The Internet is Not Killing Journalism — it’s Just Killing Dull, Obvious Journalism
It’s become the established wisdom that only crap gets read on the internet. Thousands of lazy ‘experts’ parrot the obvious line — a tale that combines Lindsay Lohan’s tits, Facebook, an iPad and some kittens will always beat a real story. The Internet Will Be The End of Serious Journalism.
It is wildly, ridiculously wrong.
The Internet is just a medium. It’s a lot faster than print, so people may be more capricious about what they read. But they’re still, broadly, reading the same things. By the last available figures People magazine, the physical printed product, has three times as many subscribers as the New Yorker, the physical printed product. Of the top 100 magazines by subscriber, fewer than 10 can be described as containing serious reportage. It’s not surprising that people who like celebrities and kittens offline like them online too.
The problem is not that habits have changed. I presume that New York Review of Books subscribers are not setting their homepage to TMZ in droves. The real problem is that writers, myself included, have had it easy, and we don’t like the change. It used to be that turning in a lazy, irrelevant trend piece for a newspaper or a magazine felt exactly the same as writing a great, incisive story. Either way you never knew how many people read and how many skipped. Either way you got the buzz, the ego-boost of seeing words you wrote in your boxers in your house disseminated physically to millions. It was pleasant.
The internet does not allow such indulgences. If you turn in an obvious opinion piece, or a shabby news story with little new information, or a feature that no one cares about, no one will read it. You will see, in real time, no one reading it. Minute by excruciating minute your article will not be read, right in front of your eyes. It is not pleasant.
It’s tempting to blame the medium. It’s not that your article sucked, it’s that behaviour of readers on The Internet is skewed away from your unique gifts. If only The Internet, that dark obstacle to decent writing, would allow people to appreciate your personal essay on your relationship with food. The Internet should want to read about your breakup. If only The Internet hadn’t come and sunk your print publication.
It’s probably The Blogs too. All The Blogs do is steal stuff and spread rumors — it must be true, because they said it in a panel discussion on The Future of Journalism at a J-School.
It’s not The Internet. It’s not The Blogs (I’m not even sure what ‘blogs’ are defined as any more). It’s you. If you’re more interesting, more concise and more relevant — whether the topic is celebrities or geopolitics — people will read. Get scoops — and show the documents, the pictures and the video that led you to them — and people will read. The most emailed story on the New York Times website today, for example, is about mineral deposits in Afghanistan.
The only thing in mortal peril is dull, comfortable, obvious, lazy journalism. But it’s not murder. It’s a mercy killing. And it has a precedent — something similar happened in 1972. Hopefully the dullest, laziest writing of all — blaming The Internet for journalistic shortcomings — will be next against the wall.