Bankrupt, unloved, mute, workaholic and open to bribery – meet the journalist of the 21st century

A comment piece about the state of the media for Romania’s top news website, Hotnews, originally published in Romanian in September 2012 – The English version is below:

Bankrupt, unloved, mute, workaholic and open to bribery – meet the journalist of the 21st century

Journalist Michael Bird examines nine ways the industry has changed in the last ten years

1. Journalism is no longer a profession, it is an art. This is bad for journalists. Journalism was once a service, where its practitioners had a status similar to lawyers or doctors. Now everyone believes to be a journalist all one needs is a keyboard, spell-check and an attitude. A flood of mediocrity has crashed into the profession. This has diluted the quality of the final product. At parties in the 1990s, if you said you were a journalist, people were interested. Now it is like saying you write poetry or – worse – that you are a DJ. People take you seriously only if you are famous.

2. Journalists have to take on non-journalism jobs to continue being a journalist. They compose promotional material or advertorials or work as PRs, so they have enough cash to write long-form narratives or investigations. Magazines pay for these long articles, but not enough to cover the expenses. An article can be read across the globe for the first time ever, but its writer may not have enough money to pay the rent.

3. Media companies are transforming from corporations into non-profit associations. The media market will probably separate into multinationals who attract advertising due to economies of scale and self-sustaining ‘media associations’, operating as non-Governmental organisations. Here advertising becomes ‘sponsorship’, media buys are ‘donations’ and sales staff are ‘fund-raisers’. Meanwhile the writers have the integrity of being independent of big business and retain control over their final product, but they live from a begging bowl. An industry has turned into a charity.

4. The newsroom has become a story and the public is watching. In the pre-Internet age the ‘running story’ consisted of an editor stuck in a room full of PCs, waiting for info to arrive by phone, fax or reporters from the field, so he or she could assemble a story for the morning edition. This backstage activity becomes a dramatic event on television and in text online. It is exciting and popular. People reading these stories are time-rich, educated and return to the same webpage several times a day. Advertisers should be quick to buy up that white space bracketing every new disclosure.

5. Greater access to information has not made journalism more crusading. The Wikileaks story of 2010 – where hacker Julian Assange published secret cables from US Embassies – was a classic example of journalism in the new media age. An American whistle blower contacts an Australian hacker, who elicits the help of respected international newspapers to publish information which they deem to be “in the public interest”. It harnessed the global connections of the Internet age with the professionalism of old media. But it was a failure. Why? Can anyone remember an individual story revealed by Wikileaks? Too many articles were released in too short a period of time for anyone to digest the significance of the information. If the newspapers had published only one story from the cables it would have had more impact. One leak is a scandal. A thousand are a statistic. Compare this to The Guardian’s investigation in 2011 into phone-hacking at UK newspaper The News of the World. This was an old-fashioned investigation where experienced journalists slowly gather off-the-record testimony from primary sources. Even people in the USA and France can understand the story: a tabloid newspaper hacked into a dead girl’s telephone. Asked what was the biggest revelation of Wikileaks, most people would probably mention Swedish girls who described Assange as “the worst ever sex they ever had”.

6. Blogs are dead as a business. Ten years ago more people were writing novels than reading novels. Now more people are writing blogs than reading blogs. Some blogs function if they are simple – such as The Sartorialist – where a guy walks around fashionable cities taking pictures of people on the street. But the vast majority will never make money.  A website’s relationship with an individual visitor is like a heroin addict – it needs three hits a day to survive. This is impossible for a one-man blogger, therefore they must ‘cluster’ inside an old-style journalistic product which has a specific angle – such as posh left-liberal Huffington Post or Romania’s Hotnews – or Bloggers themselves must migrate to traditional media to earn a crust – such as the UK’s rightwing troublemaker Guido Fawkes teaming up with bestselling newspaper The Sun.

7. Journalists are more open to corruption. Because journalists are poorer than they were ten years ago, if a company wants to pay a journalist to write nice things about their product or nasty things about the competition, many journalists will willingly provide copy. Similarly, if a political party wants a journalist to trumpet its ideology, they can be bought with the promise of exclusives, the chance of ‘promotion’ in Government communications or plain cash. Journalists sometimes do not even need money. Products, paid-for holidays or access may be enough. These ‘professionals’ are media space that does not even need to be bought. But at the same time, journalists are in a stronger position to blackmail. The Internet has allowed journalism to be criminalised.

8. Whatever disaster has hit journalism is twice as harsh for photography. The democratisation of media has allowed everyone to re-distribute photos and articles without royalties, but photographers have another enemy – quality technology has allowed everyone to take a great picture. This would be the journalistic equivalent of Nikon and Canon enabling every blogger to write with Shakespeare’s lyrics and Tom Wolfe’s style. Media companies now dispatch journalists, PRs, secretaries or interns to take photos – anyone but a photographer. Their entire profession has been blacklisted.

9. The biggest enemy of the journalist is time. Fifteen years ago journalists worried they were spending too much time talking to people on the telephone and not enough time meeting people on the field. Now it’s worse. They don’t have enough time to talk on the phone. Interviews are conducted by email. To get information, journalists are talking to typewriters. They have to write too many articles in too short a period of time. It is similar to a doctor dealing with a massive number of patients after a natural disaster. She only operates on those who have the best chance of living. The rest can die. Similarly, the journalist focuses on the easiest stories to deliver, as the tough ones need too much work and, after further analysis, may end up expiring. The big stories stay unreported. Time pressure on journalism is the newest form of censorship.


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