Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Death of Journalism

Journalism is dying, and we all watch calmly while the death throes go on.  This is a severe problem.  Not so severe as the impact of climate change, but the two come together in this:

The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. The positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor are being eliminated.

Read the linked article for additional information.  Perhaps closing the environment desk won't affect environmental coverage, after all.  But that's not the reason the desk is closed.  The reason is money.

Journalism is in great trouble.  In the past it was mainly funded by advertising income.  Today Craigslist and similar sites have stolen that thunder, and newspapers are struggling to make ends meet.  Nobody has found a workable new funding mechanism. 

Experienced journalists are let go all over the world and those who still have jobs are expected to work 24/7 and to have expertise in everything.  Instead of carefully researched pieces, many newspapers offer space for opinion blogs which are cheap to run (I should know!) or outsource writing to a few columnists.  I have even come across a paper (not in  the US) which seems to consist mostly of the ravings of readers in "reader blogs", the kinds of Letters To The Editor which in the past found their way directly to the wastepaper baskets. But they are available for free!  And Huffington Post, for example, uses the concept of free writing to keep its site going.

The Internet is naturally the murderer of the print media, but for several reasons Internet journalism is not able to pay the piper.  Or the writers and editors.  We all know how easy it is to read everything we wish on the net for free.  Isn't it great?  The negative side, naturally, is that one day the content will not be there because nobody is paying for it to be created and very very few people can afford to work for almost nothing (perhaps goddesses).

I have followed these developments for some time, gathering opinions on what is taking place and what the solutions might be.  The ultimately problem is that the digital media has run straight into that public good aspect of information dissemination:  Once the information is there, passing it on, without paying, really is very very cheap*.  That creates the incentives for people not to pay.

As a slightly different example of the same problem, I've heard from writers whose books are pirated on the net, available for nothing.  Those writers will soon find that they cannot afford to write full-time, what with the dropping earnings, and the outcome is that they will write fewer books, perhaps no books at all.  Talent will disappear, variety will disappear, and when this is added to the much-narrowed concentration of the publishing industry on just a few "winners" we are all ultimately going to suffer.

You can all observe some of the death throes of the print media.  Those desperate attempts to punch all our buttons, to get scandal and fear onto the front pages of magazines.  The herd chase of The News Of The Moment.  The focus on celebrities and their doings.  The slimmer and slimmer print versions of newspapers.  All those failed attempts to extract payment from the readers or to attract advertising to the websites.

What is truly dying is not rubbish journalism or fun journalism but the proper production of the kind of information we really need but don't that much care to pay for.  The kind of information which requires a journalist in Afghanistan or in South Africa or in Timbuktoo.  That's expensive journalism and there is no real substitute for it.  Yes, blogs can take care of some information production but bloggers do not have the funding or the ability to send journalists to other countries or to get training in how to interpret medical studies.  If they did, they would be newspapers.

I am worried about these developments.  Knowing what is happening, understanding the events, getting the best, widest and most objective information possible, those are all crucial aspects of democracy.  They can ultimately be crucial for survival.  Given that, the relaxed attitude so many take on that show which is the demise of journalism is quite sad.  What will take its place?  And will whatever that might be happen fast enough so that we don't all end up in our small pseudo-information bubbles, the way those who follow Fox News do?
*Or, in reverse, stopping that from happening is very expensive or ineffective.  Taking people to court for infringing the copyright of books is expensive, and beyond the reach of most writers.  Blocking the Internet piracy is nearly impossible which is another way to say that it is very expensive.  Charging money for visiting websites is easily circumvented, and so on.