The Future of “Journalism”?

Chris Hedges, evaluating the journalism of HuffPo:

The sale of The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, and the tidy profit of reportedly at least several million dollars made by principal owner and founder Arianna Huffington, who was already rich, is emblematic of this new paradigm of American journalism. The Huffington Post, as Stephen Colbert pointed out when he stole the entire content of The Huffington Post and rechristened it The Colbuffington Re-post, produces little itself. The highly successful site, like most Internet sites, is largely pirated from other sources, especially traditional news organizations, or is the product of unpaid writers who are rechristened “citizen journalists.” It is driven by the celebrity gossip that dominates cheap tabloids, with one or two stories that come from The New York Times or one of the wire services to give it a veneer of journalistic integrity. Hollywood celebrities, or at least their publicists, write windy and vapid commentaries. And this, I fear, is what news is going to look like in the future. The daily reporting and monitoring of city halls, courts, neighborhoods and government, along with investigations into corporate fraud and abuse, will be replaced by sensational garbage and Web packages that are made to look like news but contain little real news.The terminal decline of newspapers has destroyed thousands of jobs that once were dedicated to reporting, verifying fact and giving a voice to those who without these news organizations would not be heard. Newspapers, although they were too embedded among the power elite and blunted their effectiveness in the name of a faux objectivity, at least stopped things from getting worse. This last and imperfect bulwark has been removed. It has been replaced by Internet creations that mimic journalism. Good reporters, like good copy editors or good photographers, who must be paid and trained for years while they learn the trade, are becoming as rare as blacksmiths. Stories on popular sites are judged not by the traditional standards of journalism but by how many hits they receive, how much Internet traffic they generate, and how much advertising they can attract. News is irrelevant. Facts mean little. Reporting is largely nonexistent. No one seems to have heard of the common good. Our television screens are filled with these new chattering celebrity journalists. They pop up one day as government spokespeople and appear the next as hosts on morning news shows. They deal in the currency of emotion, not truth. They speak in empty clichés, not ideas. They hyperventilate, with a spin from the left or the right, over every bit of gossip. And their corporate sponsors make these court jesters millionaires. We are entertained by these clowns as corporate predators ruthlessly strip us of our capacity to sustain a living, kill our ecosystem because of greed, gut civil liberties and turn us into serfs.

Any business owner who uses largely unpaid labor, with a handful of underpaid, nonunion employees, to build a company that is sold for a few hundred million dollars, no matter how he or she is introduced to you on the television screen, is not a liberal or a progressive. Those who take advantage of workers, whatever their outward ideological veneer, to make profits of that magnitude are charter members of the exploitative class. Dust off your Karl Marx. They are the enemies of working men and women. And they are also, in this case, sucking the life blood out of a trade I care deeply about. It was bad enough that Huffington used her site for flagrant self-promotion, although the cult of the self has reached such dizzying proportions in American society that such behavior is almost expected. But there is an even sadder irony that this was carried out in the name of journalism.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jeremy

    I love Chris Hedges. He tends to be a bit over the top at times, and seems to be becoming increasingly so, but I like to think of him as a modern day prophetic voice. His insights are often spot on, even if his conclusions and rhetoric are a bit disconcerting.

  • Darren King

    Coming from someone who sees himself somewhere in the middle of the left-right political spectrum, I can’t help but think that Huffington’s model is actually pretty typical of a far-left, “progressive” agenda – in that its based on an unsustainable business model. I have seen Ms. Huffington on shows such as Charlie Rose, waxing philosophic about how old newspapers need to embrace a new model. But what model is that? Rip everyone else off? Is that truly sustainable (or fair?) moving forward? It is, at best, a transitional model that is parasitic by nature.

  • Dana Ames

    To the Hedges quote:

    Hear, hear.

    Dana

  • Jeremy

    Darren, this is where I somewhat disagree with Hedges. There is a real issue with the recirculation of stories and low quality op/ed type pieces taking the place of “actual” reporting. However, this is largely driven by the way the internet works. Sites are ranked on a number of criteria, two of which are regularity of new content and content relevance. Content affects relevance rankings in the search engine which drives visitors which brings in advertising revenue. The simple regular addition of new content drives the site’s “authority” up even higher. This is not so much the fault of sites like HuffPo as it is the fault of Google and the limitations of using computers to derive relevance.

