Barney's Rubble

Journalism's Last Legs

Have the rise of online news-aggregation sites and our thirst for celebrity gossip put the kibosh on old-school reporting?

As a writer and reporter I've always defended journalism. Now I'm troubled, fed up and disgusted.

There are two factors turning journalism into a disreputable mess: the Internet and our cult of celebrity.

Serious journalists used to go in the field, spend weeks investigating stories, expose corruption and teach us about the world. This barely happens now, both because people don't want it and because media companies can't afford it.

Did you know that Google brought in $22 billion in revenue, most of which is advertising, in its last fiscal year? So how many experienced, motivated, risk-taking reporters does Google employ? Goose egg. Meanwhile the New York Times Company lost $6.2 million in its first quarter on revenues of only $609 million.

The Associated Press is in the same boat. The AP is a venerable news institution that has brought us solid reporting for 163 years. The AP syndicates articles, which means newspapers around the world pay to run them and that money pays for more reporting. The AP employs more than 4,000 employees. It was a nice little virtuous circle, at least until Google and the other aggregators came along and began killing off The AP's biggest newspaper clients.

While Google actually has a modest licensing deal with The AP, it shows little interest in paying other news organizations. Nor does Google have any interest in developing stories on its own. Instead, it wants to pull stories from others into Google news and sell its own ads against them. It's kind of like me selling beer out of your refrigerator.

As newspapers collapse like an overleveraged bank, the head of The AP, Bill Singleton, says he will track who uses his content and seek compensation.

Google's top geek, Eric Schmidt, gave his own self-serving take on the matter in a recent speech. Schmidt argued that "the vast majority of people only want the free model" -- something to which the papers need to get accustomed. (I wonder if he'd tell a drowning man to get used to water?) He then lectured newspapers to "understand what readers want," argued that intellectual property rights are not eroding, and tossed out a feeble free-speech reference.

The Internet is also making reporters lazy. In fact, many believe there's a lower standard for Internet journalism. Don't believe it? The editor of Wired magazine just wrote a book about why content should be free. Come to find out he grabbed entire sections from Wikipedia. Plagiarism is now the rule, not the exception.

Finally, the mass media has given up on real reporting, replacing it with talking heads, celebrity stalking and reality TV, which makes celebrities out of non-celebrities. Instead of going to Tehran, CNN, Fox and MSNBC give us a bunch of Beltway insiders jibber-jabbering about Iran. And instead of reporting on North Korea, we get Jacko 24 hours a day!

What can we do to save journalism? Report your answers to me at [email protected].

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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