The Golden Age of Journalism? You’ve got to be kidding!

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Benedetti and James R. Compton

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Benedetti and James R. Compton

It’s official: journalism has entered a golden age. Or at least that’s the proposition currently circulating as a popular meme among some journalistic prognosticators. The idea gained steam after Henry Blodget proclaimed it in a column for Business Insider in August 2013. His piece was picked up, commented upon, tweeted about and generally positively bandied about the web, eventually getting the nod from New York Times media columnist David Carr.

Too bad Blodgett's piece is nonsense; a string of unsupported claims, clichés, exaggerations and half-baked ideas that don't hold up to even the mildest scrutiny. It's a repetitive piece, so we won't bother to debunk every point, but let's look at the central claims he makes for why we are living in "the golden age of journalism."

Blodget says the "world is vastly better informed than ever before" thanks to an information explosion. Witness Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Bloomberg LP, Google, WikiLeaks, thousands of digital news and information sites."

This claim to universal enlightenment is deeply puzzling. Try saying Iraq has weapons of mass destruction five times in a row really fast. Did that jog any memories? Too long ago? Can’t remember that far back? How about in 2008 when the legalized Ponzi scheme we call the housing bubble burst fueling a global recession? These are two of the most important stories of our lifetime and the news media failed miserably.

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As for how well informed Americans are, a poll in 2006 found that three years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, 50 per cent of respondents said they still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded. A 2010 Harris Poll found that 24 per cent of Republicans thought President Obama may be the anti-Christ. Almost 60 per cent thought he was a Muslim and 67 per cent thought he was a socialist. All these ideas are demonstrably false or crazy. Good news, though: when the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling posed the anti-Christ question in 2013, the number of Republicans who said yes had dropped to 20 per cent, while only six per cent of Democrats agreed. See, this Internet thing must really be working!

Blodget claims that "more people around the world are being informed about more important facts than ever before." Really? It's not easy to judge what's happening in the entire world, but let's look at the state of a wealthy, first-world nation like the United States. A recent Pew study found that both cable news and local TV news are providing less news and more commentary, opinion, weather and sports. Across the board in all media, fewer resources are devoted to reporting with noticeable results. The survey found that "[n]early a third (31%) of U.S. adults have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to receiving … noticing erosion in quality of coverage even more than diminishing quantity. Fully 61% said they noticed that stories were less complete compared with 24% who said they noticed fewer stories over all."

Some golden age.

Blodget then claims that "more great journalism is being produced today than ever before." More great journalism? By whose standards and what measurement? When these claims are put to the test, they fail. The 2013 Pew report found news stories and comprehensive coverage were being replaced by more "filler" content. The report states:

"In local TV, our special content report reveals, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink. On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012 … This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands."

Virtually every survey or study of journalism has pointed to a decline in investigative reporting. Today, audiences are at the mercy of politicians, corporations and marketers whose claims go unchecked and unchallenged. Today, journalists are outnumbered by public relations workers by more than three to one.

But no worries—Blodget then tells us that the decline in mainstream reporters is balanced by a kind of reserve army of citizen journalists telling stories all over the word. He writes, "[a]ll you need are your eyes, ears, nose, and storytelling and digital publishing tools, the latter of which are included for free on every smartphone… Anyone with an internet connection can now create journalism.”

Really? That’s like saying anyone with Microsoft Word can write a good novel or anyone with Photoshop can make art. We fully acknowledge how the wide-spread distribution of smartphones and other forms of digital audio-video technology has brought profound changes to the coverage of spot news, such as political protests. But these are changes in the scale of modern visibility, not in the nature of the craft.

Journalism is not about technology, it’s about reporting. The foundation of journalism is reporting. This fact seems to get trampled in the rush to connect access to a computer and the Internet with the reporting and the production of news stories. Reporting is work. And good reporting requires skill, experience and resources. We are not making the now tired, and unhelpful, distinction between professionals and amateurs. We are drawing your attention to the necessary labour of reporting. Journalists do reporting. And where are the journalists?

The facts here are clear: newsrooms across North America have been gutted. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in 2011 that 41,500 men and women worked in daily newspaper newsrooms. That's down from 55,000 in 2007. Over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25 per cent decline. In Canada, the picture is about the same. In the past five years, media job losses reached about 10,000, according to Canadian Media Guild. New media enthusiasts may cheer the slow death of legacy media outlets, but the decline translates into less news and current affairs for readers and viewers. As Pew says, “[s]igns of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s (2013) report.”

