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Journalism and the internet: Is it the best of times? No — but it’s not the worst of times either

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Having just written what I consider a defense of the internet’s effect on journalism and the media industry, I didn’t expect to have to do it again so soon. But just after Andrew Leonard’s short-sighted piece in Salon about how the internet has crippled journalism, David Sessions wrote on the same topic in Patrol magazine, and arguably did an even worse job of describing the current state of journalism, calling it a morass of “cynical, unnecessary, mind-numbing, time-wasting content.”

It’s not just the over-riding pessimism of both of these pieces that bothers me. It’s the failure to appreciate that the complaints they have are the same ones that have been made about journalism for decades — combined with the unrestrained longing for some mythical golden age of journalism.

In his piece, Sessions says that he used to be an optimist about the internet, that he rarely read the printed paper or magazines and always felt more at home with digital media because of its “immediacy” and freedom, and a willingness to evolve. But the promise of the web has turned sour, he argues, and the forces unleashed by the rise of Google and Facebook have turned a once-innovative marketplace into what the former writer (now doing his doctorate in modern European history) calls an undifferentiated mass of clickbait and me-too journalism:

Where once the internet media landscape was populated with publications that all had unique visual styles, traffic models, and editorial voices, each one has mission-creeped its way into a version of the same thing: everybody has to cover everything, regardless of whether not they can add any value to the story, and has to scream at you to stand out in the avalanche of “content” gushing out of your feeds.

The internet didn’t invent clickbait

Sessions’ piece has been tweeted approvingly by many online journalists, who seem to share his feeling that they are “actively making the world a dumber place” (or perhaps they just feel that everyone else is doing that). The internet is bad for writers, Sessions argues later in his essay, because it turns “qualities that should be valued — effort, reflection, revision, editing — into hindrances, and makes the resulting product worth little, both qualitatively and financially.” Good writing is difficult, takes time, and is expensive, he says.


I’m not saying the Patrol magazine co-founder or his fellow critics are wrong. Is there a lot of noise and low-quality writing on the internet? Definitely. Does much of it come from sites that claim to be doing journalism? You bet. Is any of this unique to the internet age? Not even close. Pick any time period within recent human history — especially the ones that were supposed to be a golden age for journalism — and you will find similar complaints.

Newspapers in particular have always been filled with huge quantities of “cynical, unnecessary, mind-numbing, time-wasting content.” As Annalee Nevitz of Gawker’s io9 recently described, newspapers at the turn of the century routinely indulged in shameless clickbait of the highest order, including front-page stories about violent gangs of thieves stealing people’s genitals. Headlines were salacious and in many cases flat-out wrong. Newspapers competed to see who would be the first to print a rumor or some bit of innuendo, especially if it involved a celebrity.

Technology is always seen as negative

Just as Twitter has been criticized by almost everyone (including Sessions) for encouraging a rush of speculation during events like the Boston bombing, and for overwhelming rational thought and reflection, the advent of the telegraph was also seen as a negative force for human understanding, because it transmitted the news too quickly, without giving people time to take the news in. You could quite easily read the excerpt below from an article in the New York Times from 1858 and replace the word “telegraph” with the word “internet.”


William Randolph Hearst, a giant in the modern media business, was a shameless publicity hound whose newspapers routinely printed half-baked theories and even outright falsehoods in an attempt to attract readers. As BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti is fond of pointing out — for obvious reasons — Henry Booth Luce’s burgeoning empire at Time Inc. started by aggregating the news posted by competitors in order to steal some of their traffic and posted every salacious bit of celebrity gossip or rumor it could get its hands on.

It’s not the worst of times

Even at the time when the Washington Post was producing what many see as the apotheosis of golden-age journalism — the Watergate investigation series by Woodward and Bernstein — it and other newspapers just like it were printing thousands of pages a day filled with trivia and ephemeral nonsense. I haven’t been able to find any, but I have no doubt that newspapers were being criticized for printing nothing but poorly-argued invective and cheap traffic-driving features when Benjamin Franklin was running the Pennsylvania Gazette in the 1700s.

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Criticizing BuzzFeed because it does listicles — or VICE News because it covers pop culture, or Gawker because it runs the occasional celebrity-bashing post, or Vox because it did an explainer on Gwyneth Paltrow — is like looking at a newspaper and complaining about the horoscopes, advice columns and comic strips. Where’s all the great journalism? The reality is that for most newspapers, those investigative stories and scoops everyone remembers are a fraction of a percent of the total output, and always have been.

Is this the best of times for journalism? No. But it’s hardly the worst of times either. The fact is that there was no “golden age of journalism.” Journalism has always been a messy and chaotic and venal undertaking in many ways — the internet didn’t invent that. All the web has done is provide us with more ways to produce and distribute both ephemeral nonsense and serious journalism in greater quantities. The good part is that it has also made it easier to find the things we care about. What we choose to do with that power, as always, is up to us.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Everett Collection and Thinkstock / Anya Berkut

9 Responses to “Journalism and the internet: Is it the best of times? No — but it’s not the worst of times either”

  1. Paul Kitzke

    Your theme is spot on; in fact, journalism history offers even better examples than the ones you mentioned.

    Two things about your references to Time Inc. Henry Robinson Luce was a co-founder whose second wife, a celebrity in her own right, was named Clare Boothe Luce. Also, Time magazine started as a compiler of news published elsewhere–certainly not an unusual concept early in the 20th century–but even at the beginning, it wasn’t really an aggregator in the way the term is used today nor did it specialize in “salacious” material. Luce, co-founder Brit Hadden, and staff rewrote most of the content they gleaned from other sources, recasting it in a format and style that were uniquely distinctive for the time; as executed by the brilliant Hadden, they were the reasons for the magazine’s initial success.