    Also, republished articles link to the original, driving search engine rankings up for both (Again, a Google thing called “Page Rank”). There is also a bustling business of content re-selling, which is how the traditional news sources are staying alive at this point. No one wants to pay for information these days and the internet business models available are still very problematic

    Also, in the case of an organization like HuffPo, the contributors are not being paid per se, but are banking on indirect means of compensation through reputation building, book sales, or increased marketability (Check one more published piece for my resume!). No one is tossing them free content out of the pure goodness of their heart unless they have a message they really want to convey to the readers, which I think is at least part of the reason guys like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo contribute.

    So Hedges is spot on in regards to the internet’s devastating effect on journalism and what that means for society, but I question his grasp of the drivers behind the phenomenon. The content originators are gaining significantly in some manner, even if it isn’t direct monetary compensation.

  • Darren King

    Jeremy,

    I’m in web design, so I’m very familiar with SEO. More important than anything is the strength of relevant backlinks.

    So yes, the nature of the Internet and ranking comes into the picture, to be sure.

    But I still think the HuffPo and similar entities are parasitic. They may toss the bone of reputation-growth to some of their contributors, but this feeds vanity more than the bottom line.

    I know many blog writers who salivate at the idea of being picked up by the HuffPost and such. But I also see them struggling financially (they and their families) – all with the hope that *somehow* this will all lead to something financially sustaining. But it never does. At least, not for 99% of them.

    It can also create a bloated sense of self-importance for some of these blog-writers. Often these same people are really out of touch when it comes to an accurate assessment of their real place of authority (or lack thereof) in the real (non-virtual) world.

    Ah, but I digress…

    One important note: Doesn’t it seem fair for Huffington herself to spread some of the wealth around? In other words, take the writers that have contributed the most – in terms of writing and readership, and pass around some of the money accordingly.

    That seems like the least she could do. Especially for a “progressive”. Thoughts?

  • Jeremy

    haha I’m from the dark side of the internet industry…Yay marketing!

    I don’t really agree though that the contributors are being tossed a bone. Yes, they have hopes beyond monetary contribution, but that will not always pan out. The fact that it doesn’t always do so, I would blame more on the proliferation of blogs than anything else. The market is saturated and frankly, unless you’re going to say something absolutely freaking brilliant, I wouldn’t expect much.

    Most bloggers aren’t really doing doing anything noteworthy. Value propositions are not something bloggers often understand or do well. Yeah, you’re another political/science/religion/family pet blogger. Who cares? The opportunity is what you make of it and no single thing will the world changer. You’re either ready to capitalize or you’re not. Think of it like your industry. Designers used to be able to command a lot of money, but now they’re a dime a dozen. Great ones still do very well, but most will fail, barely make enough to call it a career or do something else as their day job. This is not HuffPo’s problem.

    Vanity issues are another argument entirely.

    As for the sharing – No. The contributors already got their compensation. A great deal of sweat and lost sleep went into making it what it was. The contributors helped make the site great (and can continue to do so) but they took no risk and I doubt they sacrificed much.

  • Jeremy

    That second paragraph is…interesting. Decipherable, I hope, but I packed way too many different thoughts in there.

  • Darren King

    Jeremy, I think we’re actually saying some of the same things. I agree with you that some of the contributors are to blame – because they’re unrealistic, and (sometimes) just itching for their (not so original, or authoritative) voice to be heard.

    Also, you wrote: “As for the sharing – No. The contributors already got their compensation. A great deal of sweat and lost sleep went into making it what it was.”

    Okay, that’s a fair statement. But don’t you think there’s even a hint of irony there – based on Huffington’s politics?

  • http://robmoll.com Rob Moll

    I agree with Hedges, with one qualification. He writes “this, I fear, is what news is going to look like in the future.”

    He might have better written “this, I fear, is what FREE news is going to look like in the future.”

    Hedges complains that no one is doing the reporting, but reporting takes a LOT of time. You have to pay salaries of people who are supporting families, putting kids through college, etc. And you might get a story every month for the kind of in depth, fact checked reporting he’s talking about. Newspaper subscriptions won’t support it. I wish journalism were in a better state. Some of us might still be employed by the industry. But people are reading free junk and refusing to pay for quality.

