In the wake of Jeff Bezos’ much ballyhooed purchase of the Washington Post, pundits have inevitably returned to discussing the slow and painful death of traditional media outlets.
While it is worth noting that news of the deaths of some of the big news institutions has been greatly exaggerated, it is true that journalism is in a very sorry state. Radio has been taken over by shock jocks and shrill jills, and your TV news screens are a mess of tickers, DOGs, and permanently overexcited talking heads.
Online, it’s not much better; in fact, it may be worse. First-hand reporting is now just a quaint 20th-century notion. Most online “articles” are simply a smidgen of copy that rehashes what some other site is talking about. If you follow the trail back to that other site, you will find its story is second-hand too. And that’s if you are lucky enough to find something at least pretending to be reportage. Increasingly, you’ll find a slide show of pictures, or one of those horrible formula pieces that use a number, a celebrity, and something random to make up a story. You know the type: “8 Ways Lady Gaga’s Hair Is Like Bacon” or “6 Horrible Diseases the Kardashians Might Be Worrying About Right Now (and You Should Too!)”
How did we get here? As always, follow the money. Journalism, the real stuff that is, can be expensive. Those costs used to be covered by subscription sales and ad sales. But then along came the Internet, and some media outlets put their material online for free. People not only stopped buying the dead tree copies, they stopped buying, period. Now, the only way to make any money in the business is to get people to write for you for free (also known in the industry as “for the exposure”) and to charge for your online ads by the pageview. More pageviews means more money, which is why everything—from the crazy headlines to the scintillating pictures—is now geared to make you click, click, and click some more.
Some outlets are now trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle and are locking up their online content behind paywalls. This works as long as A) you have a large potential audience, B) you put out something worth reading, and C) enough of A ponies up for B. But this is a really tough equation, especially as audiences shrink or shift.
This is where the food festival comes in.
At most of those yummy “Taste of” events that are so popular right now, you pay an entrance fee and are handed a wad of tickets. You can then exchange the tickets for dishes at the various stalls; maybe it’s three tickets for an onion bhaji sampler and eight tickets for a pulled pork sandwich with fries. At the end of the day, you have had a chance to eat many different items, and the restaurateur gets to cash in the tickets.
This model would perfectly suit the modern media consumer. On any given day, I might want to read an article from The New York Times, The Register, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Maclean’s. Right now, it is too expensive and impractical for me to subscribe to all of these publications, especially if they only have things that interest me occasionally. So, if they go completely behind a paywall I will simply have to stop reading them. But if I could choose to read parts of them when I want to, I would be quite happy to pay fair value to do so.
I am not naive enough to believe that such a model will put an end to sensationalism and fluff; after all, that kind of thing is not new. What we now think of as pageview journalism used to be called yellow journalism, and exaggerating for fun and profit almost certainly goes all the way back to the beginning of our history as social animals.
But it might change the landscape just enough for the good and important kind of journalism to survive … at least until the next paradigm shift.