NSFW: Trust me on the sunscreen (and the future of journalism)

Next Story

Happy Hour? "Cocktail" Is All About The Benjamins

beachnewsDay two of this ridiculous juice cleanse experiment and I feel like a new man. By which I mean, I feel like my insides aren’t fully developed, I have no strength in my arms or legs and the idea of eating solid food is just a distant dream.

It’s all Lacy’s fault, of course, she actually pays for this nonsense every month or so and claims it’s the reason why she no longer gets sick when she travels. Arrington and Heather apparently swear by it too.

The rest of TechCrunch, meanwhile, are beyond skeptical, bandying around words like “science” and “proof” in a pathetic attempt to disguise the fact that they’re in the pay of Big Cheeseburger. Whatever the truth, I’ve bet Lacy fifty dollars that the only thing the cleanse will achieve for me is crippling hunger and a loss of feeling in my extremities, so I’m in for the duration. At least as I lie on my deathbed, puking water and romaine-and-celery juice into a cardboard bowl, I can comfort myself with the fact that it was free – a promotion by the company to tempt California-based hacks into starving themselves to death. Journalistic freebies for the win (see my statement of ethics: here).

Speaking of ethics, I’m just back in San Francisco from an all expenses paid trip to the beach. Promoted as ‘Geeks At The Beach’, the trip came courtesy of J.R. Johnson who runs a new site aiming to bring people together based on things they agree on, to discuss things they don’t. According to the invitation, J.R. wanted to round up ‘influential’ social media types for a day of discussion about trends in the industry, and where it’s heading next. In Los Angeles. On a beach.

Lacy and Scoble would be there – so far, so good – but so too would Seaworld-friendly haircaster, Julia Allison; LA-based red-carpet dweller, Shira Lazar and various life-casters and me-bloggers whose existence I was only dimly aware of. I hesitated for a moment in accepting: what was supposed to be a meeting of minds could very easily be a train wreck of egos and bikinis and Flipcams and bullshit. Or, to put it another way: the best. column. ever. Count me in.

As it turned out, my worries were only half founded. Yes, there were Flipcams, and lots of egos and bullshit – these were bloggers and life-casters, after all. Yes, at one point the conversation touched a little too closely on whether cupcakes were more or less important than politics in driving community discussions. And yes, certainly, some of those in attendance were clearly more interested in the beach part than the geeks part of the event. But as the day went on, a hardcore group of us – including but certainly not limited to me, Scoble, Lacy and J.R. – really did get down to some proper, substantive debate over two issues that occupy almost every day of our lives. The first was Internet anonymity – my thoughts on which you enjoyed last week – and the second was the future of journalism, and how life-casting and unpaid blogging most certainly isn’t it.

I’ll explain.

There’s a horribly pompous misconception amongst bloggers that they are somehow ‘taking on the mainstream media’. “Those old losers just don’t get it!” they cry. “We bloggers are on the scene first, asking tough questions before the mainstream media have even put their shoes on”. Indeed, as uber-blogger Scoble pointed out, taking another sip from his glass of free sake, there were no AP photographers on the plane that went down in the Hudson.

When it comes to a certain type of highly visible breaking news, no-one can argue that social media kicks the mainstream media’s ass. At any given disaster, there’s possibly a 0.01% chance that a professional journalist or photographer will already be on the scene, compared to 100% odds that there’ll be some dude with a camera-phone there. And as for asking tough questions: yep, bloggers are pretty good at that too – hardly a syllable can slip from the mouth of a politician or public official without it being torn apart by an army of ‘fact-checking’ bloggers, hungry for content.

And yet, I argued back, after camera phone dude helps us establish that the plane has crashed, who can we trust to tell us why it happened? While bloggers can own the first five minutes of any breaking story – a plane crash, a fire, a burglary – it’s always going to be the professional reporters who own the next five days, or five weeks. They walk the streets, work their contacts and – yes – trawl the blogosphere for eye-witness reports, and then take all of that information, analyse it, follow it up and ultimately provide an account of events that readers can trust.

Or at least this is what they used to do. If that were still how journalism works then the unpaid bloggers wouldn’t have a hope of competing. But unfortunately, thanks to a succession of journalistic fakes and the constant tabloidisation of the press, that trust is gone. Why should someone – either an advertiser or a reader – be prepared to pay for a newspaper when they can get the same old lies and fluff from the blogosphere?

