For a long time, I’ve wanted to be a journalist. I thought that meant writing for a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine, but in my life, for my generation, it means something very different both in publication type, and in style of approach.
Journalism has changed, its function has changed, and how we understand it has changed. There’s a phenomenal story in this month’s Atlantic, which does a better job of answering three fundamental questions–What happened? Why did it happen? What does it mean? – than anything I’ve read in a long time. It’s worth reading, but here are the three bits I loved.
With each passing month, people can get more of what they want and less of what someone else thinks they should have.
Every news organization recognizes this shift. For instance, a strategy document leaked from AOL just before its acquisition of the Huffington Post said that its route toward survival was to drive the average cost per unit of content down to $84 (from the current $99) and use “search engine optimization” and other techniques to attract an average of 7,000 page views per item, up from the current 1,500. The Atlantic is now profitable in part because traffic on our Web site is so strong. Everyone involved in the site understands the tricks and trade-offs that can increase clicks and raise the chances of a breakout “viral” Web success. Kittens, slide shows, videos, Sarah Palin—these are a few. For us and for other publications, they are complications. For Gawker, they’re all that is.
Why it happened:
Giving people what they want as opposed to what they should want is a conflict as old as journalism, certainly as it has been practiced in this country. My capsule history of journalism is that for more than a century after the Civil War, American readers and viewers were in various ways buffered from getting exactly what they wanted from newspapers and, later, radio and TV news shows. News, like education, aspired to be as interesting as possible but to have an uplifting civic intent.
That’s all gone, as Brokaw and everyone else knows. One by one, the buffers between what people want and what the media can afford to deliver have been stripped away. Broadcast TV was deregulated, and cable and satellite TV arose in a wholly post-regulation era. As newspapers fell during the rise of the Internet, and fell faster because of the 2008 recession, the regional papers fell hardest. The survivors, from The New York Times to the National Enquirer, will be what British newspapers have long been: nationwide in distribution, and differentiated by politics and class. The destruction of the “bundled” business model for newspapers, which allowed ads in the Auto section to underwrite a bureau in Baghdad; the rise of increasingly targeted and niche-ified information sources and advertising vehicles; and the consequent pressure on almost any mass offering except for sports—all of these are steps toward a perfected market for information of all sorts, including news.
The What Does it Mean is really the whole piece, so go read that for yourself. Of course, I’ve left out the part of the argument in the piece that the media’s always been this way, always been precarious and unstable. But I think it’s different now, because it’s so amplified and so public. My favorite bit from the article says just that:
“It’s not so much that American public life is more idiotic,” Jill Lepore said, referring to both press coverage and the public discussion it spawns. “It’s that so much more of American life is public.”