A 1923 critique of everything that’s wrong with media today.
Recently, The New York Times asked me to weigh in on SOPA. Partly under the pressure of an impossibly short notice, and partly because I was hesitant to reduce such a complex problem to the slim word limit, I didn’t go into what makes SOPA just one manifestation of a deeper, wider, much more worrisome issue, which is this: so long as we have a monetization model of information that prioritizes the wrong stakeholders — advertisers over readers — we will always cater to the business interests of the former, not the intellectual interests of the latter. SOPA exists because we have failed to create an information economy in which editorial integrity and reader experience are the only currencies of media merit. Instead, we have a value system based on advertising metrics, and the reason for this can be traced to our chronic tendency to fit old forms to new media — the funding model for media and journalism today is a near-exact replica of the funding model of early newspapers.
Last week, David Skok over at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab unearthed a 1923 essay titled “Our Changing Journalism” (original text below) by Bruce Bliven, former managing editor of The New York Globe and eventual editor of The New Republic. In it, Bliven exquisitely encapsulates the brokenness of this media model, as reflected in the newspaper industry of the era, identifying eight deformities of journalism that map onto some of their contemporary equivalents — SEO-centric headlines a la Huffington Post, linkbait infographics, click-grubbing slideshows — with astounding accuracy. Among them:
…a steady tendency to condense newspaper articles into mere tabloid summaries. This is due to the great increase in the physical volume of advertising, and the desire to hold down the bulk of the paper.”
This, of course, is a perfect summation of the strategy behind today’s content farms, as well as the increasingly prevalent and increasingly worrisome practice of over-aggregation. (Something I myself frequently grapple with as Brain Pickings articles are regurgitated by the Huffington Post and others of the same ilk.)
…a wider and wider use of syndicated material, so that newspapers all over the partially identical from day to day in their contents. This is true not only of telegraphic news, obtained from one of the three great news-gathering associations, but also of ‘feature’ articles, drawings, even editorials.”
The homogenization of curiosity is something that keeps me up at night, as does the thickening of the filter bubble, from mainstream churnalism to smaller and niche publications’s propensity for regurgitating MetaFilter or Reddit headlines — our modern-day newswires.
…the great invested capital and earning power of a successful paper to-day. Because of this fact — the result of the increase in advertising — ownership has slipped out of the hands of the editor, whose type of mind is rarely compatible with large business dealings, and has passed to that of wealthy individuals or corporations. This means that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the editorial attitude of the paper reflects the natural conservatism of these ‘capitalistic’ owners, or is of a wishy-washy type which takes no vigorous stance on any subject.”
…[newspapers’] race for added sales is reflected editorially in the production of journals which more and more represent, not an editor’s notion of a good paper, but a circulation manager’s notion of a good seller.”
This, precisely, is the fundamental folly of media today. (And is the reason why, for the past six years, I’ve been running Brain Pickings as a donation-funded, advertising-free, and thus unconcerned with “circulation” — or, in modern terms, pageviews — editorial project.)
Whether it’s Hollywood, as in the case of SOPA, or the pageview overlords, as in the case of content farms and over-aggregators, today’s “circulation managers” still dictate the editorial direction and vision for most of the information we consume. Until we, as an information culture in general and as media producers in particular, figure out a way to reinstate the editor as the visionary and the reader as the stakeholder, the Internet will remain a dismal landscape for intelligent, compelling media.
Excerpt from Bliven’s essay follows.