Journalism is dead

posted 10 February 2009

There's a lot of talk about the financial death of newspapers, as the advertising-supported online model fails to support them. Some are speculating that premium papers like the New York Times could switch to a paid model for premium content.

The assumption here is that newspapers have something of value -- quality journalism -- that is worth paying for, or at least paying premium ad rates on. I don't think that's true. Newspapers are dead, because journalism itself -- journalism as a career, being a fulltime reporter -- is on the way out.

Here's a reporter's job:

  1. Be nosy
  2. Find out what people are talking about
  3. Find the people who know about that topic. Specifically, the chatty ones who like talking to reporters.
  4. Chat to them, and write down what they say
  5. Tell everybody else what they said
  6. Get paid

Here's how blogs work:

  1. The internet is full of nosy people
  2. Bloggers read other blogs, and blog about the interesting things on them
  3. Internet searches find the blogs of people who know about that topic. They're the chatty ones.
  4. Those bloggers are already writing down what they know on their blogs
  5. Anybody can read what they're writing
  6. For free

I used to think that even if much of what newspapers used to do is now irrelevant -- especially their non-real-time reporting of news -- the practice of actual, investigative journalism was a real and necessary skill and would live on. I no longer think that. Journalism is as dead as the pony express, superseded by technology that has cut out the middleman in the information-dissemination game. We can find the chatty people on our own, and they already have blogs. Need somebody to glue together all the separate threads of conversation from dozens of specialist bloggers to get an overall picture of what's going on? There's half a dozen knowledgeable-bystander bloggers already doing just that, like Read/Write Web for tech and Talking Points Memo for politics.

Some of these blogs make a lot of money. Most make very little. But reporting has been long-tailed, and that means the head will lose a lot of revenue as the money instead spreads, very thinly, across the tail. This will be terrible for newspapers. They're dead. But it will be great for the chatty expert people, the knowledgeable bystanders, and especially the advertisers, who instead of having to outbid each other to broadcast to a 90% uninterested populace, can pitch their wares to increasingly specific blogs until really, they only need to advertise on the most popular blog on their topic and get a gigantic return on their investment.

Advertisers getting much better value for their money, perhaps counter-intuitively, means bad news for newspapers, TV and other forms of media that relied upon limited supply to bid up rates for very ineffective, untargeted advertising. But advertisers getting better value for their money is good news in the long run for all of us. Because if you can advertise very effectively for a small amount of money, then your very niche business, previously unviable, is suddenly a going concern, meaning more choice in the market. And very targeted advertising means that instead of irritating you, ads are more likely to be for something you actually care about. And all the money these companies used to blow on advertising can go into lower prices, or more value for their stockholders, or more R&D for new products, or any number of other uses to which capital can be put, most of which generate more value for everybody than persuading housewives to buy yet another new type of toothpaste.

Journalism is over. Newspapers will be reduced to rumps, competing for real-time coverage of the news with wire services and the news networks, both of which will eat them for breakfast, clinging on through residual brand recognition.

But that's fine. Reporting will be all the better for the death of journalism.