Blodget celebrates connectivity, boasting that "[e]very journalist on earth can now reach nearly every human on earth—directly and instantly. On the Internet, everything is a click away."

This argument reminds us of the old joke:

First guy: “The food at this restaurant is terrible.”

Second guy: “Yeah, but there’s lots of it.”

This is another iteration of the more-communication-leads-to-better-communication fallacy. Techno-enthusiasts often make the logical error of mistaking what people can do with what people actually do. We’ll ignore for the moment that less than 16 per cent of Africans have Internet access. Even with better access for everyone, one needs to examine the kind of political information that is being accessed. It turns out, according to years of Pew Center data and other scholarly research, that the Internet has not overturned the power of corporate media. A small number of elite websites and bloggers attract the most attention.

Mathew Hindman, in The Myth of Digital Democracy, reports that “[p]olitical traffic is a tiny portion of Web usage.” “The link structure of the Web limits the content that citizens see.” “Much search engine use is shallow.” “Even in the digital world, some content is expensive to produce.”

As a result, Hindman concludes that a “power law” distribution predominates in which a relatively small number of political websites—often the same companies laying off reporters—get the vast majority of traffic. “Instead of the ‘inevitable’ fragmentation of online media,” writes Hindman, “audiences on the Web are actually more concentrated on the top ten or twenty outlets than are traditional media like newspapers and magazines.”

Conclusion: Hyperlinks are not giant slayers.

Blodget acknowledges the cutbacks in traditional newsrooms, but is optimistic because "the growth of professional digital news organizations is exploding." It certainly is true, as reported by Pew, that there has been a recent surge of venture capital investment in online news organizations. Vice, HuffPo and Buzzfeed have all enjoyed significant growth. And eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s newly launched First Look Media has attracted venerable journalistic stars such as Glen Greenwald.

But Pew also reports that the 30 big digital outlets have created roughly 3,000 new jobs, or 102 jobs per outlet. This remains a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the slashing of newsroom budgets over the past decade.

And what are digital news organizations? This can be an interesting and, as usual, blurry phrase. Yes, there are more content aggregators, list makers, link machines, portals to other data and re-users and recyclers of other people’s content. This accounts for the bulk of HuffPo’s output. Along with their investments in news reporting, HuffPo, Vice and Buzzfeed have proven to be masters of “click bait.” This is the emerging digital business model.

And so, Blodget's claims pile up, one upon the other until we get to this: "[o]ver the next few decades, vast new global news brands will be built that take full advantage of the capabilities of this new medium. And they will produce journalism that is more comprehensive, faster, more efficient, and more effectively distributed than ever before."

This is a straight prediction with no evidence to back up such a rosy view of the future. In fact, most nascent news start-ups fail. Others are hanging on for dear life. Few employ more than a handful of editorial people, if any. Many run on volunteer labour despite being for-profit start-ups. Others pander to the lowest common denominator and pay a pittance to writers churning out piece work for these traffic-driven content farms. Meanwhile, venerable news organizations such as The Guardian, which employs hard-working reporters and editors breaking investigative blockbusters, would not exist but for a charitable trust and are still bleeding millions a year (about 40 million pounds last year to be exact). What "vast new global news brands" is Blodget talking about?

We agree with the sobering conclusion of noted scholar and activist Robert McChesney. Available evidence suggests that “the Internet does not alleviate the tensions between commercialism and journalism; it magnifies them.”

And now we come to Blodget's biggest claim: that the golden age of journalism has ushered in a new era of accuracy and knowledge for the masses. He writes: "[t]here is now more media accuracy and ‘consensus knowledge’ than ever before … thanks to the 2 billion fact-checkers who use the Internet every day, all information can be instantly and publicly challenged, debated, debunked, and sometimes even corrected by the source publication faster than ever."

This “wisdom of the crowd” thesis suggests that large groups of people will correct errors and mistakes, acting as a kind of real-time crucible for truth. There’s no doubt that universal access and instantaneous feedback have meant that journalists’ feet are now more often held to the fire. Mistakes are noticed and commented upon and media organizations have been forced to deal with those much more openly and transparently—or risk censure. (Witness the recent Margaret Wente plagiarism debacle at the Globe and Mail).

