Writing online: ‘You have to feed the machine — and the machine likes junk food’?

Burning Newspaper

Creative Commons photo by Julian Povey on Flickr

In “Writing online: ‘You have to feed the machine — and the machine likes junk food,’ MinnPost journalist John Reinan summarizes and reiterates the complaint of former VentureBeat reporter Bekah Grant that the Internet is killing quality reporting.

Reinan quotes Grant as writing, “In a perfect world, important stories would attract the most pageviews, but that is not the world we live in.… Miley Cyrus and cat videos get more pageviews than stories about homelessness or healthcare. To write the stories you want, you have to feed the machine. And the machine likes junk food.”

Reinan tries to avoid tarring his own employer with this brush, stating “Grant’s experience doesn’t speak for every online journalist, of course. Many online news sites—like this one—provide their readers with thoroughly reported, carefully edited stories.”

But that unsupported statement dissolves in the face of his next sentences, “Grant’s beat—technology news—is one of the most competitive. When you’re reporting on the geek world, you have to move as quickly as the geeks do.… But digital competition is forcing traditional news outlets to move in the same direction. Newspapers across the nation have slashed their editing ranks deeply. Stories that used to be passed through the hands of three, four or five editors now are vetted by one—or none.”

The rest of his post continues to echo Grant’s bewailing of forces filling the media with LOL cats.

But here’s the thing: When automobiles first appeared on roads, they changed transportation—but they didn’t kill it. Sure, there are fewer horses on the road today; the air is dirtier, but the roads are cleaner.

Similarly, the advent of news radio affected newspapers, and television affected both, and now the Internet is affecting all three. Each new technology has changed the dissemination of information, but to argue that any of them is killing the news is so much wishing for the good old days of horse travel.

Certainly with more media—and broader reaching media—more media consumers exist; and certainly an increasing amount of what has been produced with each new medium is junk. (Do we really need a 24-hour food channel?)

But every time I see another one of these “the Internet is killing X” articles, I think: There’s a lazy, unimaginative person, crying about the loss of how things were, and missing the prospect of how things can be. Local newspapers are experiencing a resurgence, providing specialized news funded by page after page of advertisement. Radio is similarly alive and well, even without considering podcasting. Television is more vibrant than ever, with more networks than you can shake a stick at, let alone Internet-specific video. As for fewer editors and less time, lots of nonprofits and documentary teams continue to put out carefully researched materials. And ever since the earliest American penny press, the news itself has more often been a dead run to get a scoop than to write the perfect story.

So…you can’t find a traditional publisher to be your sugar daddy? Grab a niche; publish yourself; and build your own audience. That’s how those early publishers started in the first place.

One Comment

  1. Les, I beg to differ. The media is horribly dependent on advertising. It’s like heroin, hard to give up and has diminishing returns. A 30-minute show is now 21 minutes of content, that’s 30% advertising! Even NPR isn’t immune, they say no ads but who are they fooling when they’re shilling for their “funders” and I’ve seen my favorite program, On The Media, slowly get whittled down from 54 minutes to 51. It’s a major reason why I bailed on cable TV.

    Radio is on the ropes. People, namely younger people, are tuning out because there’s too many ads. That’s thanks to Clinton and Newt’s Telecom Act of 96 letting the media baronies gobble each other up. They did it all with debt. Then killed 10,000 jobs to cut costs and flood the airwaves with 20 minutes of ads/hour. And guess what? It failed. Clear Channel with its 1200 stations had to go private, sell some stations off and “re-brand” themselves as I Heart Radio; still failing.

    The Internet is great yet your comparison is off. Newspapers didn’t suffer as much when radio and TV came along. The powerful publishers got in on the ground floor: Chicago Tribune started WGN radio and TV, Milwaukee Journal started WTMJ AM, WKTI FM and WTMJ TV 4, Hearst, Murdoch, etc. Meanwhile, the Internet has yet to make any real money on content beyond porn for the old baronies. It’s hard for the traditional media to survive when they’re working with a generation that thinks it should get everything for free due to them owning a phone or a computer.

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