A journalist friend called me yesterday morning to catch up. Our topics of conversation typically cover the gamut, but invariably, we end up talking about the current state of journalism. That was the case again yesterday.
My friend is a bit disillusioned right now. I feel his pain. He started as a newspaper reporter in a newsroom in the 1980s. He received assignments, called or visited his sources, verified the facts, and then produced his articles on deadline. And he followed the same model every day. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Today, much of the news we read online doesn’t follow that model.
True journalism has a code. Its first obligation is to tell the truth, meaning the journalist assembles and verifies facts and then gives a fair and reliable account. Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens (the public at large), meaning it is accountable to its readers before any other entity, including advertisers or shareholders. And journalists are independent from those they cover. If they aren’t, then they are doing PR work.
You may already be connecting a few dots at this point – wondering if the writers of the news you consume on a daily basis are obligated to tell the truth, are loyal to the public over any other entity and are independent of those they cover. If that is the case, you’ll be interested in visiting the PewResearch Journalism Project page that lists nine principles of journalism.
After reading the list, you might feel like my friend does. He can’t relate to BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post – two websites that are more about getting people to click on and/or share their stories via social media than anything else, for the primary purpose of gaining huge amounts of traffic so they can charge more for advertising. That business model is hardly in line with journalistic principles. Before you say neither site claims to be a news reporting agency, just listen to what they say.
BuzzFeed defines itself as “the social news and entertainment company. BuzzFeed is redefining online advertising with its social, content-driven publishing technology. BuzzFeed provides the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video across the social web to its global audience of more than 150M.”
The Huffington Post contains numerous news sections on its website. And Arianna Huffington made this accurate observation when she was asked about how she sees the news media and blogs evolving in the future: “The distinction between old and new media is becoming obsolete. We see all media having very significant investments in online media, in the blogs and what they are doing online. So I don’t think the distinction is really significant. We’re doing more reporting; they're doing more blogging and social media.”
I don’t fault BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post for their business models. They saw a void after people became accustomed to free news on the web and then capitalized on it. Understand though, that if you as a consumer are no longer willing to pay for journalism, then online news reporting agencies are no longer going to be loyal to you. Instead, they will be loyal to advertisers, or someone else. They have to be. Somebody has to pay the bills.
With that said, offering free print news shifts the focus from informing the citizenry (what it needs) to entertaining the citizenry (what it wants). That’s not to say an online news entity cannot also be entertaining, but in perfect world, entertainment wouldn’t be king.
The web hasn’t killed journalism though.
The Wall Street Journal provides excellent content – some of which can only be viewed if you are a subscriber. The New York Times allows visitors to read ten free articles a month and then charges a monthly subscription fee. Many daily newspapers offer free online content if you subscribe to the print edition. If you don’t, they might make you answer a few questions for their advertisers (which of course is used for future advertising endeavors). You can pay for digital subscriptions to Sports Illustrated or ESPN Insider content. And I’ve already written about a new journalistic model being offered by Beacon Reader in which readers fund freelance journalists directly.
I’m not trying to make you feel guilty for visiting BuzzFeed. I visit it, too. But if true journalism matters to you, consider purchasing an online monthly subscription to the news site of your choice. Or support a freelance journalist directly through a service like Beacon Reader or Patreon. Or, if you are old school, renew your subscription to the print version of your daily metro newspaper.
Lee Warren is a freelance writer and editor who has written twelve non-fiction books, one novella and hundreds of articles for various newspapers and magazines as well as edited more than 50 books that currently appear in print. He's a fan of NASCAR, baseball, tennis, books, movies and coffee shops.
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