The death of journalism occurred this past year and no one said one word about it. None of the media outlets covered the story, no obituaries were written and no eulogies expressed. In fact, most people are not even aware of the death, although one blogger did kind of announce it in a round-about way. The blogger posted a list of 15 things no one should ever pay for and one of his items was a newspaper. He contended that everyone should get their news online for free and save the 50 cent to $1.50 daily expense.
Well, here is the bad news. Most of what passes as news online is not really journalism. That is not to say that there is no real news available, it is just that most people never really read it. The average web user logs into one of 4 or 5 portal sites whenever they get online. Typically Yahoo, Google, MSN, AOL or an ISP .net portal such as Comcast.net or ATT.net is the page most people see welcoming them to the information superhighway. These portals have webmasters and editors working hard and diligently to make the portal as informative as possible. This is not there main purpose, however. Their mandate is to get as many eyes on as many ads as they can. Therefore, instead of putting a factual news story as the main item on a page, the editor might put a blog, or a feature article that pulls readers to an advertiser, and then the editor will bury a link to a real news story lower on the page.
This mirrors what happened in print media 10 years ago, when editors bowed to ad sales managers who were struggling to generate ad revenue to keep the paper in print. The managers wanted ads in full color above the fold on page one. This was a journalistic no-no from day one of journalism school. The need for a journalist to be an impartial observer merely reporting the news without bias or favor has always been key to building the public trust. If the public does not trust a news source to be accurate and fair, they will not believe the stories and stop reading. A newspaper without readers is a maker of expensive birdcage liners.
So editors broke this one golden rule and put ads in plain sight. Then they started writing stories designed to run alongside an ad. You see an article on the benefits of running and right next to it was a full page ad for Nike cross-trainers. You see an article on the number of single adults over the age of 18 surrounded by ads for dating services. This trend is rampant now in print and online.
But the online is worse, because the “news stories” text is now written by the advertisers and there is no disclaimer to let the reader know this. An unwary reader will peruse a story about the top ten things you should do with your credit report that was written by a company that sells credit reports and think it is objective news.
Another death knell for journalism is the infotainment factor. Started more than 25 years ago by Entertainment Tonight, the entertainment news format features stories about celebrities’ private and public lives with all the weight and import of major political news. Lindsey Lohan going to jail will top a story about Israeli attacks in the West Bank. There is something inherently wrong with that.
The last thing I am going to ponder is the effect of blogging on newsgathering. Many of the portals will toss in blogs with the aggregated newsfeeds. Some people cannot tell the difference between a blog and a real news article, so they treat the opinion of the blogger as objective news. Now, with some bloggers (ahem) that is a safe thing to do. But with most, it is folly of the worst sort. All blogs are just op-ed pieces, written by average Joes (many of whom could not script a proper sentence with a dictionary, a thesaurus and a 10-grade grammar teacher’s help) who want to tell people what to think.
It is not all the media’s fault. The public asks for—no—demands it, and advertisers are keen to give it to them, so they pay for all the news that’s cheap to produce and guaranteed to get people looking at their ads.
So, journalism is dead. Burial services were never held, but the story was buried at the bottom of the links page on your average portal page. Journalism is survived by exploitative infotainment such as TMZ and OMG as well as your average blog.