By Dan Tynan
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the death of journalism at the hands of Google. That’s an oversimplification, but when you boil it down it’s really what’s left. Newspapers and print magazines are dying. I know this first hand, because many of my friends and colleagues have lost their jobs, and I have lost some well-paying regular gigs as a result of cost-cutting at national magazines. (We’re still doing just fine though, thanks for asking.)
The newspapers’ and magazines’ online equivalents really aren’t picking up the slack in terms of ad revenue; even the ones that have survived so far have been forced to cut way back on editorial. And the worst is yet to come.
Many publishers blame news aggregators like Google, which not only make it easy to read news published anywhere for free, but also help drive traffic to secondary sources that do no news gathering on their own – essentially, bloggers and other aggregators who publish secondhand accounts. They are what I like to call Repeaters not Reporters (RnR). All told, they tend to draw far more traffic in aggregate than the original sources of these stories.
Meanwhile, the Web cognoscenti are pointing fingers back at print media, saying they screwed the pooch five years ago, and to hell with them. Some suggest that journalists are no longer necessary; others say a new type of journalist will rise to take their place, though exactly what they’ll look like is a mystery. There’s a whole lot of pompous windbagging and name calling going on; it’s like a playground full of five year olds out there. And, sometimes, I’m one of them.
What gets under my skin are the comments that invariably accompany these screeds about the future/death of journalism. It’s amazing to me how many people out there firmly believe they know how to do my job better than I do, despite the fact they have no idea what I actually do. So I thought I’d try explaining what I do, and how it’s changed as a result of the blogosphere, in an effort to clear up some misconceptions and, hopefully, shut some people up.
[More after the Jump]
But first there are two things I need to get off my chest.
1. Just because you know how to operate a keyboard doesn’t make you a writer.
2. Just because you know your way around a WordPress template doesn’t make you a reporter.
Thanks, I feel much better now.
Of course, there are plenty of professional journalists who suck at one or both of these things (I know, because I’ve worked with a lot of them). And there are amateur bloggers who are fine writers and/or skilled reporters. But, by and large, the majority of professionals do know what they’re doing, and the overwhelming majority of amateurs are just that.
(The big exception: experts who blog about their particular specialties. More on that in a bit.)
These days I typically write two kinds of stories. The reported story, and the re-reported story. Let’s take the first type. Say I get an assignment to write a 2500-word original story about a particular topic. Not breaking news, but a feature that involves talking to multiple experts. I will typically take three to four weeks to work on this story — a few hours here, a few hours there, and a whole bunch of hours right before the deadline.
I’ll start by looking for sources, usually by posting a query on a handful of sites that match reporters to sources, typically via their PR people. More and more I also post queries to Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, as well as email people I know who might have information or leads for me. I might scour Amazon looking for book authors who’ve written on the subject. And I search for blogs written by people knowledgeable on the topic.
At the end of this process I usually have a list of 20 to 30 people who’d be willing to talk to me. Some provide a lot of info via email, but more often I need to set up a phone interview. For a feature this size I’d typically interview 8 to 12 people; so let’s say I talk to 10 of them, at roughly 30 minutes each.
I’ll also go through the emails to glean information, and follow up with my interviewees on things I’m unclear on. I’ll likely visit at least two dozen Web sites – sometimes a lot more than that — reading other stories written about the topic. And then, when I feel like I’ve gotten a well-rounded picture of the key issues I’m talking about, I’ll write it, synthesizing what I’ve learned into what I hope is a coherent whole. If I’ve talked to 10 people, I’ll generally end up quoting six to eight of them. (I try to quote everyone, because they’ve generously donated their time, but sometimes it just isn’t possible. Sorry folks, thems the breaks.)
Most of the time I’ll go back to my sources and double check my quotes, to make sure I haven’t screwed anything up. Then I’ll file this story to my editor. He or she will typically kick it back to me with suggestions for revisions; thankfully, most of the time they’re minor. And then it either winds its way slowly through the editorial machine into print, or it gets posted a few days later on line. These days, 90 percent of what I write is published strictly online. Last year at this time I’d say that mix was closer to 50 percent.
From there, well, it’s the wild wild west. The publisher I write most often for, IDG, has what you might call a generous syndication system (generous to itself, not to authors). Pretty much anything written for any IDG publication is fair game for all. So if I write something for InfoWorld or PC World, it’s very likely to show up on the Web sites of Computerworld, Networkworld, the Industry Standard, CIO, ITworld, Macworld, etc., all of which are owned by IDG. It will also show up in some of the foreign language versions of all of those sites owned by IDG. It may appear on third-party sites where IDG has syndication agreements – which include Yahoo News, MSN, ABCnews.com, Entrepreneur, Washingtonpost.com, and many more.
It may get firehosed on Slashdot, dugg on Digg, Stumbled Upon, Propellered, Farked, ad nauseum, all of which are great for traffic (though often not for the site where the story was originally published, but one of the sites that syndicated it).
And, of course, the blogosphere may pick it up. Kind-hearted conscientious bloggers will write a one paragraph summary and link to the story, citing the source where they found it (though not necessarily the original source). Some will add their own commentary or expertise, though this is pretty rare. Others will lift the story wholesale, but retain my byline and some notion of where they originally found the story. And some evil bloggers will lift the content and claim it as their own, the bastards.
