Jessica Bennet tweeted this little gem, and I feel it in my bones:
Worthy of news alert: treason; healthcare.
NOT worthy: Kermit, horses.
Media: that thirsty ex who won’t stop txting
— Jessica Bennett (@jess7bennett) July 19, 2017
See, I came to journalism relatively late in life. Whereas most professional journalists today discovered their obsession through their high school or college newspaper, I majored in justice as an undergrad and worked in a law office for several years before starting my graduate degree in journalism at 29.
There are practical reasons for this – my high school was far too small to have a paper and I couldn’t afford to spend any time during college on work that didn’t pay me – but I will admit to sharing some of the dimmer sentiments felt toward the media.
Additionally, I’d long since bought into the dogma promoted in nearly all such rural, blue-collar towns – that any work that doesn’t produce a tangible product or existentially necessary service is unworthy and indulgent.
Ultimately, the idea for this magazine drove me to J-school. Still, I entered my graduate program dead set against traditional, daily news – AKA the much-maligned “mainstream media.” Then, as knowledge often does, the program broadened my point of view.
Was I brainwashed? One could hardly argue my professors were anywhere near charismatic enough to sell ice water in a desert (no offense, my dudes). The fact is, journalists are geeks, hardcore – and that is what shifted my view of “hard” news.
I came to understand and fully separate journalism as a profession from the business of disseminating and promoting the news. In other words, I started distinguishing between the people, like Jessica Bennet, who care deeply and passionately about digging up the facts and the self-important business interests responsible for funding, packaging, and distributing that news.
There is a central dysfunction in the business of news which undermines the profession’s true aim – it should never have been a for-profit industry.
Good journalism, the kind of journalism everyone clamors for, can be self-sustaining. The population boom at gyms across the nation on January 2 (no one’s going to spin class with a hangover, be real) proves that people will choose what’s good for them.
But, visit the same gym on January 31 and you’ll see how human and fallible we are.
So, why do I still have hope? Because despite the disappointment, and no small amount of shame, we muster up our wimpy bones and try it again the next year. We want to do well. We. Keep. Trying.
That said, fitness will never be as profitable as Netflix. Broccoli will never be as profitable as Ben & Jerry’s. By extension, meat-and-potatoes reporting will never be as profitable as “Doctor Who casts female lead and Bro-Twitter implodes” or “Watch what happens when this cockatoo hears Judas Priest.”
Most news outlets have to answer to stakeholders – boards of directors or investors or parent companies that expect more than equilibrium. They expect profit, and they expect those profits to continually increase.
So, newspapers adapt – they rely more and more on advertisers, which were more profitable than subscribers alone. When that’s not enough, they pare down their newsrooms to cut costs. The C-suite wants more.
With fewer reporters, the ones remaining have to churn out more stories more often on a wider array of topics. “Beats” are eliminated and depths of institutional knowledge are lost, and the decline in quality alienates the audience. They aren’t stupid, they know good reporting even when they can’t put their finger on why.
But they stop subscribing because the quality of the “product” has declined. They don’t feel like they should have to pay for it – and can you blame them?
So, news outlets started experimenting with new ways to get eyeballs – to get clicks. They let more and more “fluff” into their news stream because it’s faster and cheaper to produce and it gets more attention. When covering the news, whoever breaks first wins all the eyeballs – if you’re not first, you’re last.
And the C-suite wants more.
They become slaves to metrics and the newest tech toys, angling for any indication that some tactic or format is working more efficiently than the others and then beating every opportunity to death – like pushing out “Breaking News” notifications until their knuckles crack.
And the C-Suite still wants more.
Quite frankly, the fact that the profession has managed to uphold any degree of ethics and quality intact under these conditions is a goddamn miracle. It’s a testament to how much the individuals – the reporters and editors – actually care. Even as their wages are slashed. Even as the public they serve vilifies them.
Journalism is often called the Fourth Estate – the added pillar that monitors and balances the three branches of government. The industry is private because allowing government to hold the purse strings would be an atrocious conflict of interest, but neither should the profession be beholden to the vagaries of the market or the interests of a powerful few investors.
Not everything should be a consumer good.
All this said, you might notice I’m here flapping my proverbial gums very un-journalistically in a magazine I created. That, more than my general inexperience with the nuts and bolts of operating and funding a media outlet, is what terrifies me about this endeavor.
I love journalism and journalists, despite my problems with the industry. That love, like any genuine love, comes with high expectations – nothing is worse than a fraudulent journalist, and this post will be one of a series examining a few specific media practices I’m just sick to the teeth of.
But for all my critiques and celebrations, by undertaking this, I worry I’m undermining the profession. That I’m not a “real” journalist because I’m not fighting the hard news fight at a time when it’s so needed.
Worse, I’m unabashedly displaying my own history, point of view, and biases. There are some topics upon which I simply cannot be impartial. I will be as transparent as I can in those moments, but in the current climate, I still worry I’m harming an embattled profession that I admire to the roots of my soul.
So, this is my confession – I call myself a journalist in full knowledge that some of you may look down on the work I do. Know that I will do my best to operate in good faith, defend you in the court of civic discourse (even as I criticize some of your dumbfuckery), and stand to answer to any criticisms you have in return.
I will not, however, be giving up my Oxford comma.