Last year, I wrote about journalism’s business model being broken. This year, I’m concerned that journalism’s journalism model is also on life support.
Some old issues persist. Sensationalism still prevails over substance, and far too much energy is wasted on commodity news or, worse, “news” straight from companies. (Example: news organizations running stories based on anonymous sources actually representatives of the company wanting to plant the story without fingerprints.)
But now some newer problems are emerging.
The fear of getting scooped is causing reporters to narrow their focuses. Particularly in larger newsrooms, it is very common for reporters to cover very narrow beats, with different reporters covering Facebook and Google for instance—two companies in the same business and fishing from the same talent pool. Reporters who understand multiple industries, and hence the bigger picture, are increasingly rare.
Even with very narrow focuses, reporters aren’t specialized enough. In tech in particular, topics ranging from ad tech to artificial intelligence are very complex; reporters and their bosses are more focused on the instant gratification of a quick take than in learning what they need to know to go deep. This has left openings for industry experts to pose as journalists; many of whom are intelligent writers but more trained in analysis than fact-gathering.
There’s too much attention on the tools over the trade. I love technology as much as the next reporter, but no amount of Tweeting or live video chats will get to the bottom of a story like Amir’s opus on Google’s Sundar Pichai, revealing his status as Larry Page’s successor months before his promotion.
All this is happening as journalism is getting harder.
Companies and leaders are getting too tough to cover, in part because they’re using the 24/7 news cycle to their advantage, obfuscating through disinformation. More than ever, reporting has to be bulletproof because critics are quick and loud to knock down anything that’s unflattering, even if it’s true.
There’s another growing challenge in tech reporting: Many of the most important tech companies are privately held, meaning the only way to get data about their businesses is from inside sources reluctant to talk. Even analysts aren’t following these companies, and those that do often guess and call what they publish an “estimate.” Lots of big companies in media and in an array of other industries are privately held, to be sure, but they’re typically not those like Uber that are having as big an impact in society.
And it is far harder for reporters to cover a privately held Uber, valued by investors at $40 billion, than a publicly held Twitter, worth $25 billion.
But while the work is harder without a quarterly scorecard, it is no less important.
Uber touches millions, from riders to drivers to governments to investors, and news organizations need to hold it to account.
As reporting is getting tougher, distribution is, of course, getting easier. In other words, it’s easier than ever to write something bad that gets a lot of clicks or retweets and therefore feels like it is “good.”
We confront this every day at The Information. The easy choice is rushing to pile in. It feels good to see your byline online and feel like a day’s work is done.
The hard choice is picking up the phone, driving hours to meet someone, reading up on an obscure field and following the facts where they lead you. The gratification is different. It doesn’t stem from the flood of retweets or being on the top of some tech news aggregator. It comes from the steady growth of a high-quality audience. It’s an entrepreneur forwarding an article to his or her board of directors and vice versa. It’s seeing other reporters write the same story six months later.
As I have said many times before, I still believe that the best hope for fixing journalism is fixing its broken business model.
Organizations need to be aligned with their readers, thrive when they deliver value to them and go out of business when they don’t. And readers need to realize this and throw their support behind news organizations that aim for quality and sustainability, even if it means painful change.
The subscription model is working for our growing team at The Information, and I believe that the world would be a better place if more publications decided to rise to the challenge of delivering something people want enough that they’d pay for it.
But there’s another piece too. Journalists need to want to become better journalists.
We glorify and talk about journalists wearing many hats—technologists, investors, TV stars or entrepreneurs.
A handful will be wired, as I am, to go out and build a business. Some will learn to code. But what’s most important for the industry and society is that journalists continue to gain the skills to fight back against the decks stacked higher and higher against them.