Reinventing Digital Media

"There’s so much that could be done that’s more unconventional."

AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability. Listen to it in its entirety:

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On 20 June 2015, host Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) got journalist Michael Massing’s assessment of the present quality of digital journalism and its prospects.

This particular interview may commit the sin of being media about media. But we’re always down for some navel-gazing at Antidote, and we think Michael Massing raises questions about WHAT TO DO WITH THIS THING THE INTERNET that we should all be pondering.

However, we also want to confront, gently, some of his conclusions. At once he exhorts sites like BuzzFeed to use their resources and momentum to reinvent journalism by taking it back out to the streets and the people—and then he laments the lack of citizen journalism deserving of the name. Naturally, we take umbrage: it is precisely citizen journalists (*cough* like us, dare we say) who are already “reinventing journalism” (though I admit that is not our primary intent) in precisely the way he prescribes—as the slogan goes, “From the streets, for the streets.”

We consider it part of our mission to highlight the excellent work of citizen journalists and media collectives around the world who are building what could be called, embarrassingly enough, an “underground” or “DIY” digital media and exploring the possibilities that both independence and interdependence can open up—all learning, struggling, and publishing on the basis of a solidarity that is understood to be injured by poor work, and all seeking new ways of apprehending and presenting the world.

We do not need BuzzFeed to take journalism back to the people, it’s already out here.

 “I surveyed the web also in 2009, and I was quite excited about what was going on. There was this initial excitement and verve that a lot of us felt. But I have to say a fair amount of that excitement has faded. I feel like people are flailing.”

Chuck Mertz: What is the state of online journalism? How well have digital journalists harnessed the power of the web? What’s worked and what hasn’t, and what is still working? Why have some of the early pioneers been able to adapt while others have failed? And what the hell happened to the blog?

Here to tell us his assessment of the state of digital journalism, a journalist himself, Michael Massing. Michael is writing a series of articles on digital journalism at the New York Review of Books. The first two are called Digital Journalism: How Good Is It? and The Next Generation. Michael will be posting a third part in the series later this year. He is former executive editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

It’s great to have you back on our show, Michael.

Michael Massing: Thanks!

CM: In your article you quote a friend saying, “I can’t tell anymore whether a story I read counts as digital journalism or not. It ceases to be a meaningful distinction.”

Is it still a meaningful distinction? And to what degree have digital journalism and offline journalism merged into one?

MM: Certainly from the consumer standpoint, which my friend was speaking from, we have this cornucopia to choose from, and many traditional news organizations have very impressive websites and online operations—is what they’re producing old-line? New-line? Online? Is it paper? From that perspective, yes, the differences have sort of faded.

For the purposes of my research, I was looking specifically at web-native organizations, because they have gotten so much attention, and there’s a general sense that the New Media is eclipsing the old (I use the term legacy in the piece, which is a term used by a lot of people now to refer to the old-line places likes the New York Times and other papers). I’m trying to assess the quality of journalism produced by legacy institutions compared with those that are born on and continue to publish exclusively on the web. That’s the distinction I’m making for my article.

I think it’s important, because so much attention is given to digital journalism and all the new experiments out there. But so much of this attention is paid to the technology and the business side—what about the content and quality of these places? That’s what I really set out to look at.

CM: It’s important to point out that your writing draws on and critiques a bunch of recent books on the media. Now, ten years ago—let alone at the beginning of digital journalism in the nineties—many in the media seemed very uncertain as to the direction the journalistic profession would go—either the content or the business.

Do the authors of the books featured in your article—or digital journalists today in general—seem to have any more of an idea? Are they any more certain about the direction journalism is taking today than they were, say, fifteen years ago?

MM: Well, no. It’s quite amazing how books that are particularly aimed at the future of journalism—you read them and come away still wondering what they’re really saying.

I think this is true in the field in general. People will tell you, “Look, it’s like the early years of printing. People really weren’t aware of what that medium could do, and it took fifty, sixty years to come into its own…” People are now saying, “Look, we’re in the phase of letting all these flowers bloom and we’ll see what flourishes.”

