It’s an instructive exercise to think of the news media as a friend who tells you things.
In the years before 2007—before smartphones and social media—she or he showed up once or twice a day, and declared with great seriousness and certainty what she or he thought the most important stories of the last 24 hours were.
In 2018 she or he has become a constant chorus. According to figures provided by media analytics company Newswhip, The Washington Post published 10,580 individual things in May of this year, including wire stories, graphics, and other miscellania. CNN published 9,430, The New York Times 5,984, The Wall Street Journal 4,898, and NPR 2,254.
Similar numbers are not available for the pre-smartphone era, but the print edition of the Post on June 26 —a decent analogue for the numbers in the print-driven era—included 135 stories, less than half the daily web total.
Some of these stories represent the kind of hard-fought, original journalism that inspires idealists and strikes fear into cynics. Few can argue that American journalism has not met the challenges of a new world with detailed, vivid reporting that afflicts the comfortable.
But many are either repetitive or seek to aggregate or comment on publicly available information—because it’s simply impossible for any quantity of journalists, no matter how industrious, to find 10,000 original things to publish in a month. And most newsrooms have either reduced the numbers of reporters and editors, or fought to keep it roughly static.
“What happens,” says Bill Keller, who was executive editor of the Times between 2003 and 2011, as the changes swept the industry, “is that consumers are flooded with variations of the same story.” Of necessity, he says, with less time to report, the stories focus on spin and punditry. “It is not a way to improve depth and quality.”
But many are either repetitive or seek to aggregate or comment on publicly available information—because it’s simply impossible for any quantity of journalists, no matter how industrious, to find 10,000 original things to publish in a month.
It means that deeper reporting is lost in the noise, and can be dismissed by those seeking to evade scrutiny as just another attempt to garner a click. Readers, inundated by streams of stories tailored for them, with similarly sharpened headlines ruthlessly tested to work on social media, develop a kind of fatigue, and can no longer tell what is Watergate and what is a bunch of people on the internet screaming about Watergate.
“The pressures are continuous,” said Marcus Brauchli, who edited the Journal and the Post and is now managing partner of North Base Media. “You burn out editors, you burn out reporters and you burn out readers.”
Those who seek to confuse, dissemble and sow distrust —most notably the presidents of the United States and Russia—find fertile ground.
And yet it’s something of a sleeper issue. We discuss the ethics of reporting fairly on partisan politics, and of using anonymous sources, and parse the impact of Facebook, but not of the simple act, taken in aggregate, of defaulting to writing a story instead of not writing one.
Newsrooms, says Brauchli, now operate more like television channels—responding to ratings, and covering stories incrementally, often because the basic economics of news in 2018 mean that clicks are king. “I think the absence of context is a function of this hyper-fast metabolism,” he said. “It’s a function of editors being as distracted as adolescents. Everyone is busy.”
Readers, inundated by streams of stories tailored for them, with similarly sharpened headlines ruthlessly tested to work on social media, develop a kind of fatigue, and can no longer tell what is Watergate and what is a bunch of people on the internet screaming about Watergate.
The problem is exacerbated because newsrooms were developed to operate in the print era—when information was siloed. A reader of the San Francisco Chronicle was highly unlikely to pick up a copy of the Post on any given day. And so each paper had a simple job: to reflect and report on the events, locally and globally, that were of interest to their readers. If the two papers ended up identical, that was of no consequence to anyone but archivists.
When papers did have more direct rivalries, they learned to try and offer the ultimate version of a story—to match, and beat any story their rivals had, so that their readers were the best informed. (And, of course, out of a commendable professional vanity.) Repetition was, again, something of a virtue—each paper pushed the others to greater feats of reporting and writing. Each checked the work of others for error and misframing. And the best received a boost from increased newsstand sales.
But the pressures of instant information, distributed globally, have pushed that model to absurdity. Every news outlet is now plugged into the same streams — most notably, social media. When Donald Trump tweeted, over the weekend, that he’d like to deny due process to those seeking asylum, the first hot takes had hit the web before the fingerprints had faded from his phone’s screen. Faced with a sea of headlines, in every permutation, even the most determined mind rebels and begins to dismiss it all as noise. If Trump later institutes the policy it’s hard not to wonder it it will be met with something of a shrug by the average reader as a result.
When one paper does steal a march with some original reporting, their rivals still seek to follow the story. But they are required to do it at high speed, which means that, instead of being a check on each other, each publication has the resources only to re-establish the facts of the piece, and the reader gets a virtually identical story again. “It’s harder to reshape a narrative,” said Keller, “in part because people don’t have the time to dig up the stuff that allows you to authoritatively defy it.”
The net effect is to speed up and amplify the groupthink that has always plagued journalists. And to deny audiences something they crave in a world that is changing fast: context.
“I think there’s a bit of a reader backlash,” says Brauchli. “People like longer deeper stories. I’m hopeful that some of the outlets that thrive on the frenzy will discover they have other obligations.”
A recent study, also by NewsWhip, gives reasons for optimism. It found that the most popular stories at various national and international publications, including the BBC and CNN, rarely repeated each other.
And both startups and established players are already responding. Keller now edits The Marshall Project, a site devoted to original reporting on criminal justice. “We define our role, and this is true of a number of the smaller startups that have materialized, as doing stuff that the mainstream media is missing,” he says. “For us there’s a premium on challenging the established narrative. That’s why people come to us.”