Saturday, March 4, 2017

The End of the World as We Know It

It is a truism now that news media are in a time of transition. The internet has changed how people get news. Cable TV has created a 24-hour news cycle, which the internet has only accelerated. Access to blogs and podcasts has "democratized" the process. Print -- physical newsprint -- is generally assumed to be dying as a medium, replaced by electronic access to the same content, which would be unrecognizable to the reader of even 50 years ago, with the addition of video, audio, interactive charts, and so on.

But in our focus on the form, the technology of it all, I'm wondering if we haven't missed a bigger, more "meta" aspect of the change, and it's Donald Trump who makes me wonder about it.

We in the journalism business were taught and continue to believe a certain function for our profession. It's something that you've heard a lot about in pushback to the "fake news" accusations of late, but it also has more to it than that ... at least for us.

Right now, you hear a lot about afflicting the comfortable and speaking the truth, but that's not always our function. Actually, if one is honest, it's not our function very often. Most journalistic time is spent on fires and car wrecks, or on heartwarming feature stories about cute kids and adorable pets. And there's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't take much effort to see that those stories bring readers and viewers, and I frankly believe that most people go into public service with the intent to do good.

So what, you're asking, am I suggesting? That journalism is a glorified version of ambulance chasing and cat videos? No, and here's my point: In a broader sense, we have journalists to go places and see things so you won't have to. As humans, we all want to know. We want to know why there's a massive backup on the highway, and whether anyone was hurt in that wreck. We want to know what happened at that fire, or why police were all over at that store up the street. These things may not really affect us in any direct way, but we still want to know.

And that is the social function of journalism. We are delegated to be nosy and curious, to be pushy and ask impolite questions, to stand around and watch, so that crowds gather less and false rumors don't run amok. Is this important? Look at countries with dysfunctional journalism, like the old Soviet Union or Middle Eastern autocracies: the most insane rumors spread, wild conspiracy theories live vibrantly, nothing is trusted, no matter how supported, because no "fact" is considered factual.

But now, we are told, everyone can be a journalist. The internet has eliminated the huge overhead required to reach out to more than a few friends and acquaintances. Anyone in the world, if they so chose, could read these very words if they found the website. I have the reach or any giant media corporation, if not the readership.

There is an essential error, however, to that phrase: "Everyone can be a journalist." And it's an error that cuts both ways in that, now that anyone can act like a journalist, many have begun to believe that they are just as good at this as a traditional journalist, and there we have our problem.

That overhead expense traditional media used to face meant that, before they handed the keys over to somebody, management wanted to make sure they could drive. Putting out fake news, not properly checking the facts, even sloppy writing or inadequate work meant you were forcibly stopped from being a journalist. Without that testing and seasoning, without management that can feel the pain of losing money (or worse yet, with management that can make money with clicks to fake news), there's no control, no authority. When everybody's a journalist, eventually no one is.

While we in the news industry have been focused on technology and ratings (or circulation), the continents beneath us have been shifting. The public no longer see us as their proxies because they don't think they need proxies anymore. We were worrying about where to find our audience and how the public was reading and watching us. Buzzwords like "three screen viewing" and "hyper local" were presented by consultants as the way to stop the hemorrhage of eyeballs. But we were missing the point. It wasn't their eyeballs we were losing, but their belief in us.

Now journalism is in search of itself, literally. Where people go for the news, and even what they consider the news, has left the place where we always found it and taken on a new identity. It is a period of far more profound transformation than whether the New York Times will stop its print edition or TV will become only on-demand streaming. It is a question of the very meaning of the term "Journalism."