As we sat in Los Angeles, debating how to save what remains of professional journalism, Michael Arrington was posting one possible solution on this very blog. In a post titled ‘What If: The New New York Times‘ he argued that the New York Times should lay off all but 50 of its reporters, leaving behind the crack team of superstar hacks who truly drive the paper’s value. These cuts, he said, would allow the remaining reporters to be paid a generous wage for their work, thus solving the twin questions of trust and of how to pay for good journalism in future.

It’s a nice idea, but one that overlooks the fact that a superstar hack takes days – or weeks – of legwork to get to the bottom of a single story. Without content from workaday photographers or wire-feed-re-writers, the New New York Times would be three pages long and published weekly. Good journalism is a slow, labour-intensive business. And what about unglamourous local stories? Let’s not forget that the two most famous reporters of all time – Woodward and Bernstein – were junior reporters when the broke their most famous story: Watergate. A story, let’s also not forget, that began life as a dull local burglary. Which of the 50 top flight hacks would have been assigned to that?

No, it doesn’t matter how you twist it, there’s simply no way for the New York Times to regain its position as the news reporter of record in the Internet era. Instead, if Mike really wants to save the Times, while simultaneously seeing the future of journalism, he should look a little closer to home.

To TechCrunch in fact.

Because while TechCrunch might be ‘just’ a blog it’s also, as I’ve discovered in the past few weeks, a hell of a professional journalistic machine. Whatever the cynics might think, it’s a place where sources are built up, facts are checked, lawyers are employed and writers are encouraged to go out and get the real story behind the story. It’s also on something of a hiring spree at the moment – looking out at traditional media and cherry picking those (ahem) who it thinks can bring more value to the brand. In doing so, TechCrunch is one of a handful of tech blogs that commands solid advertising revenues and has – by and large – build up huge trust amongst readers. Trust which allows it to host events like TechCrunch 50, bringing in even more money to support the site’s journalism.

Right across the Internet there are countless other sites that employ the same standards for other niches – from music (Pitchfork) to politics (FiveThirtyEight) to farming (I have no idea) – each of which can afford to dedicate more time to their very specific field of expertise than the New York Times could, even if it doubled its staff.

And so if I were the New York Times, I’d realise that in the face of such solid niche competition, my days as a news-gatherer were over. I’d lay off all of my journalists, shut down the presses (a move favoured by Lacy during a recent Guardian podcast), close the doors and thank God for giving me such a good innings. Then the next day I’d round up maybe 20 or 30 of my best editors and I’d launch a brand new site. A site which, like a far more mainstream Arts and Letters Daily, would use those skilled human editors to aggregate the best specialist reporting from around the web into one all-encompassing news source.

I’d link to posts on TechCrunch, and Pitchfork and FiveThirtyEight and on any other site that my professional editors had determined was providing the best coverage of each of the days most important stories. And I’d work hard – really hard – to rebuild my brand credibility so that readers knew that they could absolutely trust the reporting on any site that had been selected by editors. All the news that’s fit to link.

For the New York Times, the cost in doing all of this would be limited to retaining the 30 best editors in the business, and the small support staff required to keep them productive – costs easily covered thanks to the millions of eyeballs that would visit just such a site every day, hungry for news sources they can actually trust.

For the specialist sites being linked to, the boost in traffic and credibility would only bring more targeted advertising revenue and more possibilities for spin off events, books and the rest, all of which contribute to the journalistic bottom line and their ability to hire from the army of recently unemployed journalists.

And as for the life-casters and amateur bloggers – they can keep having their fun too; contributing user generated content to the niche sites, and then re-parsing the coverage on their own blogs, Twitter stream or – in Scoble’s case – FriendFeed. It’s a solution where every one’s a winner. Except for the life casters, who by and large will remain losers.

Of course there’s no reason the aggregating site has to be created by the New York Times; anyone with some high-level editorial experience could do it. Equally there’s no reason why there can’t be dozens of these aggregators, each with their own editorial voice: one for liberals, one for conservatives, one for wealthy Brits, one for college kids in Guatemala. The point is that the days of the profitable generalist news-gatherer are dying, but the days of solid reporting and a strong, trusted editorial voice must never be allowed to perish.

It’s a point that’s so important it kept a group of us arguing until the early hours in Los Angeles, and so important that the possible solution has been bouncing around my head ever since. Hell, it’s so important that I feel like getting up from my desk right now and hitting the streets looking for the perfect newsman-turned-entrepreneur to make it happen.

If only I wasn’t on this stupid juice cleanse and hadn’t lost the use of my legs.

blog comments powered by Disqus