media hysteria
scanvine
Marissa Mayer

It’s The End Of The News As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

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The downside to pet projects is that they invariably teach you something you didn’t really want to know. This time, it was that most of the people who do what I do are doomed.

Let me explain. Mostly for fun, I’ve recently built1 a news aggregator I call Scanvine, which ranks stories and authors and publications by how often they’re shared on social media. (TechCrunch does quite well, thanks for asking.) So I’ve been paying attention to a much broader spectrum of news during this last week…which was also the week that Marissa Mayer announced that Yahoo! would no longer condone working at home.

Oh, the hysteria that ensued. The Los Angeles Times hosted a special live video chat on the uproar. Slate had duelling columnists argue the issue; neither of them, remarkably, even mentioned the possibility that perhaps not all companies are alike. The sheer intensity of massive overextrapolation from a single data point really began to feel like:

The New York Times and Wired and The Atlantic and nearly everyone else fell back on context-free speculation. (And in Maureen Dowd’s case, content-free as well.) Only a tiny minority — notably Alexia and Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson — actually dug out some of the reasons why the decision was made.

So was it the right decision? Well, as an expert on the subject by virtue of having worked at home for many years, both as a full-time novelist and as a software developer, let me explain: oh, for God’s sake shut up and stop asking already.

Working at home has some benefits and some disadvantages, for both employers and employees. Over time, the benefits have been increasing and the disadvantages diminishing, but Marissa Mayer judged that for the very specific case of Yahoo! today, the latter were outweighing the former. Was she right? Maybe! Who knows! Does it really matter, because it’s a trend-signifying bellwether? Probably not! Is all this handwringing completely ridiculous bordering on insane? You bet!

What’s really highlighted here is not just that many traditional ‘journalists’ are phenomenologically indistinguishable from ‘bloggers’ these days, if there’s any distinction at all any more: it’s that many are not even particularly good bloggers. I’m beginning to realize that the scattered collection of one-off blog posts I find via sites like Hacker News are both more interesting and more thoughtful than most mainstream-media opinion, context, or analysis pieces. Passionate part-timers with a deep knowledge of the subject matter who also happen to be good writers are a lot more interesting than most mere scribes.

Of course this doesn’t apply to what I call High Journalism: investigative journalists digging out hidden stories, international journalists reporting from wars and disasters, the fifth estate holding the feet of power to the flames of publicity. But the problem is that most High Journalism (which is expensive and has a limited audience) has historically been financed by Low Journalism: entertainment, sports, classified ads, etc.

Which is pretty bizarre, when you think about it. It’s as if the space program and Medecins Sans Frontieres were funded by the profits from Chicken McNuggets and Big Gulps. So, of course, the Internet inevitably targeted this economic discontinuity, and Craigslist killed the classified ad, and the Entertainment and Sports and Life sections of magazines and newspapers are being eaten alive by TMZ and Gawker and Deadspin and Buzzfeed–the media equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup–and now everyone’s writing empty pieces about Marissa Mayer’s decision because it’s a hot-button issue and they need the pageviews and the mindshare and the ads.

But that’s a loser’s game. “Will Journalism Go The Way Of Whaling?” asks the title of a recent New York Times conversation between David Brooks and the great Gail Collins, and I fear that the answer is mostly yes. A few of its dinosaurs will evolve into eagles, but most will be eaten alive by the modern mammals–not just because they’re faster and cheaper and more nimble, but because, as this whole Marissa Mayer work-from-home kerfuffle shows, they’re better, within their particular domains. I hope High Journalism finds a new way to pay for itself soon, because the Low Journalism on which it’s riding, once a colossus, now has feet of clay.

1I’m only a part-time journalist: by day I write software. Whew.

Image credit: Advancing Gingerly, Flickr.