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News reporting in a profit-driven world

It used to be that newspapers made money in order to produce news. Sadly, this is for a large part no longer true. These days most newspapers produce news to make money. This has spawned such “innovative” ideas as the paywall, clickbait articles and listicles. The result is a “product” (and I use the term very loosely) that has no chance at measuring up to the standard set by the newspapers of yesteryear. With the exception of the trade press, in-depth reporting is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and something that is offered up very rarely.

A quick definition of terms seems to be in order at this point: Paywalls refers to the practice of newspapers to only allow paying subscribers to read articles. Clickbait refers to the practice of making enticing article titles, to earn “clicks”, i.e. enticing people to open up the article so that you can show another page of ads; often found in celebrity news (though that is not the only place they are used), the titles often look something like this: “He found his daughter with his best friend, you won’t believe what he did next”.  Listicles are articles that are not actually articles at all, but simply lists of some sort or another.

An argument has been made that paywalls are the cure, where clickbait and listicles are the disease, but evidence for the assertion that paywalls help anything but the bottom line (such as e.g. quality reporting) seems to be lacking. The counterargument, is that it makes news reporting something available only to those who pay, with all of the oppressive and elitist connotations that brings. The opposite of the paywall, I think, is the idea of “If you build it, they will come.” Importantly, “It”, is not, and cannot be, clickbait.

Whether paywalls are the right approach or not, I contend that clickbait and listicles are what killed the trust, respect and influence journalists once enjoyed, and made them a shadow of what they used to be. At any rate, having newspapers where journalists offer up their extremely flawed understanding of research reports as news, in the vein of “the cure to cancer” (a bullshit claim, as cancer is not one single thing, but several different things), “why X makes you fat”, and “scientists prove X is wrong”, along with using interview objects whose views are clearly biased, while presented as objective observers, and false balance are all things that have, and continue to, hurt journalistic integrity badly. 

At its very core, the job of a journalist is to reject premises set by press releases and digging beyond them, to the story that the press release may lay bare or attempt to conceal, as the case might be. Their job is to understand that a press release is only that a statement that the company that released it wants media to report. While it may be, or at least contain, objective fact, a press release may also be a complete fabrication, with little or no relationship to the real world – or anything in between.

I don’t think it’s too late to do something about it, but I do think that a change needs to come, and sooner rather than later. I also think that such change must stem from an understanding that news reporting is a very different service than take-out fast food.

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