But the web is about twenty years old, at least in terms of journalism appearing on it, so it’s a good point at which to make this assessment. But people don’t really have a sense. You find very little articulation of what the web can do and how we should take advantage of it. Moreover, so many sites seem not even to have a well-defined mission of what they’re trying to do.

There are all these sites now that are based on social media and people trying to write their own stories and this and that, but I feel like people are still flailing. Of course, there are also places like the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica, investigative sites which do good work—but I think they could do much more.

I wrote about this in 2009; I surveyed the web, and I was quite excited about what was going on. There was this initial excitement and verve that a lot of us felt. But I have to say a fair amount of that excitement has faded.

I assume you read the Huffington Post a lot at the start. I don’t know if you still do, but I’ve been reading it pretty regularly. At first I thought it was a really interesting venture. When the bank crisis occurred, they had Simon Johnson writing, a very innovative economist. They would be posting interesting stuff about the banks, and you could find things there when some of the print outlets were slower to respond. They were running a lot of sharp-edged stuff; they had all this reporting on Washington—and of course they did all the same titillation back then, but I thought something interesting was going on there.

And you mentioned blogging at the top. Blogging back then was very exciting as well; there were people like Juan Cole doing it, people who were able to put forward an interpretation of events out of the mainstream. So there was that excitement there, too.

But the argument I make in the first of the two articles that have appeared is just that a lot of these experiments have leveled off. And having looked at the new generation, which we expect to innovate and build on what came before—unfortunately, I don’t find things that much further along. As I say, people seem to be flailing.

CM: You quote a Peter Goodman, who writes of a “widespread sense on his team that the Huffington Post is no longer fully committed to original reporting; that in a system governed largely by metrics, deep reporting and quality writing weigh in as a lack of productivity.” And you point out that he’s now editor-in-chief of the International Business Times, an online news publication.

Do you think there’s something wrong with the metrics—or that something is revealed about the metrics—when good writing and good reporting are not being rewarded?

MM: The whole dynamic that’s developed in these for-profit outlets is that the race is on; everything is measured by how many eyeballs you get. It really does seem to undermine the type of attention and long-time commitment one needs to produce good work.

I really only scratched the surface of what went on at the Huffington Post: editors beholden to monthly reports for each section on how much traffic they had, and if by the tenth day of the month they were falling behind the previous month, they would be reprimanded—just tremendous pressure on them to produce. From what I hear, they’ve pulled back from that some, because they realized it was creating total chaos.

But it’s endemic now. We’re talking a great deal about the Huffington Post, but they are symptomatic of what’s going on elsewhere, and I think the memo you read really does a good job of summing up the dilemma. Arianna Huffington has announced that they have hired more people to do investigative reporting and longer-term stuff. Maybe that will bear fruit. I’m always hopeful.

CM: You touched on blogging earlier. You write, “Gone are the days when a Michigan-based scholar like Juan Cole could single-handedly challenge the Bush Administration’s narrative on Iraq or the blogging collective FireDogLake could gain national attention for live-blogging the Scooter Libby trial.”

Is that what the barometer should be when it comes to the success of digital journalism? Whether their stories get into the daily narrative, the daily talk? Whether they get on national news—on the networks, cable TV or in print? Is that one place where digital journalism used to have an avenue but they don’t anymore?

Buzzfeed has an audience that is young and open to new ways of doing things. There’s so much more out there that needs to be looked at. They could report much more on what’s going on in the world, how ordinary people are struggling.”

MM: Talking about the state of blogging, I quote Paul Krugman saying that he thinks this is actually a golden age for discussion on economic matters, because there are so many well-informed bloggers out there. If somebody comes out with something that is off-base, they’re going to sniff it out and write about it, and then there’ll be a debate about it. He says the level of discussion is better than it’s ever been thanks to blogging, and web discussion in general.

But I looked at some of these bloggers, and they tend to be specialized. People write about their areas of expertise. For it to actually make an impact, it takes somebody like Krugman to write about it in the New York Times or some other outlet that is going to get the attention, and to write about it in a way that is not geared only to a specialized audience.

