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kim kardashian
July 15, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Kim Kardashian Topless!

Newspapers probably won’t exist in 15 years. Salient might not even be a magazine. It’s far too late to stop the internet’s reworking of the news industry, but there’s plenty of time to whine about how it’s ruining ‘proper journalism’. But is it?

 

I like to think I know what’s going on in the world.

The Pakeha Party is far too popular. Everyone’s still trying to decide whether Morsi’s forced retirement was a coup or not. I’m vaguely mad at Kevin Rudd. The IRD are trying to crack down on my ASOS purchases, but Maurice Williamson doesn’t think it will work. Jay-Z is rapping at some gallery for six hours.

13 years into the new millennium, it’s hard not to feel like you know what’s up. News isn’t confined to the paper or the radio or 6 pm any more. My phone vibrates whenever The New York Times decides something is important enough to push out. My Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr feeds can blow up at a moment’s notice. My frequent, somewhat subconscious scrolls of Stuff.co.nz* keep me vaguely aware of a whole litany of events.

We call it the ‘Information Age’ for a reason, right? It’s easier than ever to access all the news you could ever want, kept constantly updated by a far wider variety of sources. You don’t have to settle for whatever rag your area publishes; and if you do they are updating constantly throughout the day. A revolution has struck the news industry, and it’s resulting in more news than ever.

Yet I can’t name a single general in the Egyptian military, or even the guy who runs The Pakeha Party. I don’t know the date of the next Australian election, or why Maurice Williamson thinks taxing imports would be so hard. I don’t even know which gallery Jay is at. I could fake my way through a conversation about any of these topics, sure, but that’s probably not what some sweaty, harassed Egyptian correspondent had in mind when she put fingers to keyboard.

Would I have known all this if I read the paper instead? Revolutions aren’t always a great idea. We’ve ramped up how much entertainment we fit into the news, and we seem to forget about events as fast as we can read about them. On top of this, the demand for experienced journalists is constantly shrinking, with once-great newspapers shutting down every other month. The internet has provided us all with near-constant entertainment, it’s created new economies, it’s broken down geographic boundaries, but has it ruined the news?

An infinite amount of events happen every day, all connected yet completely separate. A miniscule number of these events are deemed ‘news’. This process used to require a temporal gap: a period of time between the event happening and the news of the event being published. This gap—made necessary by the complexities of printing and distributing a newspaper or producing a broadcast news programme—gave everyone time to take a breath and form these disparate facts into some kind of whole. Then, if you wanted to really get to grips with what was going on, and knew that 45 minutes of television would barely skim the surface, you picked up a newspaper.

A newspaper.

WHAT’S CHANGED?

The death of print media hasn’t exactly gone on in secret. Every week there’s a new piece on the fading profitability of newspapers, on journalists being made redundant, on our generation’s move towards online news consumption. It really is “our generation” too. A recent Ypulse study confirmed that ‘millennials’ gain their news predominantly from social media and news websites, with 30 per cent seeing news websites as their primary news source, compared to only 18 per cent for TV and four per cent for newspapers. Our parents are still reading the paper and watching the 6-pm news every night, but we aren’t.

The way we read the news has changed immensely, but the actual news hasn’t. For all the hullabaloo about citizen journalism, political elites are still the ones making headlines, and we are still reading content produced by professional journalists who work for, in New Zealand, Fairfax or APN, two huge companies that have been printing newspapers for years. Analysis is a different story, but all the bloggers need news stories to bounce off. What matters, surprisingly, isn’t the actual reporting—it’s how that reporting is presented and consumed. In the immortally simplistic words of Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message”.

The format changes are as wide-sweeping as they are dramatic. A paper comes out daily; a news website is updated by the minute. A newspaper is a finite amount of pages; a website is only limited by bandwidth. All of these changes contribute to one thing: convenience. It’s much easier to read the news, and it’s much easier to publish the news.

THE 24-SECOND NEWS CYCLE

Convenience is a double-edged sword. We know how fast news can be now, so we expect it. While 67 per cent of respondents to the Ypulse study claimed they would rather be the last to know information if it was always accurate, 72 per cent of respondents would rather inform their friends about an event than be informed by a friend—and 33 per cent admitted they would rather always be first than always be right. For some, the only thing more important than being up to date is appearing up to date. It might be a dedicated minority, but the moment a newsworthy event happens, complaints about its lack of coverage start flooding in. Competition between rival sites is also a factor here: the first site to get a decent shareable story will gain a lion’s share of the early traffic. Facebook and Twitter have conditioned us into thinking real-time is the norm, and we’ve come to expect it, furiously refreshing a news homepage the moment we hear tell of a large event.

