The death and rebirth of journalism: Flaws exposed
| October 23, 2013
Sept. 11 changed a lot of things.
At the time, I worked for a Washington, D.C., media company that specialized in providing compliance, regulatory and market information to its subscribers and clients. It was my first job out of college and offered an eye-opening experience into the state of print media in the early 2000s.
The best word I could choose to describe the atmosphere was panic.
I had been hired to not only help oversee the production and publication of two of its disability law newsletters, but to also help transfer content from print to digital. The company meetings on the subject were comically nonchalant. They were held in dim board rooms with humming projectors and quizzically confused editors and writers all wondering just what this whole Internet thing really meant.
I was tasked with creating online-ready articles, and the rules were simple: Make the stories short and concise, nothing too involved. If they want details, they’ll simply subscribe to the print versions; at least that's what we thought (or desperately hoped).
My company wasn't alone. Journalism in general had been suddenly jolted awake by the presence of a foreign party vying for attention. The Internet was this parasite that had gone unnoticed, lying in wait for some moment of cultural tragedy when it could gestate and explode; all hungry and entitled.
I had come to work on Sept. 11, and it was just like any other day. My office was a small, featureless box that, considering the economic downturn to come, I was fortunate to have. The back wall was mostly window and looked out over an alley. Across from that was the brick facade of an adjacent building, behind that was Virginia and then the Pentagon. That morning, everything was as it should have been.
Then my mother called. A plane, she explained, had hit the World Trade Center in New York. At the time, I thought nothing of it. Planes must hit skyscrapers all the time, I thought.
So I went to WashingtonPost.com for information. There was only a blurb.
The sentences in the thrown-together article weren't even complete. At the bottom of the page, there was notification that more information would be made available as details were verified. And that was it.
Eventually, as the morning progressed, the paragraph turned into three, then four and then more. And as the events of that horrible morning began to unfold, the story on the Washington Post's front page began to evolve.
By the time it was anything close to what the Post would normally publish in its print form, I was already gone: evacuated into the street with the thousands of other escapees — blind and confused without the slightest idea of what was happening.
There was a fair amount of misinformation passed along that day thanks in part to radio and television. The National Mall had allegedly been on fire at one point. There had also been a car bomb found outside of the State Department, supposedly.
Of course, none of that turned out to be true. But the faux information — the rumors, the hearsay, the third-person accounts — flew at such an intense rate following the tragedy, radio and television weren’t able to weed out the nonsense.
It wasn't until the next day that the Washington Post's print version offered anything close to real news that mattered. But by that time, it was the same stuff I had already heard over and over again from more timely outlets like cable news and, yes, the Internet. WashingtonPost.com had been chugging along all night, building upon that initial story, layer by layer, like a grain of sand trapped inside a clam's shell.
In my mind, before Sept. 11, traditional media — newspaper, magazine, television and radio — reigned supreme. But cable television and its 24-hour news cycle gave birth to a hunger for information that these mediums could no longer satisfy.
End of traditionalism
One of the problems with online journalism is that there’s no money in it. For every Huffington Post that finds a way to do well, there are hundreds more that close their doors and drift off into the Internet ether, never to publish again.
A chief problem is the lack of revenue accrued from online advertising. Online, there are just too many choices for advertisers; this drives the costs of ads down.
"Newspaper revenue dollars become online pennies," said Tim Windsor, director of digital strategy for The Johns Hopkins University, in an article for the Nieman Journalism Lab. "Despite increasing readership online, advertisers continue to pay a much higher price when they place their ads in print. A lot of that has been laid to inertia on the part of advertisers and a lack of sales imagination at papers. But there’s also something very real at play as well: the loss of scarcity.”
It was for this reason that traditional print publications didn’t find immediate success online. I remember for a period in the early 2000s, a few newspapers tried to reserve content for subscribers only. But why, I thought, pay for content you could simply find somewhere else online, for free. Eventually, the papers came to their senses, retreated and regrouped.
I remember when the Washington Post seriously started to feel the heat from online competition. The paper decided to double-down on its print presence and in 2003, launched the Express: a daily and free, baby-sized tabloid meant to complement the Washington Post.
I remember opening my first copy. The articles were very blog-like. Whatever real news it provided had been pulled from news wire, and little of it had been written by Post or Express staff. It was loaded with advertisements.
To me, at the time, this was the first red flag that things weren't going well. Little did I know, but the Washington Post would be one of many newspapers forced to slice off huge swaths of staff during their mid-aught battle with Internet news. This is when the digital revolution truly took hold.
From 2005 and on, the bodies started dropping. Not just at the Washington Post, but also The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune — all cut staff by the hundreds. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer folded altogether in favor of being an online-only publication in 2009.
The late aughts was a dark period in traditional journalism as many institutions were forced to close their doors to the encroaching tsunami of inevitability. There is even a website chronicling the massacre called Newspaper Death Watch.
The Internet was winning and winning big. No one wanted long and engrossing exposes uncovering political indiscretion. It was all about the here and now; up-to-date news and readers wanted it fast, often times faster than the speed of truth.
From 2008-09, Huffington Post launched its first local versions HuffPost Chicago, New York and Denver, which began its explosion in popularity. Politico and even — to some degree — TMZ, with its Internet-ready, just-get-it-out style of news began running the traditional news sources into the ground. This new breed of journalism was all about speed, hyperlinking, references and the special type of timeliness to which only online publications can adhere.
Compounding the power of Internet news was the sudden boon in the personal data assistant — and then later smartphone — industry. Now readers didn't even need to pick up a paper. The advent of the iPhone was the game changer. Beginning in 2007, iPhones gave the average person a digital umbilical to perpetual sources of news.
Consider this, there is now a generation of people living who have no idea what it’s like to need information.
Stay tuned as Part 3 examines the rebirth of news in the digital form.
- Mental health during the holidays: Tips for a brighter season
- How to plan your holiday office party without (cookie) cutting corners
- How health care professionals can prevent needlestick injuries
- 7 gifts your customers want this holiday season