We’re living in the golden age of journalism

These are the glory days of American journalism. Never before have we had access to the variety and depth of information we have now, and never with such immediate availability. So says Matthew Yglesias of Slate in a post debunking any notion that the struggles of print media reflect a larger cancer growing in the heart of the field.

His piece comes in the wake of Pew’s latest State of the Media Report, which he says “makes no mention of the Web’s speed, range, and depth, or indeed any mention at all of audience access to information as an important indicator of the health of journalism.”

He writes: “[The Pew results are] a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”

Yglesias takes us through his rich process of reading up on current events, showing how readers can build on breaking news by following links and recommendations towards in-depth features and even books written on the subject. Digital media also allows journalists more tools for crafting stories and presenting complex information at a much quicker pace.

“In other words, any individual journalist working today can produce much more than our predecessors could in 1978. And the audience can essentially read all of our output. Not just today’s output either. Yesterday’s and last week’s and last month’s and last year’s and so forth. To the extent that the industry is suffering, it’s suffering from a crisis of productivity.”

The 'high quality Web content' experiment has *not* failed – but some news publishers have

If you follow as many journalists as I do on Twitter, perhaps your timeline blew up last week, too, with links to Paul Carr’s piece on TechCrunch asking Now Can We All Agree That The “High Quality Web Content” Experiment Has Failed?

Slate’s decision to lay off media critic Jack Shafer, among other staffers, prompted Carr’s essay, which asked “what better illustration could there be of online media’s woes than an ezine laying off its media critic because the economics of web content don’t support a writer of his stature and specialism?”

As you might guess, I’m going to answer “no” to Carr’s headline question. Let’s not conflate the economics of Slate with the “economics of web content.” Carr lost me completely when he wrote of Slate’s “minuscule staff of 60.”

Sixty’s a gargantuan staff for a Web-only publication – one that could be supported only by a global publication with a worldwide advertiser base. Don’t blame the Web for Slate’s decision to operate with a too-large staff for the advertiser base its audience would support. That’s Slate’s bad call. (Blame Slate, too, for turning off the audience it could have had. I – and many others, I suspect – gave up long ago on Slate’s smug brand of neo-liberal contrarianism, honed under the direction of former editor Jacob Weisberg.)

This has become standard repertoire on OJR, but plenty of people are making plenty of money with Web content. And millions of readers are enjoying rich conversations online, featuring voices of individuals whose experiences too often were not heard or told by newsrooms of Slate’s size and larger.

True, it’s hard to find examples of Slate-sized newsrooms producing general interest publications that are making 1980s-newspaper profits online. Carr’s correct to link to an explanation that niche-topic websites are doing better financially today than general-interest news websites.

But, so what? What makes a general-interest publication like Slate inherently of higher quality than a niche publication? And what makes a story reported and written in a traditional journalism format inherently of higher quality than other forms of storytelling online?


The knock on niche media has been that it isolates readers in “silos” where they aren’t exposed to news from other beats and perspectives. But most people, I believe, remain interested in their communities and their roles as citizens within them. Social media’s also giving readers access to many more diverse sources of information than have been available in traditional news publications.

The mass market always was a myth. People always wanted to read and watch content that matched their interest. Mass market publications succeeded when people had few or no other choices. Give people those choices, and people take them.

When readers find information that they find informative and instructive, and they will pay attention to it. So don’t blame readers for ignoring boring “public interest” reporting that simply rehashes “he said, she said” quotes with little or no rigorous analysis of what those sources are saying and doing. If your publication, like Slate, is not attracting enough readers to support the reporting you want to present, don’t blame the readers. Or the Internet. Look at yourself, then try to find smarter ways to make your reporting more informative, more instructive and more engaging.

More contrarian won’t cut it.

As for “high quality”? I measure that by how truthful information is, and by how well it engages and instructs its audience – not by a URL’s adherence to a j-school-approved and time-tested format. Online, more and more reporting is emanating from conversations, in discussions, blogs and social media than from old-fashioned reporter-makes-a-phone-call newswriting. That changes the process – and economics – of news reporting online. Don’t give up on for-profit Web publishing just because one model for how to handle the news isn’t producing enough cash to support the huge staff it requires.

If a publisher really wants to produce economically successful author-driven narratives, then there’s a better medium than the Web for doing that anyway.

There’s still huge demand for news and analysis out there. And the Internet’s providing new channels through which to meet that demand. So don’t blame the audience, or blame the Internet, whenever a particular business fails to make enough money by putting audiences and customers together through those channels.

Put the blame where it belongs, instead – with that business’s management.