In just a decade, ‘content’ trumped ‘news’ (and those who reported it)

 Ten years has seen the evisceration of newsrooms; the alteration of form, function, and distribution of information; and the emergence of a distorted public discourse. Oh, joy.

Since 2007, I’ve written about the stark reductions in numbers of reporters and editors in America’s daily print newsrooms. During that time, I’ve witnessed more than 20,000 newsroom jobs vanish. Now, it seems, only about 30,000 men and women toil in those newsrooms.

MediaI chose toil deliberately. First, those who remain have had to meet the continued and unchanged corporate demand for product or content once produced by twice their number. Second, the job has changed: In addition to the still-present demand for print content, those 20,000 face the imposition of onerous digital deadlines and unbelievable expectations of quantity. Post so many stories a day, or an hour, they’re told. That, of course, has impacts on the quality of those stories.

For many, those who remain even have different titles — they are no longer reporters or editors. They have become “community content editors,” “content coaches,” “presentation team members,” “engagement editors,” “headline optimizers,” “story scientists,” or “curators in chief.”

Yes, the operations of those places once known as “newsrooms” are rapidly and radically changing. But that obvious observation obscures a few emerging realities about how information (once known as “news”) is crafted and distributed.

The American Society of News Editors (née American Society of Newspaper Editors) has for more than 40 years surveyed the workforce in newsrooms to determine diversity percentages and issues. Since 2006, ASNE has reported in that survey how many professionals work full time in the newsrooms of newspaper organizations.

But not this year. So much has changed in newsrooms — job titles, management perceptions of newsroom functions, etc. — that ASNE has stopped trying to figure out how many men and women work there. From the ASNE release:

First, we no longer estimate the number of journalists working in newsrooms. Previously, ASNE survey results included a projection for the number of journalists working in newsrooms based on what for years were relatively standard employment levels. Today, the structure of modern newsrooms makes it impractical and error-prone to try to estimate the number of working journalists. …

A second major change is that we did not ask news organizations to classify employees by job category. Editors have told us this change was needed because roles and titles are continually transforming. [emphasis added]

Those uncountable people may now work in media companies that are not necessarily companies whose principal products are the stories reported and written by journalists. True, digital-native media companies have journalistic output, but entertainment and infotainment functions are likely to dominate. The amorphous universe of content boils down to media companies telling readers and viewers what they want to know in far greater quantity than what ye old editors of sound mind and judgment once told those readers and viewers they need to know.

Social media sites, once mere transmitters of content, are emerging as content creators. Witness the emergence of social media like Snapchat, Instagram, and others who have begun hiring men and women with journalism skills to produce that content. Ads can be sold against that home-grown material. The new social-media company motto: “There’s gold in them thar content.”

And, of course, there’s Facebook, that duplicitous mountebank of algorithms raking in advertising sheckels while claiming it’s not a media company. It’s the Bigfoot of Distribution for new and legacy media companies alike. Yet it can’t tell the difference between child pornography and iconic war photography.

So those producing the content, what the content is, and how the content is distributed to consumers have been altered drastically in just a decade. The arena of public intercourse once customarily fed by, among others, the output of journalists has been replaced by a cacophonous clamor for content often unfettered by accuracy or taste.

And still the journalism companies or content creation companies (choose your fave) struggle to make money. No money, no content. That’s the deal. Right now, too many companies are trying too many schemes to make money. So far, a home-run business model has yet to emerge.

Even accredited “journalism” programs, of which there are more than 100, face struggles regarding these changes, both in purpose and identity. Although the plurality of those programs remain schools of “journalism and mass communication,” name changes are emerging to reflect the changes in the media industries they serve. A few examples:

West Virginia University’s Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism to the Reed College of Media

University of Colorado’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication ceased to exist; journalism subsumed into the College of Media, Communication and Information

Northwestern’s fabled Medill School of Journalism has become Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications.

More will come. Even my own program, the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication, changed its name this month to the Jandoli School of Communication. Journalism programs are trying to figure out what they are in a time of radical change in media purpose, function, and production.

A decade of turmoil has altered how consumers want information delivered, the kind they want, and the ways it’s paid for (or, sadly, not). It’s influenced intelligent discourse (and not for the better) about almost everything. Hell, Trump has risen in this horrendous, angry, meme-dominated, and truth-absent public sphere, hasn’t he?

Storm tides are still rollin’ in, folks. That will continue until more people make better decisions about how information enters consumers’ lives — and what kind of information it is.

3 replies »

    • Over the years, I’ve been influenced by Sam’s approach — subjective journalism. He wrote about it at S&R years ago. But people fretting about false balance miss the point.

      Journalists have used “balance” for generations without the right end in view. To “be fair,” they equate (in minutes of air time, number of words in a story, number of sources used) a climate change skeptic with a climate scientist — even though the skeptics are few in number compared with the climate scientists who argue climate change is real.

      But being fair to the skeptic, by giving that skeptic equal treatment with the scientist, is decidedly unfair to those needing fairness — readers and viewers.

      More and more, journalists should consider the audience in decision-making about “balance” of points of view. They should ask more often: “But what would be fair to the reader?”