Ah, well, the quality argument is not one that anybody’s going to win. You can’t actually measure journalism’s quality; that’s its tragic flaw and maybe saving grace. You can point to circulation or prizes, but journalism is more art than science. It’s why quantity will always have an advantage over quality. But qualitative comparisons, particularly between eras, are basically just an argument. Could Michael Jordan’s champion Bulls of the ’90s have beaten Larry Bird’s Celtics in their heyday? (Bad example; of course they could have, but the point is made.) One reader’s livelier news pages look to another reader like news A.D.D., an inability to choose anything so instead of trying to publish everything, all the time. Still, this lack of choosing is itself a choice. More on that later.
Put it this way, given limited resources, not all readers would think to assign seven (!) staffers to live blog the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, as The Wall Street Journal did in February:
The preceremony starts, with instructions to the audience. As always in Canada, all explanations are in English and French.
But again, that’s just me. Perhaps there was nothing else to look into that night—in the whole world.
Without getting into whether newspapers are worse or better than before—let’s concede they’re fabulous; that’s why everyone loves them so much—we should pause for a second and think about the implications of the do-more-with-less meme that is sweeping the news business. I call it the Hamster Wheel.
The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics (Bloomberg!). It is “Sheriff plans no car purchases in 2011,” (Kokomo Tribune, 7/5/10). It is “Ben Marter’s Home-Cooked Weekend,” (Politico, 6/28/10): “Saturday morning, he took some of the leftover broccoli, onions, and mushrooms, added jalapenos, and made omeletes for a zingy breakfast.” Ben Marter is communications director for a congresswoman. It’s live-blogging the opening ceremonies, matching stories that don’t matter, and fifty-five seconds of video of a movie theater screen being built: “Wallingford cinema adding 3 screens (video),” (New Haven Register, 6/1/10).
But it’s more than just mindless volume. It’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an underappreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: How much time versus how much impact? This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!). Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?
Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic. “You’re constantly looking for the next story like that,” says Zachary Roth, a former reporter for Talking Points Memo (and before that a CJR staff member). “The posts you end up pitching and writing are less likely to be investigative.”
None of this is written down anywhere, but it’s real. The Hamster Wheel, then, is investigations you will never see, good work left undone, public service not performed. It is the perceived imperative to churn out every story that might have been nice to have had, at some point, maybe, given unlimited resources, but that, given highly constrained news budgets, should be allowed to recede into history unrecorded—or unrecorded by you, even if it is recorded by a thousand others. How many readers really ask themselves, “I wonder why my site didn’t have that Lugar-urges-‘common sense’-in-new-farm-dust-trials story?” (AP, 8/9/10).
You say, “Why not have it?” I say, “Because it isn’t free.” The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.
The Hamster Wheel, really, is the mainstream media’s undoing, in real time, and they’re doing it to themselves. So before the Wheel spins completely off its axle, sending hamsters and wood chips flying, we should think about the Wheel, question the assumptions that underlie it, and recognize a few truths that emerge after painstaking analysis performed over a truly obscene amount of time:
1. The Wheel is real