Now, arguably, this is a much more realistic representation of real-life events. Things don’t happen in neatly packaged news narratives, with social and political contexts at the ready. But real-time reporting is inherently less considered, with much more room for incorrect information to spread. We hear about fake Twitter rumours all the time, but what about the real-time information on actual news websites? I asked Stuff.co.nz Digital Communities Manager Janine Fenwick, who runs social media for the site, how she handles the tension between being up to date and being accurate. “We’d always rather be right, than be first,” she says. “Usually it results in a lot of shouting across the newsroom between various editors saying, ‘Do we have it confirmed?’ while I’m shouting, ‘Can I tweet this yet?’” She acknowledges that news outlets love to be first, but that this may have more to do with petty rivalry than actually serving their readers. “Finding the balance can be tough when people demand to know what’s happening pretty much in real time, but verification and confirmation always take precedent.”

They may take precedent, but they don’t always work. When US congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011, NPR, one of the most trusted names in US news, reported that she had died, which turned out to be completely wrong. Since NPR are so trusted, however, news sources the world over followed their lead. NPR, to their credit, apologised profusely. “I felt supremely confident in the two sources I had,” writes NPR reporter Mark Moran, “but unfortunately those sources were relying on other sources, almost like a game of telephone tag.” You can find smaller, less dramatic mistakes in real-time reporting all over the news landscape.

Even if the facts are all true, are short bursts of facts really the best way to become informed about the world around us? It may represent the real world more, yes, but perhaps a sense of narrative, of contextual information surrounding an event, is just as useful as knowing the fact itself. The knowledge of Pita Sharples’ resignation means very little to someone who doesn’t know who Pita Sharples is. Author Douglas Rushkoff calls this crushing of the narrative “present shock”. Supposedly, we aren’t looking forwards or backwards any more, only around. “Our culture becomes an entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment,” he writes, “narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate.”

It’s certainly easier to be shallowly up to date with the most ‘real and immediate’ events than it once was. Front-page news no longer requires any effort to obtain – most of us check some type of social network many times every day, and absorb news without even clicking a link. Facebook is a leisure activity, but since it updates in a way that other leisure activities can’t, the news finds you there. People always talk about “remembering where they were” and “how they heard” when huge news events happened—9/11, JFK’s assassination—but I have no idea where I was or how I heard about the second Christchurch earthquake. I’m not sure if it was a story on Facebook or a Tweet or a quick scan of Stuff; it just happened, and I knew about it within minutes.

This news osmosis seems to result in us knowing about more things faster than we used to, but are we using this privilege correctly? Briefly absorbing a headline 15 hours earlier than you usually would doesn’t make you more informed, it just makes you informed faster. Furthermore, reading a headline briefly while engaged with something else; say, four chat windows and a half-written essay; doesn’t exactly lend itself to in-depth knowledge.

Of course, that isn’t necessarily the intended effect. News outlets don’t get money from you reading their Facebook feeds; they want you to click through and read the story on their sites. I asked Fenwick—the one responsible for pushing many of these stories out to social-networking sites and framing them there—whether she intended for a Facebook post to tell a news story itself, or simply interest people enough to click the link. “Obviously, we always want to drive people to our website, but I think we also have to be realistic about the fact that some people will never leave the network,” she states, realising that “social networks are communities on their own.” When she posts, she is “trying to cover all those bases—enough information to summarise the story but posted in a way that both encourages debate and click-throughs.”

MO CLICKS MO PROBLEMS

Clicks are the altar that online news necessarily worships. The more people clicking each of your stories, the more you can charge for the ads that run alongside it, the more money your company makes. This changes things. A lot. A newspaper doesn’t need to sell each story by itself – you buy the whole newspaper or none of it. Sure, front-page stories and teasers are a factor in getting you to buy the package, but you’re buying the whole thing. On the internet, each story can earn itself clicks; the article itself becomes a fully atomised product. It’s no longer just newspapers competing with each other – each individual story is competing with every other story out there, both on its own website and throughout the internet itself, particularly Twitter and Facebook.

Now, there are two arguments one could make about this change. In one, the quality of each individual article is increased due to its newly competitive nature – it has to stand for itself rather than rest on the brand of the paper carrying it. In the other, articles become more and more ‘clickbaity’ – willfully trying to trick users into clicking them with salacious photos or viral-style headlines. In reality, it’s a mixture of both, but mostly the latter.

