By Darren Johnson
Is the Internet killing journalism?
There is a value in “straight news,” and, also, longer-form, investigative news.
But both don’t do that well on the web, considering people’s attention spans, and what’s “shareable” is usually attention-getting and not substantive.
For example, I can write a piece that took a couple of days and took some deep thought and research, and it gets tumbleweeds on the web. Then I can write a 5-minute piece on Howard Stern and it goes viral. After awhile, I could see a journalist — who is essentially paid by clicks — caving in to supply-and-demand.
In some ways, the print model was better, before the Internet really got big.
For example, I worked for a small, weekly paper in the 1990s, and would write 7–9 stories a week on average. Some were from relatively mundane beats. Some were colorful little features like local-person-does-thing.
I had no way of knowing if 1% of readers read my story on the sewer plant and 20% of readers read my story on the guy who won a table tennis tournament, and that’s probably for the better.
All stories have value, even if only read by a handful of people. Maybe that sewer story prompted some change in how the plant was operated. Maybe that stopped some pollution. Maybe that article is still cited today in some town hall backroom.
If I had only been writing for clicks, I’d never have written that story.
But ultimately, what the problem is is THE DEATH OF READING.
People are forgetting how to read DEEPLY.
The smartphone is turning people into superficial readers who don’t have the mental muscles to really read something important.
Yes, there are some sites publishing serious stuff, but without a lot of shares, they will never hit the big time. The writers are younger now, but eventually they will need more money. I recently read in CJR that PR folks now outnumber journalists 5:1. That number has skyrocketed in the past decade, where it used to be 3:1, and a couple of decades before that closer to 1:1.
With a 5:1 ratio — and considering the PR folks are better paid and supported — you’re going to find real news gets overwhelmed by “copy.”
Solution? I’m not sure yet. I’m working on it.
And that’s the last word … for now.
Darren Johnson is owner of Campus News, a print newspaper that hits 37 colleges in the Northeast.