Originally published April 6, 2010.
About three years ago when I was on travel assignment in east Tennessee for Women’s Health magazine, I remember having dinner with the photographer assigned to my story and the two of us poking fun at our twenty-something assistants who were exchanging My Space addresses. We earnestly and, as it turns out, foolishly believed social media was for people under 25. Two years later, my twenty-something assistant is helping me get hooked up on Facebook and Twitter. Not because I relish joining this new world of over-the-top online narcissism but because being linked in and socially networked has become essential for professional survival in the Information Age.
Plenty of people in my industry haven’t yet figured out how to jump on the mercenary digital bandwagon. And I’m not just talking social media. I’m talking the brave new world of online information in general. If you’re not prepared to flesh out Hollywood’s latest fashion disasters on Yahoo! or provide a 400-word bullet point distillation on health care reform for MSN, you might find yourself out of work these days if you’re a journalist.
Why? Because in case you haven’t noticed, long-form journalism and investigative reporting are dying a rather quick and ugly death in a culture addicted to tabloid-like news that can be scanned in 30 seconds or less.
In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, writer Sheelah Kolhatkar lamented, “While most people are worried about getting paid for their work, I’m more concerned that journalists might be the digital-age equivalent of monks illuminating manuscripts, a group whose skills will soon disappear.”
Kolhatkar is definitely on to something. When I started out in this business more than a decade ago, I remember being tutored by editors to work hard to develop my narratives–fill them with local color, vivid descriptions, exclusive and meaningful commentary from sources based on intensive follow-up questioning. Now the order of the day is catchy sound bites. And a few quick bullet points because nobody wants to actually have to read an article.
Plenty of journalists like Kolhatkar are worried about their paychecks, yes, but they’re also worried about just what kind of information is getting passed around in this “Information Age.” There will always be work for those of us who provide content (whether that content is good, bad, or just plain stupid), but how much of the content we produce is actually worth reading anymore? Are you really gaining any insight into the world when you fire up your Internet browser in the evening and search the latest “headlines?”
In a recent review of The Death and Life of American Journalism, Chris Hedges contends Americans are being bombarded today with gossip and trivia. “But news,” he says, “which costs money and takes talent to produce, is dying not only because citizens are migrating to the Internet and corporations are no longer using newsprint to advertise, but because in an age of profound culture decline the masses prefer to be entertained rather than informed. We no longer value the culture or journalism, as we no longer value classical theater or great books, and this devaluation means the general public is not inclined to pay for it.”
Dear reader, are you guilty? Do you grumble over having to pay for an online newspaper subscription? If so, you may be part of the problem here. Because high quality information like high quality anything costs money. If you want advertising to pay your ticket to information access, then expect the editorial you read to be closely linked to the advertisers who pay for it.
Is journalism dead? Well, that depends on what and where you’re reading…and who’s paying for it.