Wednesday, July 07, 2010

New news

NON-PARENTHETICAL YOU-HAVE-BEEN-WARNED NOTE: For most people -- everyone? -- this will be an exceptionally boring post. Tough. It's what I'm thinking about when I would much rather be thinking about happy stuff. Ain't no "happy stuff" around right now, though....

These days, a majority of the public gets its news from the Internet. That would include me, I admit. It's a big change from a diet of a couple of daily newspapers and half-hour of TV news plus a variety of weekly/monthly magazines, which was my routine 20 years ago.

But being wedded to the computer for work reasons ultimately changed my habits. There are thousands (if not tens of thousands) of sources for news now, all easily accessible.

Most people feel as I did at first: a good library of bookmarked sites can put you in touch with more than you need to know about anything you want to know about. As a "news junkie" from way back, I quickly began to see this the way a kid sees a big toy-shaped box under the Christmas tree.

But now, having seen my own news-related career collapse like a bridge made of toilet paper, I have had to look more closely and see things differently.

What you find when peeping at the man behind the curtain* is that the number of actual reporters -- which I define as people who actually go where news happens, ask questions of participants, do diligent research, and assemble a fact-laden digest of what happened in clear, concise form -- has actually diminished from the days of so-called "old media."

Today, most online news comes from aggregators, people who assemble links to news stories from various more-or-less credible sources. The Drudge Report is a prime example. Drudge is not a journalist, no matter what he thinks. Instead, he (or whatever individual manages his website these days) he is a reader and assembler who works with the electronic equivalent of scissors and paste to put a whole bunch of stolen borrowed stories in a small space.

And the articles you read on other sites? Too often, they are "written" by hacks who are paid $30 by a "content mill" to whip out what is essentially a first rough draft of a real story, one based on a couple of minutes'-worth of Google searches, other online articles or direct lifts from Wikipedia, itself a notoriously inaccurate "source." These people are typists, not reporters.

But hey, it's all free to the reader.

This has two bad effects: first, it tends to perpetuate erroneous information. If x writes something bogus, it is given fresh life when picked up and plagiarized by y. Unless someone actually digs up the truth by talking to genuine experts or people involved in the particular story -- which is economically unfeasible for anyone who expects to make a living as a writer in this climate -- misinformation and outright lies spread like fungus.

The second bad effect is related to that last sentence. And it's where I come in. Or. more realistically, go out. Though I have not had any contact with former clients in the past few months, I still talk to someone who is trying to peddle his wares. What he hears -- and I believe him -- is that the magazines' story banks are full of articles offered up "on spec" (that is, written and submitted with the hope they will eventually be published and -- maybe -- paid for). They are not looking for new articles.

Never mind that the material they have on hand is largely of dubious quality, filled with inaccuracies and poorly written. The stories are of "internet quality" and, for companies that see articles as a way to fill the white space between the ads, that'll do just fine.

We have all seen those internet ads trolling for writers. I have, and have followed up on many of them. What I have found in the fine print are sub-minimum wage payments for writers. I'll give a few credit: they openly admit "you won't get rich writing for us" and appeal to the desire of any aspiring writer to "build a portfolio" as if someone else, somewhere, will actually pay a living wage for your work later.

PARENTHETICAL NEWS-FLASH: I have a portfolio, thank you very much, one assembled over 24 painful-but-successful years. The work therein was vetted by editors, copy editors and fact-checkers, was almost always painstakingly research and smoothed by me before submission. What it entitles me to, apparently, is to apply for (and probably not get) a $25K/year, 24/7 job in an area where a one-room apartment will cost you $30K/year or more. In short, my portfolio has the approximate value of a used Kleenex.

Perhaps this means nothing to you. Stories that play fast and loose with facts, don't even try to hide the writer's personal biases and are sloppily constructed are the norm today, not the exception. This is the "New Journalism" and the thieves who fill their websites with stolen work are the "New Media."

To me it's pretty damn ugly, Jim.

I won't even start on the cable TV news networks and the crap they peddle. Nor will I talk about today's "commentators" who, unlike the giants of the Walter Williams/George Will/Victor Davis Hanson class, deliver reasoned opinion (even when I disagree with them, I can follow their logic and appreciate their informed opinions) instead of adding a sentence or two of their own to links and blockquotes from other "pundits" and calling that "commentary."

As far as I'm concerned, the nut of the whole thing is rooted in short attention spans and a lack of any desire to hear/read anything that challenges one's own opinions and beliefs. Never mind that said opinions and beliefs are built on the same weak foundation of mangled facts and distortions that pepper today's information world. What's wanted is instant gratification, accuracy, quality and coherence be damned.

The "free access" routine plays into this as well. You don't want to pay for news? You think advertisers do that for you? You're half right: advertisers pay the aggregators; very little filters down to the actual producers. That has a negative (to put it mildly) effect on those who churn out the pap you read. In two words: they starve.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Actually I do know what to do, but that's another story. And not a pretty one.

* I'm guessing that's an obscure reference these days. Do people still watch The Wizard of Oz?