CM: In the second part of your three-part series on digital journalism, The Next Generation, you write: “It was with great anticipation that I arrived for my appointment at the editorial offices of BuzzFeed on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. Among journalists, no other website has stirred more interest, resentment, or envy.”

Why do you think that’s the case? In your other article, the first article, you talk about the Huffington Post, which seems to have had the same kind of resentment towards it.

MM: It’s a similar type of place. Actually it was founded by two people who helped found the Huffington Post, and I’m arguing that they’re the ‘next generation,’ the It-Girl of the moment who everybody looks to. It’s an interesting question as to why. Why has BuzzFeed gotten the buzz?

I guess it’s this: they mastered a certain thing about web technology. In some ways, they have done a better job of using this particular medium’s properties to do new things. What it was at first were the animal videos, the cuteness, the listicles, the twenty-one ways that left-handed people can show up right-handed people and so on. But then they decided they didn’t want to be known just for that. Their readers wanted more. Now they’re in the process of trying to show that the same technology that could be used to such thinly amusing purposes can also be used for much more probing, in-depth purposes.

People are fascinated to see if they will be able to pull this off, and in fact they have a lot of resources. They use sponsored advertising, which has brought them lots of money. This is tailored advertising that their own staff helps produce in conjunction with the advertisers so that it blends in with the copy, which is becoming the model, more and more, for web advertising. It’s pretty insidious in a lot of ways, but it’s also been lucrative.

I guess the interest in BuzzFeed is, can this cat- and dog-video, listicle-producing website add a serious dimension using the same technology to do important journalism? That’s why I arrived at my session there with such anticipation.

CM: And you wrote how you were introduced to Shani Hilton, the executive director for news at BuzzFeed. “I asked her to cite some recent stories she felt were noteworthy,” you write. “She mentioned a story by Ben Smith about the threat by an Uber executive to dig up dirt on a reporter who had criticized the company (it kicked up a storm); a story by Aram Roston on financial conflicts of interest involving a top National Security Agency official (which led to the official’s resignation); and ‘Fostering Profits,’ an investigation into deaths, sex abuse, and gaps in oversight at the nation’s largest foster-care company. As for regular beats, Hilton mentioned two in which she felt BuzzFeed had excelled: marriage equality and rape culture.

“From talking with Hilton and with Ben Smith (now editor-in-chief) and from sampling BuzzFeed’s homepage, I came away convinced of its commitment to being a serious provider of news; there’s a sense of earnest aspiration about the place. At the same time, I was surprised by how conventional—and tame—most of its reports are.”

These don’t sound like very conventional or tame stories to me, either the Fostering Profits story or the financial conflicts of interest involving a top NSA official. How are they conventional and tame?

MM: They’re conventional in the sense that it’s what journalism is about in this country. That’s the idea of journalism: let’s find a conflict of interest at the NSA, or let’s look at a foster-care company that is engaging in underhanded and abusive practices! And these are good things to do. I’m not arguing they’re not. But are they re-creating journalism in the way that the web is re-making the delivery and distribution of news? No, I find it very much in line with what any big town newspaper would be doing.

Again, it’s worthwhile, but I go on in the article to express a sense of what they could be doing differently. In particular, they have an audience out there that is young and open to new ways of doing things. There’s so much more out there that needs to be looked at. They could report much more on what’s going on in the world, how ordinary people are struggling. They’ve hired somebody to report on what it’s like to be a young Muslim in London, for example. They could do a lot more with reporting on populations that are not normally reported on, getting away from this narrow investigative beat and really going out into the field trying to do more to educate us about what it’s like for a woman living in India today, or even in America, in hidden communities. There’s so much that could be done that’s more unconventional. That’s what I’m arguing for.

CM: You mention an article at the website Vox: Why Does the US Have 800 Military Bases Around the World?, and you point out that an accompanying four minute video was “not uncritical. It noted that all other nations maintain only about 30 bases outside their borders, and that many of the US bases were created during the Cold War, and so may have outlived their usefulness. It did not go beyond that, however.”

But isn’t that objective journalism, and a step back and away from the advocacy journalism that so many complain about when they think of digital journalism?

