The only real way to truly grasp why journalism – as both a career and a cultural institution – is dying is to work for a newspaper for a year.
It’s not just because the pay is god awful (I was making $24,000 a year at my nadir, so after taxes and insurance costs, my takehome pay was just a thousand or two above the Federal Poverty Line.) Nor is it the downright absurd workload (16 hour shifts were not out of the norm, and that was almost always without overtime pay), or the woefully unprofessional editors who came to the office hung over and proudly extolling their sexual exploits while on-the-clock telephone calls to their gal pals (that is, if they had the initiative to show up at all.) It’s not even the downright OSHA-investigation baiting working conditions – for nearly an entire month, I had to work in an office without heat OR a functioning toilet. In the middle of winter.
No, the real heartbreaker is when you step through the double doors and realize nobody in the office takes the duty of journalism seriously. They don’t care about telling hard-hitting news stories or exposing government corruption or even telling basic human interest stories about average people and their real day-to-day concerns. Rather, it’s all about appeasing your advertisers and the bigwigs in the local community (virtually all of them elitist, classist snobs) to the point what you are forced to do is really nothing more than woefully underpaid public relations for rich old bigots and whatever stupid stuff they want exalted. Exhibit A: I once begged and pleaded to do a story about impoverished Hispanic children in the community living out of scummy motels – only to be assigned a story about a Rotary Club chili cook-off.
Call me an antiquity, if you will, but I still believe that journalists should be truly impartial curators – not tastemakers. It’s for that reason that I don’t vote at all, nor do I contribute aid or comfort to ANY political candidate. And above all else – I firmly believe it’s a reporter’s duty to commit him or herself to facts instead of feelings. If you are a real reporter, you don’t have to worry about being objective – that’s because your own opinions are driven by evidence and hard data, not broad generalizations and identity-politics driven dogma.
The way I see it, if you are a professional reporter, you ARE a public servant, no different from a police officer. You have just as much power to wreck people’s lives, and the moment you let your personal “feels” dictate how you conduct your professional work, you’ve violated your sworn code of ethics.
The only difference, of course, is that journalists usually don’t lose their badge when they betray the public’s trust. As a matter of fact, they usually get promotions, and if they are really lucky, maybe even a Pulitzer or two.
Journalism – the profession of disseminating impartial, factual data for historical purposes – was already on death watch before the 2016 election. Now that it’s over and done with, I think it’s safe to say the terminally ill patient’s plug has finally been yanked out of the socket. But journalists – ever the smug, ironically progress-resistant dinosaurs they are – probably won’t realize what that corpse-like stench is until a couple of weeks after their last paycheck.
They all say the industry is in “correction mode” as its struggles to find a way to monetize online content. In reality, the reason why legacy media (that’s a fancy industry term for “things on paper”) and even new wave, clickbaity “hybrid” platforms like BuzzFeed and the New Republic are quickly, quickly headed the way of VCRs and Polaroid cameras is simply because people aren’t going to spend their money on utter garbage. But surely, there’s absolutely no correlation between record high publishing financial losses and record high numbers of people stating they have no faith in the objectivity and facticity of the business, right?
During the 2016 election, we didn’t just witness journalism – as a collective profession – betray its core principles. We saw the entire damn industry abandon the concept of objectivity to openly cheerlead for a candidate to win the presidency, citing such to be a matter of grave “social justice” importance.
We saw The Huffington Post issue a Surgeon General-like warning on all of its articles containing Trump’s name, so its readers knew upfront he was a slate of totally indefinable and objectively impossible to quantify things like a “racist,” a “xenophobe” and a “misogynist.”
We saw The Washington Post hire 20 – I repeat, 20 – full-time writers to dig up as much muck on Donald Trump as possible without hiring one investigator to look into Clinton’s doings.
We saw a reporter for The New York Times send out a tweet calling for Trump to be assassinated. Not only did he keep his job after publicly stating his desire to see a political candidate die, his employer allowed him to keep penning hysterical anti-Trump screeds all the way up to the general election.
We even found out that CNN actually reached out to the DNC to help them come up with “gotcha” questions to use against Republican candidates and gave Clinton a heads up on the questions before a presidential debate against Donald Trump. (All while “concerned” journalists across America, naturally, voiced their fears of Trump undermining their First Amendment ability to gather “news.”)
