated like utter crap. Many organizations today do make use of freelance employees, but primarily as a way to skirt paying for 401K or medical plans. So, in addition to working in an incredibly unstable profession with pay that ranges from lousy to comfortable-as-long-as-I-have-absolutely-nothing-go-wrong-with-me-medically, the emerging journalist must also stare down a future that’s devoid of the benefits that most plumbers and receptionists are guaranteed.

In fact, I’d venture to guess that one of the main reasons why journalism today blows is because journalists themselves are treated so horribly. They NEVER get any credit for what they do, editors stomp all over their hard work and they’re completely beholden to the whims of their overseers -- as opposed to the people they are actually writing about, or god help us, the objective truth itself. To eat, some journalists have to completely betray their own scruples -- and when you have individuals getting “paid” to completely contradict their own moral values for a living, perhaps its somewhat understandable why contemporary journalistic quality has been on the downturn for a couple of years.

But, at the end of the day, you have to return to the office. Within that organizational framework, in-group thinking runs rampant, and if there was ever a profession that demanded individual lines of thinking (at least idealistically, anyway), it would be journalism. So, what happens when you completely de-individualize writers and reporters, stuff them into boxes and beat them over the head with some sort of company-first Tao that completely segregates themselves from the individuals they are writing about altogether?

Well…you get journalism as it is today, I am afraid.


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