True journalism is not dead
Around the world, leap years have often been associated with folklore and superstition (e.g. spikes in mortality rates, erratic weather, doomsday marriages) and as the Scots have been known say, “Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year.” But setting all that aside, no matter where you live, your demographic, education, career, family situation or political leanings, it would be tough to argue against 2016 being a tumultuous year.
From the ongoing war in Syria and the ~5M refugees it’s displaced, to the increased terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, from the shocking results of the Brexit referendum to the jaw-dropping outcome of the American election, this past 12 months left me feeling like I’d become a stranger in a strange land. In the past, when things seemed to make no sense, many of us looked to the Fourth Estate to help us understand the realities of the world, so that we could put into perspective the truths that would help us make the best decisions for our lives, our communities and governments.
But sadly last year, too much of mainstream media failed to give us those truths – often choosing “being first” over “being factual”, valuing clicks over engagement, aiding in spreading misinformation and, let’s be honest, ignoring events and people they deemed to be marginalized.
Meanwhile they continued to drive their newsrooms down the road to extinction through massive layoffs while incumbent media executives continued to enjoy million dollar bonuses.
With the rampant growth of fake news, and today’s thinly-stretched media’s lack of focus on what was really happening around us and scrambling for headlines by hopping on the bandwagon of the day, it’s no wonder that trust in media hit an alltime low in 2016.
Now, it’s not like this all happened overnight; we’ve been witnessing this decay for a number of years as publishers sacrificed their raison d’être for all the wrong reasons.
This led to a rise in alternative news sites, most of which are extreme in nature serving the passions and anger of the disenfranchised – the Breitbarts of the world. The popularity of these news organizations cannot be overstated with millions of readers/ viewers flocking to their sites and YouTube channels on a regular basis.
Many people think these outlets are creating a feeding frenzy of fanaticism, but there is a large and passionate population that truly believes
alternative news sources deliver legitimate journalism. It really is in the eyes of the beholder, but one mustn’t forget what true journalism is, and isn’t, before making any judgements one way or the other. We need to fact-check everything because we can’t always rely on media to do all of it for us, given our growing lack of time and ever-decreasing attention spans.
What true journalism is
According to the American Press Institute, “Journalism is storytelling with a purpose” that “must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate, but need.”
Within this definition lies a code of ethics that forms the mission of the Fourth Estate as the guardian of truth, the watchdog of power and the foundation of a democratic society.
True journalism must report the truth. It also must report the whole truth to ensure the sin (yes, sin) of omitting relevant facts does not surreptitiously sway audiences. That’s not to say there is no room for opinion or analysis, but those flourishes to the facts must be explicitly exposed to ensure the truth is not twisted to suit editorial biases.
True journalism is unique and must serve to enlighten, educate and empower the informed. And although many publishers might not want to hear this, true journalism is not only produced within the hallowed halls of traditional media the way it used to be. Proprietorship is slipping through their hands as talented and dedicated freelancers strive to uphold the principles that form the foundation of a free and uncorrupted press.
What true journalism isn’t
True journalism is not a commodity product that pollutes the internet with repetitive garbage that adds no value to people’s lives. It’s not hearsay, plagiarism, propaganda, nor is it, libelous or sensational.
Carl Bernstein, investigative journalist and author who helped break the Watergate Scandal said, “The lowest form of popular culture - lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives - has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.”
Although I can’t disagree with his comments on the state of journalism today, I also can’t wholly condemn popular culture for it. Long before we’d ever heard about social media, plagiarism, fabrications, misinformation and corruption by rogue reporters were exposed in some of the most respected media outlets in the world, including Boston Globe, and The New York Times. And in the past decade, they kept showing up in high profile media organizations including Rolling Stone magazine, NBC and News Corp’s News of the World, to name just a few.
Is true journalism on the way of the dodo bird
In 2007, the total newsroom workforce in the US was 55,000. By 2015, it had collapsed down under 33,000. A year later, just over 27,300 are left, many of those still waiting for the axe to fall.
Some of the laid-off journalists have moved over to the “dark side” of public relations and content marketing/native advertising where salaries are higher, but there are still dedicated diehards who are slogging it out as freelancers because for them, journalism matters, despite the miserable wages they earn.
Today media brands are becoming less important to those who want the truth. If publishing executives continue to ignore readers and sacrifice quality journalism for clicks, page views and the pressures from advertisers and politicians, soon there won’t be much true journalism left inside traditional media at all.
Take a lesson from Medium CEO, Ev Williams, who recognized that the company had strayed from its original mission and needed to refocus itself on what was truly important, “We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention. We believe there are millions of thinking people who want to deepen their understanding of the world and are dissatisfied with what they get from traditional news and their social feeds. We believe that a better system—one that serves people—is possible. In fact, it’s imperative.”
Beyond the attractiveness of its simple design and ease of use, Medium has done a lot of things right – the best of which is attracting talented writers who attract quality readers. As a result, it has amassed a huge audience.
Acknowledging that today’s digital (and not just digital) advertising model is broken and walking away from it was not easy to do; and Mr. Williams deserves accolades for taking that important step. But the future for Medium cannot be bright without the CEO and Board recognizing that not one, but multiple sources of revenue are needed for sustainable profitability. That includes selling subscriptions to the highest quality content within its ecosystem, attracting sponsorships that connect popular brands to readers of the highest valued content, being ubiquitous across all platforms and diversifying revenue streams beyond just content.
True journalism needs champions
True journalism is a critical pillar of a democratic society and I feel blessed to be able to enjoy the freedoms that my country affords me. Many around the world are not so fortunate. It is for this very reason that I feel strongly about true journalism and its future in a volatile world rocked by changes in consumer behavior, technology, politics and the growing pile of crap posing as legitimate news.
A friend asked me how I would describe what’s happening with news reporting today. I likened it to a person drowning in an ocean and desperately looking for the light that will direct them to safety. True journalism is drowning in a sea of too much irrelevant/fake/ commodity content — rubbish that’s floating on the surface and through which very little light can penetrate.
True journalism needs our help. It needs champions to support both the employed and freelance reporters and writers who put themselves at risk every year to help make the world a better place.
It needs fact checkers to help separate the wheat from the chaff so that quality content may rise above the drivel. And it needs funding through new innovative business models to help finance and sustain it
True journalism is not dead – not now, not ever.
2016 was a year many people would probably want to forget. But it’s imperative that we remember it, reflect on it and learn from it so that we can refocus our efforts on reviving a more sustainable, effective and inclusive free press. Because if we don’t, as Sir Winston Churchill warned, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Time is precious; let’s not waste a single minute of it. If you free like I do that true journalism matters and want to help, let’s talk.