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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.