To give you an idea just how entrenched this inherent bias was, of the top 100 newspapers in the U.S., just two formally endorsed Trump, while 57 put their backing behind Hillary. (Consider yourself lucky if you live in any of the 26 markets that didn’t endorse anybody – you might actually have a paper in town halfway worth a damn.)
Make no mistakes, the absolutely atrocious coverage of the election – in which unscrupulous journalists-in-name-only sought to turn “Pussy-Gate” into a campaign ender while completely ignoring the thousands of WikiLeaks documents detailing the underhanded doings of the Clinton camp – is without question a major driver for Trump’s victory. The general public saw all these hoity-toity journalists as a bunch of smarmy ideologues who looked down on Middle America as nothing more than electoral stumbling blocks. As someone who has actually been inside the belly of the media beast, I can confirm that is a 100 percent accurate conviction, and it’s no surprise so many Americans voted for Trump simply out of reactionary spite.
Journalism has certainly lost its status as a legitimate agenda-setting tool. The Facebook and Twitter trending algorithms have more cultural influence than the BBC and The New York Times. Reddit – at least among the under 30 set – has more power as an information distribution hub than all of the major cable news juggernauts combined. To be frank, in today’s instant-access cyber-sphere, you don’t even need reporters to distill “truth” for you – it’s already online in the form of a primary source tweet. But the thing that really pains me is the industry burning down the so-called “fourth estate” – not just neglecting its crucial role as an outside overseer of governmental and public affairs, but gleefully becoming an unofficial propaganda-distributing mechanism of the state and a litany of special interest advocacy groups.
It’s gotten so bad that the only “news” I can wholeheartedly trust anymore comes in the form of non-edited user-uploaded content on sites like YouTube, LiveLeak and Periscope and renegade info-dumps like WikiLeaks. The absolute best, most professional, most important and most impartial journalism out there these days doesn’t come from The New York Times or The Daily Telegraph or Der Spiegel, it’s coming from no-name blogs and video channels operated by non-professional hobbyist reporters.
The identity politicking and virtue signalling writ large masquerading as bona fide journalism throughout the campaign cycle is the point of no return. Journalism is now on a fast track to obsolescence, and it’s not because of technology – it’s because the product has gotten so bad consumers can’t stomach it anymore. (Another callback to my most trying newspaper year: having at least one person a day march into the office demanding we stop delivering a free publication to their home because – as one irked involuntary subscriber once put it – “don’t nobody want this bullshit and definitely don’t nobody need it.”)
Despite their rapidly declining quality and cultural significance, I suppose the monolithic media empires (such as the Carlos Slim-financed New York Times) will stay financially afloat for the foreseeable future, if only because of their owners’ deep pockets. Thanks to multi-billion dollar non-media companies like Berkshire Hathaway and Cox Automotive’s desire for public bullhorns/safeguards from legitimate scrutiny, I guess most top 100 newspapers will survive for maybe another decade or two (even if they do owe their post-recession survival to just one thing – coupons.)
But the middle-ground papers – the non top 100 dailies and weeklies – and the fly-by-night Gen Y neo-news wannabes? Oh, you are hosed and hard. As publication costs skyrocket and circulation and viewership numbers dwindle and dwindle, advertisers are going to invest their time and resources into surer bets. And with your only revenue source cut off, massive layoffs are all but guaranteed. Then entire bureaus and offices are going to close as emergency cost-cutting measures. And with even the shadiest hedge funds reluctant to roll the dice on a product with no income stream, your paper, magazine or website is D-E-A-D.
Hell, I’m a guy who has won National Press Club awards with work published by The Center For Public Integrity, and even *I* couldn’t land a $12 an hour-plus reporting job for the better part of a year. I soon realized this whole journalism thing wasn’t a sustainable career, and ever since that horrendous newspaper gig, I’ve done nothing but work in marketing and advertising – where I can safely say I’ve earned twice the income without having to do a fourth of the grunt work I was doing as a reporter.
Journalism was – and still is – my passion, but I know it’s something I can only do as a recreational act. The word is already getting out about the bleak prospects for wannabe journalists, as reflected in the precipitous decline in the number of students enrolled in journalism degree programs nationwide over the last few years.
The writing isn’t just on the wall, it’s been outlined in neon paint and speckled with glitter – journalism is no longer a financially viable career path. And thanks to its nonexistent principles, the industry itself has to shoulder all the blame for killing what once was one of the most important – and respected – institutions in all of American life.