Journalism is dead. Or so said everyone who told me never to pursue a career in news gathering. Given the news industry’s bleak statistics over the past few decades, such fears have certainly been well-founded. Yet, these formerly dire predictions have simmered down, replaced with a hopeful curiosity about the future of the industry and its potential to rebuild itself after years of consolidations and cutbacks.
This change in tenor has not gone unheeded by venture capitalists, who have poured money into news startups ranging from portals like BusinessInsider and Vox Media to products like Beacon and Tinypass. Last month, Marc Andreessen even went so far as to call this period a possible “golden age” for journalism.
Unfortunately, this flood of startups and new ventures has also unleashed a direct attack on the integrity of journalism, namely its function as an objective source of news. While part of the problem can be traced to a lack of understanding of the profession, the fundamental challenge is conflating content production and journalism as two equal forces.
Journalism is often a form of dissidence, an activity that many of those in power would prefer simply not exist. There is a reason why 70 journalists were killed last year in countries throughout the world.
On the web, content production is creating something that can be transmitted to others. Content can have a wide variety of purposes, such as raising awareness, explaining a phenomenon, entertaining or maybe surprising us with some video or fact that we didn’t know before. Content may also be pure data – CrunchBase would be a good example here. Today, there are thousands of major portal sites in which content is their product.
The old adage that “content is king” still applies to news. Certainly, viewers want to visit sites that are informative, engaging, and frequently updated, and great content remains critical to the quality of their experience. Journalism is a type of content production, but it is far smaller in its domain of work. Journalism, in my definition, is bringing factual information to the public’s attention, often information that is hidden or that some entity wishes would remain hidden from view. As such, journalism is often a form of dissidence, an activity that many of those in power would prefer simply not exist. There is a reason why 70 journalists were killed last year in countries throughout the world.
This distinction between content and journalism matters, because journalism often comes with serious side effects. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the reporters at the heart of the Snowden leaks, have faced one confrontation after another in transiting across borders from their work. Such treatment doesn’t exist for Hollywood movie producers, BuzzFeed cat picture caption writers, or bloggers writing about how journalism is not content production. We shouldn’t necessarily consider journalism a more honorable profession given this fierce opposition, but neither should we equate it with simply placing words or pictures online.
There is a reason why news organizations separate editorial departments from their business colleagues. For journalists to have the necessary independence to do their work, they must have the mandate to pursue evidence wherever it might lead – even if that means undermining the organization’s very business by targeting its advertisers or sponsors. Corporations have reached an astonishing level of sophistication in influencing news, making this independence an increasingly last defense for truth. Just witness the work of Syngenta recently discussed in The New Yorker, and how the agri-business-influenced scientific results related to one of its products.
For journalists to have the necessary independence to do their work, they must have the mandate to pursue evidence wherever it might lead – even if that means undermining the organization’s very business by targeting its advertisers or sponsors.
Startups understandably want to relax these firewalls, because there is innovation that can be done by blurring the lines between the business side and editorial sides of news services. Yet, the challenge is that the conflicts of interest start almost immediately, degrading the ability of the startup to remain above the fray and actually conduct reporting. As just one example, here in Korea, where there is a cozy relationship between businesses and news organizations, if a newspaper writes a profile of a startup, the founder usually gets a phone call a week later from the business team at the news service asking for an ad purchase. At some point, it is hard to avoid a pay-to-play mentality when reporting informs profits.
But the corruption doesn’t just exist when corporations are looking to influence their press coverage through ad budgets; it also rears its head when reporting is driven exclusively by viewership. As several commentators noted last week, CNN ran “breaking news” chyrons for hours at a time, even when there was no news to report about the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. Such tactics may temporarily increase profits, but at the expense of further erosion in the public’s already weakened trust of the news media.
The challenge for startups in building journalism businesses is not so different from attempting to build research and development companies. The work is often expensive and time-consuming, and results can be quite unpredictable. It lends itself to government funding or private funding from deep-pocketed private companies. Thus, if startups are serious about rebuilding journalism, they must start with a different set of assumptions than those used for content portals. They need to work within a set of constraints that affords journalists independence while also ensuring a sustainable set of revenues. This is not an easy task.
One option that will fill in some of these needs is crowdfunding. Beacon is perhaps the best example of a startup trying to connect donors to journalists to fund investigative work. Many of the initial themes are around ecology, with environmentalists presumably interested in ponying up the cash required to showcase some of the ongoing issues facing our planet.
If startups are serious about rebuilding journalism, they must start with a different set of assumptions than those used for content portals.
This sort of new model is exciting, but we need to temper our enthusiasm by noting that crowdfunding cannot be used in every case where we might want it to. Many journalists toil on stories far before the general public is interested in hearing their results. Indeed, the very notion of crowdfunding of reporting assumes that the topics are decided in advance, and a plan for reporting can even be developed. Such services have the potential to support topical writers in areas like environmentalism and human rights, but it will be much more difficult to support the sort of spontaneous investigations that are quite typical for a journalist.
An alternative model that has been extensively discussed is some sort of micropayment system for news sites. The logistics behind such payments have always been incredibly difficult, but the advent of Bitcoin makes such an issue potentially trivial. Micropayments may offer some opportunities for the industry, but I am a little dubious about their potential for journalism given the obvious incentives for writers when revenues are directly correlated with page views. This is a model designed for content sites, not necessarily reporting.
I do believe that startups can be a force of good for news generation, delivery and curation. But the key here is to identify what kind of content a site hopes to develop. It’s perfectly acceptable (and possibly quite profitable) to focus a website on funny meme photos, or listicles, or outrageous headlines, but we shouldn’t confuse this with the kind of journalism sorely needed in our society.
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