  2. I’m so tired of articles pontificating about Journalism without anyone acknowledging that research and writing have value, and those who write it need to eat and pay rent! As long as people expect content for free, they have no business complaining about the quality of it, or wondering where it went, or it is going, it is obvious to seasoned professionals as we are now being told to reinvent ourselves and get a “real” job, so that we can blog as a hobby! This is disrespectful.

  3. Justin B

    In the past, I’ve read The Times (the original, not that New York wannabe) from cover-to-cover, and found nothing of interest, the Financial Times the same. I’ve also devoured stories in both, and occasional whole issues of Wired, and, in as far as cover-to-cover is possible at Gigaom (and Tech Crunch, pre-AOL days) – I suppose that means clicking “older posts” more than once, the same is true.

    Good journalism, whatever that truly means, has always been about what connects with me at the time I am reading, not the worthiness of the writing, or even the actual content of it, per se.

    Journalists have typically been a rather whinging bunch at the best of times, probably due to the pressures of deadlines, the nostalgia of deep investigations that their current rag no long really do, or the constant round of layoffs; because nothing brings the ire of journo’s like a round of pink slips.

    BUT, good investigative journalism still exists, good rags still get printed (or published via WordPress), and there are a lot of worth works being put out there to world every single hour of every single day.

    The industry, in at least the sense that writers still write, and readers still read has not changed. The readers ability to find content where they want, based upon their interest of the moment has.

    I no longer have to see if I can afford one or two magazines extra per month, and then find the time to read them. I can, for example, find my current interest and several searches later, I will have access to some of the best writers on the planet, telling me every angle, in as much depth as I can stand, and sometimes beyond.

    What is killing “the golden age” is me, the reader, helped, to a certain extent by news aggregation services, and I’m killing it because it’s how I want to get my news, analysis and deeper understanding; not from one source, but from as many as I feel I need to satisfy my curiosity – and, like it or not, I can get much of that for free, or in return for a 12 second advert, or pre-roll video ad, which I’ve forgotten about the moment it disappears from my screen.

    The golden age of journalism is still yet to come, once you lot, the writers, and your editors, publishers and shareholders get off your asses and find a way to make money from how I want to consume, rather than desperately holding on to “old way of doing things”.

    I am only sure of one thing for certain, for the most part, that future will not involve dead trees, probably won’t involve the airwaves, and I am pretty sure that it won’t involve me giving someone my credit card details either.

    I might be willing to pay per article, if the content is really, really good. But if the headline starts “I can’t believe what he did, and neither will you”, or some variation of this ilk, I am not even willing to do that.

  4. Uwe Knüpfer

    There always has been good journalism and lousy journalism – at least where or since censorship is a thing of the past. Just to put a lot of money and time in it doesn’ make memorable journalism. But without time and money it’s a lot harder to produce memorable articles and posts.
    The internet is neither good or bad. But the internet (so far) made it harder to finance serious journalism. Where measuring klicks and quotes is the only means to make money with “content”, yellow journalism will thrive – as it did in the era of old Randolph Hearst.
    You need readers who are willing to pay for “content” to cultivate a journalism worth remembering. And you need a business model adequate to the internet allowing readers to pay and journalists to be decently paid – and there will be another Golden Era of journalism even in the age of internet, I bet.

  5. Penderworth

    “Good writing, writing that matters in the present and is remembered in the future, is very difficult, takes a lot of time, and is generally expensive.”

    He’s right in some cases. To some writers, though, it comes naturally. Research, on the other hand, usually takes time. You can’t just skip to the end and prove what you’ve written right after you wrote it. Time has to be spent investigating issues.

    Most journalism is stereotyped as being news, for some reason. Developing stories don’t require as much research, especially when you have witnesses and Twitter.

    As for technology “always” being seen as negative, that’s an absurd absolute. There’s more evidence against that than there is for it. Some old media might see technology as negative, but even in that case, most outlets don’t. (If it’s something like Fox, no one cares.)

    New media is indeed looked down upon by the old newspaper folk on a regular basis. Lots of corporations still don’t acknowledge blogs as a viable way of distributing content. What can you do about their ignorance? Who knows.

  6. You add some nice perspective to his piece,. But two things are different from previous eras. and he does a good job pointing that out. First, there was never as much pressure to report instantly and then move on without context or further exploration. This is the golden age of the “one source story.” Reporters used to be embarrassed by one-source stories. Now one-source stories are fuel for valuable productivity. And second, yes, turn of the century papers were lurid, and you could avoid them if you wanted to. You could probably keep them from your children; maybe the kids would smuggle copies of “Jack the Ripper and the Loose Bodice of Istanbul” to each other, but distribution was limited. Today, can someone reasonably go online and avoid “Top 10 Celebrities with Breasts Sagging?” Erm, not that I clicked. But if I had clicked, I wouldn’t compare that ‘story’ to the availability of horoscopes in print papers.
    But … of course as you very well articulate, the world will adjust, and 50 years from now people will look back on this era as a golden one of online journalism. But he did a nice job articulating present-day anguish.

  7. He’s mixing a bit the effects of the internet with the effects of other factors.
    A good example is TV , look how much worse it is now when it comes to news or even programing in general .The internet hasn’t caused that.Sure the internet adds negatives but also positives and in the end, for the most part , the content on the internet is as good as the user needs it to be.It gives us easier access to a lot of things, what we choose to consume is not the Internet’s fault
    It is true that it’s a bit of a jungle out there with mobile increasing the time people spend online but that chaos is normal for any beginning and things settle. That’s not to say that we should ignore all the problems and not do anything about it. For example we need tech journalists. The current ones are either journalists or tech people or neither so most either don’t know what they are talking about or don’t have any integrity ( they just haven’t been educated on the subject) so it would be reasonable for schools to try to try to create proper tech journalists.