Chris Lehmann, of the soon to be shuttered Al Jazeera America Website and news channel, is going out with a bang and calls the brave new world of content marketing as he sees it. And what he sees sure isn’t journalism. Worth reading if this is your gig.
“The polite euphemism for such rampant self-prostitution in our brave new digital media world is “sponsored content” — i.e., writing that’s made to look, feel and read like actual journalism while promoting a paid-for commercial agenda.”
There were border skirmishes between editorial and advertising in the old days (meaning my own and my parents’ generation as newspaper people). But the importance of the division was honored. In part, as Ira Basen points out, to get away from the frankly commercial world of 19th century journalism which was often indistinguishable from political positions and commercial interests. There was a specific meaning and category denoted by the subhead “An Independent Newspaper” that some carried.
Today I suppose there really isn’t an independent newspaper to be found that is not scared for its life, and what constitutes an “independent news” digital property is a hard nut to crack. Lehmann makes a good case that VOX it isn’t, and BuzzFeed never pretended to be. In fact their business genius seems to be premised on the foundation that there is no difference between the data that drives advertising and the data that drives content. Get them both aligned and voila! you make money.
Journalists are glum about this, but of course it could be that these developments just chase journalism elsewhere, and atomize it (into blogs for instance, serious ones, not mine, I hasten to add). Perhaps that’s not a bad outcome in some ways, but does raise questions. Investigative journalism can require a costly collective effort–if nothing else technically and it other ways too. Individual bloggers do get some big wins, but expecting a whole generation of Upton Sinclairs to emerge on WordPress is a shaky (but not impossible) proposition.
More intractable is the problem of editing. Newspaper editorial desks made up of reporters and editors imposed a culture of accountability and collaborative effort (possibly combative, but respected). Somebody else always read and edited what a reporter wrote (at good papers, no story got in, however trivial, if it hadn’t been vetted by three pairs of eyes, one of whom was a often socially deficient copy editor with a brain like a computer for AP Style and native distrust of writers’ orthographic waywardness.
This meant content was checked, questions were asked, fairness and newsworthiness debated, not always and not necessarily to the best conclusion, but there was a mechanism. This also built some time and rhythm into the system. There was time to think about what you were doing. Not just a blinking “publish” button, or the fear that Twitter was running away with your story, or live streaming it.
Again, there are modern ways to respond to the change in editing, and effective approaches may well emerge. It all seems pretty tough, though: crowd sourced editing and sourcing, an understanding of what drafts and breaking news look like in this 24/7 digital world all have a pretty messy profile right now, and would be good to remember what of the old system was worth keeping, while acknowledging that there is no money to pay for it in its epic luxury and size any more. I suppose a copy desk for Tweets sounds like a comedy skit, but putting a little more thinking in the process would not be amiss.