Clickbaity doesn’t always mean bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with presenting a story in the most interesting way possible, and tabloids have been working it for years; it’s just much more pronounced online. Every news-ish website in the world has started experimenting with funner headlines: things like Slate’s “John McCain and Rand Paul Say It’s a Coup in Egypt, But Only One of Them Wants to Cut Foreign Aid. Guess Who!” This headline is full of detail and very specific, with a tongue-in-cheek question – libertarian Rand Paul is obviously the one who wants to cut aid. In a newspaper, a story on the same event would have to have a much more boring and concise headline, something like “McCain, Paul decry ‘coup’ in Egypt”. Then, there’s the more annoyingly clickbaity: the “You’ll Never Guess Why…”, or “Crazy New Bin Laden Details Revealed!”, or the stories that mention hot words like “Obama” or “iPhone” for no good reason.

The problem with clickbait—there’s always a problem—is how much power it gives the majority. The editor of the ‘80s had some vague maxims like “sex sells” or “if it bleeds, it leads” instilled, but nothing like the kind of real-time data they would have today. Now, they can see just how many more clicks the linkbaity story on Kim Kardashian received than the hard-hitting piece on electoral finance. When these two articles were part of the same paper, an editor could guess that more would read the Kardashian story, yes, but was still somewhat shielded from knowing just how popular their trashier stories were. Obviously, this audience aren’t all slack-jawed yokels – they’re everyone, but that’s the problem. Everyone clicks on the linkbait—it’s what we call the ‘lowest common denominator’. Smaller minorities click on all the other, separate, news stories, which are probably the reason they are there in the first place, but that won’t show up as much on the stats. Just look at the “most popular” section of any news site. Sadly, some stories will never make good clickbait, and that doesn’t make them less worthy as ‘news’, but it does make them a lot less valuable to a cash-strapped news organisation.

And oh boy, are they poor.

TEAR DOWN THIS PAYWALL

I’m going to let you in on a secret. Online display ads—the ones down the side of every commercial news website in existence—they don’t sell all that well. With a newspaper, you could guarantee that your audience was rich enough to buy a paper, and lived within a fairly limited area. Web advertising makes no such promises. To make real money with them, you need a huge amount of clicks. Our generation is especially adept at ignoring them. The other thing our generation is good at, of course, is copyright infringement. We really don’t like paying for things online – especially news, where there are hundreds of free alternatives to any website that charges.

But a journalist gotta eat.

The harsh, cruel world of web media seems to present fledgling news organisations with two options. Either you charge for your content with a ‘paywall’, invoking the anger of many of your audience now accustomed to getting your news for free and locking out the more impoverished, or you do everything you can to get as many clicks as you can, hoping not to lose your journalistic integrity in the process. The New York Times is currently experimenting with the first, while The Huffington Post has been working the latter for years.

The Huffington Post’s website is covered with jarring ads and headlines like “WATCH: Spitzer Tears Up On Live TV” and “Fugitive Captured After Taunting Police On Twitter”. It’s free, however, and does provide a whole lot of pretty decent news coverage, if you make it through all the tacky linkbait.

Over on the other side of the spectrum, The New York Times has a ‘paywall’, a limit of ten free articles one can read a month before being required to subscribe. When you reach your limit, you can still visit the site and scan the homepage, you just can’t open any stories. As a news icon, The New York Times has remained relatively serious and high-minded throughout the rise of the web, still writing headlines like “Egypt’s Interim Leaders Lay Out Plan for Fast Transition”. Their whole site exudes elegance, with subtle advertising for high-end jewellery fitting the mood perfectly. On the other hand, they now lock-out a significant portion of the world who can’t afford the 20 or so bucks it costs a month to get past the paywall, and they are explicitly encouraging us to read the headlines but not the stories. Our generation is already vexing economists by just plain not buying cars, will we vex them by never paying for the news too?

STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM

The news isn’t going anywhere. Humans are naturally nosy. We are always going to be all up in whatever our neighbours are doing, whether it’s Rick putting in a new fence or Kim trying to build some nukes. Whether the internet has ruined or recharged news is yet to be determined. News will never die – but it will change. We are the ones living through this change. However our generation decides to read, buy, and create the news will set the standard for generations to come.

Let’s try not to fuck it up.

——

*Disclaimer: I work for Stuff.co.nz.

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  1. An embarrassed browser says:

    “A journalist gotta eat.”

    Really?

    You consider yourself a journalist..

    Really impacting drivel, this.

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