But the notion that this crowd correcting leads to a higher degree of overall accuracy and a much more informed public is unsupported. Ironically, this universal access to information and this supposed self-correcting system has resulted in a constant tsunami of responses, commentary and opinion that all but drowns out the slow, but necessary, work of checking validity claims against verifiable facts. We are now awash in extremism, conspiracy theories, fringe ideas, irrational beliefs and propaganda—all presented and disseminated in this grand gate-keeper-free zone. There are smart people posting smart stuff online, but they are often drowned out by the vile, the crazies, the racists, the extremists and the deranged.

In fact, it was accelerated crowd-sourced reporting that led to innocent people being identified online in the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in April 2013. Saying the media eventually got it right is to defend bad reporting.

Let's look for a moment at the single-most important challenge facing humankind today—climate change. Despite Blodget’s claim of a modern zenith of “media accuracy and consensus knowledge,” Pew Research found that only 33 per cent of Americans thought global warming was a “very serious” problem and only 42 per cent agreed that it was caused mostly by human activity. Ubiquity of information does not translate into an informed public.

We apologize for the polemical nature of this article, but we view it as a kind of antidote to the widespread, uncritical promotion of these ideas. They have become so pervasive that the proposition of a new "golden age of journalism" has even made its way into journalism schools themselves. To be clear, we are both involved in the education of future journalists and have a deep, powerful belief in the necessity and power of good journalism in democratic society. It's clear to us that to cut through this propaganda about a new "emergent" journalism, one has to focus on the necessary work of reporting. Then, and only then, can we distinguish between what is craft and what is promotion.

We do, in fact, see some signs of optimism in this time of great upheaval. We are cautiously optimistic about recent investments in news organizations in both the United States and the U.K. And we recognize that very good work is still being done by both public and private news organizations from CBC Radio to the New York Times to The Guardian and non-profits such as Pro Publica. The latest Pew Report on the State of the Media offers glimmers of hope in some rather dark times.

But, we are a long, long way from any kind of "Golden Age of Journalism." And, we believe that the circulation of this idea is not merely baseless promotion, but is insidious in two ways: 1) it masks the very real colonization of a once proudly skeptical profession with promotional hucksterism, and 2) it reinforces a false notion that all is well.

We are extremely troubled by a number of issues undermining the notion of journalism as a public good. The rampant economic rationalization of newsrooms, whether broadcast, print or digital, has eroded the independence of professional journalistic standards. The use of PR news subsidies, in the form of video news releases (VNR) is on the rise, as is so-called “native” content—a form of sponsored or custom "content," paid for by advertisers, produced by journalists and presented as news. There is a continuing decline of original news reporting, particularly among local TV stations, which increasingly fill their broadcasts with weather and sports. And, of course, the continuing decline in full-time professional newsroom employment at newspapers, which still account for the vast majority of original reporting in Canada and the United States.

Perhaps most disturbing, we see a blurring of a necessary distinction between news as a public good and a promotional commodity. Moral entrepreneurs, such as Blodget, Jeff Jarvis and Marc Andreessen, continue to sell the idea that we have entered a new world. Gone are the fetters of the old top-down model of news production. Today we are blessed with the freedom of the “link economy.” All that is required is for people to embrace a new “entrepreneurial journalism.” Laid-off reporters and journalism students struggling with heavy debt loads are being told to build their personal brands. Embrace the market and all will be well. It’s up to you! This claim, as we have shown, is obviously false.

A few high-profile winners will be celebrated as a signal to others that they too can succeed if they work hard; but the vast majority of reporters will be left with the piece work of precarious employment. History has shown that the best journalism is the result of hard individual work and talent, yes, but with the collective support and resources of a well-funded newsroom that works hard to protect the integrity of the craft. The best newsrooms didn’t always succeed, but they always endeavoured to separate journalism from the profane interests of owners and advertisers. Today’s hucksters are preaching the opposite.

Paul Benedetti is lecturer in the master of arts in journalism program at the faculty of information and media Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.  He is the former deputy editor of J-Source and is now J-Source editor-at-large. He lives in Hamilton and continues to write for various publications. James R. Compton is an associate professor in the faculty of information and media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. He is a former reporter/editor with the Canadian Press/Broadcast News wire service and member of the Digital Labour Group at Western, where he is the principal investigator of a SSHRC-funded study called "The Future of Organized Labour in the Digital Media Workplace." 

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