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We're Only Journalists

by Walter Burns

Ask yourself: what is the point of journalism? Or, to put it another way, what are journalists supposed to do?

The answer -- and there is only one -- is to be profitable.

Journalism, news, media – it has always been a business, and businesses have to be profitable.

To be profitable in journalism, you need people who are willing to at least look at your content. If they’re not willing to pay, you need advertisers. If they’re willing to pay, you probably still need advertisers.

Apart from the small sliver or journalism that is supported by foundations and donations, that is the basic economic reality of journalism. You could be doing Pulitzer-worthy work, but if nobody is looking, nobody is paying.

That is not a particularly original or insightful idea. Everybody knows that and journalism’s struggles with maintaining profitability in the internet age have been well documented.

But there’s an important dissonance between this realization and what people expect from journalism.

The financial crisis was the biggest domestic story since the Great Depression. The general consensus is that journalism essentially failed the public in some way, that this body is somehow tasked as being the arbiter of making sure the economy is healthy.

Except that plenty of journalists did write about the danger of the housing and derivatives markets, as Chris Roush adeptly pointed out in the American Journalism Review.

So maybe a few people got it right, but the industry as a whole got it wrong. That might be true if business journalism as a whole was predicated on trying to predict the future.

As a journalist, my main job is to tell you what somebody told me about a certain topic. It’s up to me to make sure I talk to the right people and include the proper facts to corroborate that story. But at the end of the day, journalists are more the messenger than the producer. And you’re not supposed to shoot the messenger.

Yet journalism is treated as some high and holy institution whose disciples are supposed to be one part Nostradamus, one part Elliot Ness.

Some journalists are, and they tend to be ignored. The majority of journalism exists to provide information (and often entertainment) about certain industries, topics, and people, and that often is reasonably profitable.

Investigative and highly analytical journalism, on the other hand, is extremely expensive, consuming large amounts of time and resources. A great investigative team might produce two big stories per year, with a decent chance that it ends up with nothing but billable receipts.

And yet those are the people that seem to be most commonly associated with journalism – the Woodwards and the Bernsteins – meeting with secret sources and exposing evil for the good of man.

Instead, most journalists are closer to Walter Kronkite. We get the news and we try to decide what to tell and you how to tell you, because that’s what is going to pay the bills. Which brings us to Judith Miller.

Miller is infamous for publishing numerous stories about Iraq’s pursuit of WMDs that ended up being spectacularly false and helping pave the road to the Iraq war. Miller’s quote sums up the sad state of her poor reporting: "[M]y job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

In the aftermath of that and her involvement in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, Miller lost her job, quite rightly. The public outrage at her negligence was considerable.

Kronkite was who he was because people trusted him, much in the same way the New York Times is respected because it is seen as an institution that tells the truth, and tell it accurately. Miller violated that trust either by purposefully printing false information about the Iraq WMD program, or being too poor of a journalist to check on it. (Recently, Al Jazeera took the NYT to task for publishing articles with dubious claims about Iran’s nuclear program, even alluding to Miller’s stories in the beginning.)

But Miller and the NYT published those stories because they were big scoops, and big scoops are incredibly profitable. Of course, this did come back to burn the paper in the end, possibly costing them some money, however probably not nearly as much as they made with those same damning scoops.

Which is the main problem, especially in today’s journalism market in which consumers have so many options. Quality investigative journalism is too expensive and costly, while publishing unchecked and possibly manipulative scoops is profitable.

As such, Miller is quickly becoming the rule, not the exception, with some of the most respected media outlets routinely publishing stories without public sourcing and hardly following up on them.  

Because, as my boss once said, “We’re in the scoop business.”

So when someone refers to a failure of journalism, it’s a failure of the market to demand good journalism. Because the money is in the scoops, whether they’re true or not.

Image courtesy of Gawker

Walter Burns is one half of The Inclusive's intrepid News Team! Every other week, he will get you up to date on the goings on in that you should probably be aware of. No, this not actually Cary Grant. He's dead. Contact the News Team! at news.team@theinclusive.net