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Guest Thinkers

When Journalism Becomes ‘Churn-alism’

What future is there for journalism? Or is there a future in journalism for many of the bright young things who will have read a recent article titled ‘The Hamster Wheel’ in the journal of the Columbia School of Journalism? I attach below some of the responses from journalists who were interviewed for the project. Of course it is ironic that students from the Columbia School of Journalism still have the time to investigate and report on an industry in permanent crisis, while many of the journalists employed by newspapers and broadcaster haven’t enough time to stir their coffee, let alone reflect, investigate and write original copy.

“Newsrooms have shrunk by 25% in three years.” —Project for Excellence in Journalism, “State of the News Media 2010”

“A large majority (75%) of editors said their story counts . . . had either increased or remained the same during the past three years.” —PEJ, “The Changing Newsroom,” July 2008

“We’re all wire service reporters now.” —Theresa Agovino, Crain’s New York Business, at a conference of women real estate writers, December 2009

“NBC’s chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, in a typical day does eight to sixteen standup interviews for NBC or MSNBC; hosts his new show, ‘The Daily Rundown’; appears regularly on ‘Today’ and ‘Morning Joe’; tweets or posts on his Facebook page eight to ten times; and composes three to five blog posts. ‘We’re all wire-service reporters now,’ he says.” —Ken Auletta, The New Yorker, “Non-Stop News,” January 25, 2010

“Everyone’s running around like rats.” —a Wall Street Journal editor, June 21

“The scoop has never had more significance to our professional users, for whom a few minutes, or even seconds, are a crucial advantage whose value has increased exponentially.” —Robert Thomson, managing editor, The Wall Street Journal, in a memo to staff headlined “A Matter of Urgency,” sent May 19

“Everybody has to be on the air every day. That makes a big difference.” —Greg Guise, digital correspondent (cameraman), WUSA9-TV, Washington, D.C., June 2

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” —William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

“When asked to cite the newsroom loss that hurt the most, one editor answered simply, ‘The concept of who and what we are.’ ” —PEJ, “The Changing Newsroom”

So taking my cue from the above, Journalism now risks becoming ‘churnalism’. More and more re-cycled press releases, journalists who are desk bound, isolated in ‘pods’, whose multi-tasking demands leave them tired, depressed and unable to do what they came into journalism to do. Added to that is the relentless pressure on newspapers who continue to lose readers, and think they can hold onto to a diminishing market by racing to the bottom, churning out yet more rubbish about celebrities that fewer and fewer people want to read about.  Scandal sheets, but not reporting the real scandal of bankers bonuses, dodgy land deals, Tammany Hall political bosses, instead imagining that we will be forever satisfied with philandering, boring sportsmen, who can barely string sentences together.

The media industry is of course in a state of near revolutionary flux, a hamster wheel that only stops to hand out redundancy notices. Wages are frozen, except for the upper tier of managers in the big organisations who respond to falling sales by appointing – more managers.

There is of course a future. It is not all doom and gloom. The future lies with niche publications and newspapers of record and intelligence. It lies with public broadcasting, if we are prepared to fight for it. It lies with old fashioned investigative reporting. And it lies here on the web, and especially with multimedia platforms that say something, are something and are prepared to experiment.

A bit like ‘Big Think’ I guess.


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