From all of this I get exactly bupkis. Oh, there’s added exposure I suppose. I do always put a link to my own blog (Tynan on Tech) in the bio, and sometimes I see a small traffic spike. But really, the benefit to me personally is next to nil.
The problem here is the publication that originally assigned me the story – and paid me a decent word rate to do it – isn’t getting any benefit from most of this traffic either. It may not even be getting the most traffic of all the sites who carry it. There’s certainly no guarantee Google will rank it as the top source for this particular story or even among the top 10 sources.
(I should add that I practically live on Google News and could not do my job without it. I just have serious problems with Google’s algorithms and its lack of transparency. I think Google needs to fix this problem. Content creators should get first priority in page rankings. Period.)
Popular blogs that do nothing but write a quick summary and link to the original may end up getting more traffic – and by extension more ad revenue — than the folks who paid me to do it.
This is fucked up.
Worse, the bloggers who summarize and link (or steal outright) would be unable to produce this kind of story on their own. Sure, some could. But most of them a) would never get the assignment in the first place, or b) would screw it up. They certainly wouldn’t do the amount and depth of research I typically do. If they did, they wouldn’t have the time to write all those other blog entries.
Without the original publication that was willing to pay me and others like me a decent wage to do the reporting and writing, these blogs would have nothing to say. They would either have to become actual reporters or disappear.
Most likely these blogs would become repositories for press releases, because corporations will always have money to churn out content. If you scan the 10,347,219 gadget blogs out there, for example, you’ll see very little hands-on reporting, and a whole lot of me-too-ing — the same lists of specs, the same photos and little else. It’s straight out of a press release or the vendor’s Web page. I’m not sure what kind of value these sites provide, yet some get huge traffic.
I do not see many blogs out there doing real reporting on a regular basis. I don’t see most of them growing into it either. There are a handful of examples of crowd-sourced stories – where a bunch of amateur bloggers ganged up and did some really good collective work. (See Rathergate and the Jeff Gannon story for examples.) But they are very few and far between. In my experience, the bloggers who do good reporting are in fact trained reporters who left print to join the Interwebs.
Now, I also write another kind of story – what is typically a backwards-looking list story. Like the 25 worst tech products of all time, the 16 greatest moments in Web history, the 12 most embarrassing photos, yadda yadda yadda. These stories don’t pay nearly as well as the other kind, but they’re fun and easy to write. I almost never interview anyone for these, though I do ask people for suggestions, and I rely almost entirely on published accounts. (But I look at a lot of published accounts, and try to make sure my piece is factually accurate.)
All of this information is already out there in some form. It’s not original reporting per se, but I organize it, apply my knowledge and skill, and try to bring an original slant. In other words, I’m not just repeating, I’m using existing sources to create something new.
What’s notable about these stories is a) they’re cheaper to produce, and b) can generate huge traffic. Which means that these are the kinds of stories you’re more likely to see in the future, because low cost/high traffic is Valhalla to publishers these days. This ultimately isn’t a good thing for anyone, especially me. Eventually I’m going to run out of lists.
Now there are some (notably Dave Winer) who say journalists will disappear and be replaced by sources. In other words, why should anyone bothering reading my story when they can go directly to the 8 or 12 people I interviewed, or 8 or 12 others of their own choosing? Why let me or my editors be the filter?
My response is, why shop at the grocery store? Why not hunt and kill your own food? All you need is a gun and a hunting license. Why not farm your own vegetables or, for that matter, build your own cars? All you need are tillable land and the right parts (though you’d need someone to make those, I suppose). Why not write your own software code – there’s plenty out there for the tweaking. Why rely on professionals for anything?
The answer? Because most of us are lousy shots. We don’t know how to raise our own food or hoist an engine block. We’re not coders and don’t want to be. Because there is a difference between amateurs and professionals, and it is easier and faster to rely on people who already know how to do these things.
Experts who write blogs add enormously to our understanding of particular issues. They’re invaluable to what I do, certainly. But they’re not a replacement for – yes, folks like me – who gather information and synthesize it from a wide range of sources. Because there is not enough time in the world to read everything written by everybody about everything.
Jason Pontin, EIC of Technology Review, recently offered up a wonkish prescription on How to Save Media. It essentially boils down to fewer publications charging more for some kinds of content, and a lot fewer people like me.
Some of my colleagues will find success as bloggers. Many more will try and fail, because success in blogging depends more on marketing than on producing quality content. The rest will become bartenders or go over to the dark side and spend their twilight years churning out press releases, which will then be regurgitated by the blogosphere.
Unless you only care about one or two topics in your life, you need generalists who can give you the world in 60 seconds, or 6 pages, or however long you have time for. You need people like me. Whether you like it or not.
FYI, I’m an award-winning journalist who’s been an editor in chief and an executive editor at major national publications; as a freelance writer I’ve been published in/on more than 60 magazines and Web sites, including some you may have actually read.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, not of TynanWood Inc. or its smarter, better-looking half. Feel fee to share this with others, but please don’t steal.