“Journalism is difficult. It’s time consuming. It sometimes requires resources or certain skills that ordinary citizens in general do not have.”

MM: This idea of “advocacy” journalism…No, it’s a sense of uncovering. Is the Times’ writing about nail salons advocacy journalism because they’re making a point that these women are all being exploited? No, I think journalism at its best, going back to the muckraking era, is about exposing things and bringing them to the fore. Or at the very least asking questions.

That Vox article isn’t going to do anything to get a debate going or change anybody’s mind about this. I give them credit for raising the issue, because as you might agree, it’s one that somehow gets no attention whatsoever, the huge number of military bases. But their treatment of it is not really going to grab hold of anybody.

CM: You quote a Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, saying, “With digital technology, people no longer need to be in Midtown or lower Manhattan, in the highest rent area in America. You could be anywhere. But digital technology has concentrated power in New York even more so than before. People could go to the Yucatán and live cheaply, but everyone wants to be in New York.”

Why? And what does that say about today’s dominant digital journalism culture?

MM: That is the paradox. Here’s a medium that allows you to reach anywhere in the world and draw on anywhere in the world, or operate from anywhere in the world, and yet New York is the place to be. There’s some in DC, and LA is growing to some degree, particularly in the video component. But hey, New York is a great place to live! I live here, and it’s exciting. There are so many cultural institutions and good parties and good restaurants and so on.

In all seriousness, if you’re in New York, you can pick up a lot of things going on, a lot of leads to things. I’m not sure that would happen in Yucatán. But look where Glen Greenwald writes. He’s in Rio. And there might be something to be said for being far from the maddening crowd and not feeling the pressures to conform and the pressure of the pack. That was a big thing during the Iraq War—writing stuff that everybody else is writing.

So it is one of the great ironies that this very diffuse medium that’s decentralized and democratizing has in fact produced just as highly centralized a group of journalists as we had before, if not more.

CM: You also touch on citizen journalism. A lot of people had great hopes for citizen journalism, that all of the sudden we’d all be journalists, we could all be giving our perspectives, and maybe that would enhance the journalism that’s out there in the more traditional realms.

What is citizen journalism lacking?

MM: This is something I wrestled with in the piece. It’s funny; a few years back everybody was talking about the importance of ordinary citizens who are armed with cameras and recorders, and that just their access to their own localities would have a big impact on bringing about change.

Certainly it has, outside the US, in more repressive countries, although they’re also being cracked down upon. But today when I raise the topic with some friend in the field and say, “What do you think about citizen journalism?” Sometimes they say, “God, I haven’t heard that term in years!”

Journalism is difficult. It’s time consuming, it sometimes requires resources or certain skills. I do point out that citizens have been providing invaluable services in different ways—for example, initial questions about Brian Williams were posted by soldiers who had firsthand knowledge of the situation in question. And obviously the smartphone cameras catching the police doing terrible things has had a huge impact.

That’s what citizen journalism seems to be doing best at the moment. And maybe it’ll have a new wave, but journalism is a difficult thing to do. It requires certain skills and resources that I think ordinary citizens in general do not have.

CM: One last question for you, Michael, and as always it’s the Question from Hell: the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate your response.

Is journalism dead?

MM: Journalism is well and alive but still under siege. It’s certainly not dead. We see tremendous vitality in a lot of places—particularly in the traditional news organizations, as I argue, more than in others. But they are under a lot of pressure, and those that have a national and international reach, like the Times and the Post and the Financial Times and the Economist and the Wall Street Journal and so on, they are the ones that ultimately can take advantage of the reach that the web brings.

The Wall Street Journal and FT and the New York Times have in the range of a million subscribers online. But the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, and the Chicago Tribune are not going to have access to that type of broad audience. And they are really struggling. My hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, continues to be very thin.

So journalism’s not dead, but it continues to go through tremendous changes, and there is still a sense of embattlement among many, and we can only hope that the future will bring us some brightness.

CM: Michael, a real pleasure having you back on the show.

MM: Very good! Chuck, thank you very much.

Transcribed and printed with permission.

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