    I don’t see the need to harp on Huffington. This is a multi-decade trend.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    On Hedges – while a lot of his writing resonates with me, and I do agree that the moniker “journalism” is an ill apt designation for what Huffington Post performs, what happened here is not any different than web enterprises across the board. I wonder if the same folks decrying Huffington Post “sellout” still go to imdb.com for movie reviews and theater times — imdb.com profited off of the collective sweat of “free” contributors dating back to the days of Usenet. The proprietors simply collected, categorized, curated and built a nifty web UI on top. Or Wikipedia, where Jimmy Wales & staff are paid a good living managing the work of volunteer article editors. Or DailyKos or platforms like Tumblr…

    OTOH, there are thriving web journalistic enterprises — in technology, there are a number of entities self-supporting and providing real coverage beyond commentary (i.e., Engadget, TechCrunch, etc.…). There are political news gathering outfits like Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, etc.… that have paid staff. In fact there are single bloggers making 6 digit plus incomes by merely curating links and spending some of that loot on traveling to conferences and such (like daringfireball.net covering world of Apple).

    Still, investigative reporting is a touch justification in any market system. Even Hedges admits, this was a dicey proposition even under traditional news media stewardship. It seems such a task now is going to have to be the province of “sugar daddy” style philanthropy.

    Yes, it’s a new world. There are thousands, if not millions, with the tools and desire to perform for free (for purpose of truth seeking, or just for the thrill or notoriety or the potential of future discovery of greatness) what was the domain of paid professionals. The genie has been uncorked from the bottle, and bearing some catastrophic global event, that world of yesteryear is nevermore.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    Er, s/touch/tough/ …

  • Maria

    I am sorry, Scott — are you criticizing HuffPost for republishing other people’s content when your blog post is an excerpt from Chris Hedges? Irony.

  • Scot McKnight

    Maria, I originally had “Irony alert” or something like that at the end but I wasn’t sure if folks would know what I was saying … so I dropped it.

  • Jon

    Stopped reading HuffPo long ago for many of the reasons listed here. It tends to be more fluff than substance.

  • Darren King

    Maria,

    The difference between Scot/Jesus Creed and web outfit’s like the HuffPost is that Scot (and others, like RJS) publish probably something like 98% of their own material.

  • Rick

    The Huffington Post is more like Scot’s “Weekly Meanderings”, but with a lot more fluff (and less attention on the Cubs ;^)

  • gingoro

    The Religion page of the HuffPuff occasionally has something of interest but the rest is usually vacuous. I gave up TV news years ago. If we want to keep better options then we all need to subscribe (ie pay) at newspaper sites that interest us. I subscribe to the WSJ and the National Post. Too many organizations eg The Guardian Weekly price their digital version at the same cost as the printed copy and thus the price becomes unreasonable.
    Dave W

  • Jeremy

    Darren, I would add to that by saying that outfits like HuffPo republish wholesale as if the article was one of theirs (with a nod to the original when necessary, of course!), while this post is clearly not original content and intended to spark discussion. The intent and marking are very, very different.

    Case in point, if you look at their cover article, “Libya Protesters Defiant After Gadhafi Speech.” The source is listed as “Huffington Post/AP”. The AP is source. You know from the get-go that this Hedges piece is from somewhere else.

  • Jeremy

    Ok, that wasn’t supposed to directly address Darren, but add to what he was saying…

  • bob smietana

    An editor from the Huffington Post was at the Religion Newswriters meeting last fall – it’s a gathering for reporters, mostly at newspapers. She wanted us to write for them–helping them improve the reporting on their site. But didn’t want to pay for it. So no one signed on.
    Hedges is right. Reporting is expensive. And if no one wants to pay, we get the news we deserve.

  • Dean

    Uh, has anybody noticed…

    We do pay for news. It’s called “Internet Provider Service” and I pay about $600 per year for that. The benefit of this “news service” is that I can truly get multiple insights instead of merely my local newspaper perspective.

  • Jeremy

    Dean, that’s just paying for internet access. That would be like insisting that paying taxes for roads entitles you to get free items from the shops that are on them. if it were true, those shops would go out of business as they get no revenue from the road tax. Your ISP isn’t paying the NYT every time you visit.

    News agencies need income to pay staff to do quality work. Real journalism is suffering dramatically under the current system as most advertising revenue models really can’t pay the bills for organizations capable of pulling it off.

    So sure, you’re getting “multiple insights” but their veracity is questionable at best (even more so than the mainstream media, which is shocking, I know.) You get what you pay for and all that.

  • http://www.christineascheller.wordpress.com cas

    Bob, I was at that RNA meeting and I was already writing for HuffPost. As an independent journalist, I usually post things there that don’t fit well anywhere else. I also repost articles there from a small outlet with the editor’s blessing to drive traffic their way.

    I agree with you and Rob that good journalism costs money, but the truth is nobody wants to pay for it anymore, including legacy publications. I call myself a journalism addict, because if I had any sense at all, I’d do something else.


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