There has been a lot of fear lately about the diminishing role of traditional journalism. You know, the guys who still write articles for printed newspapers, the thing most of us nowadays probably only use for paper to start the BBQ with (that can’t be just me, can it?). As more of the traditional print newspapers move online and have to contend with diminishing ad revenue, journalists have to write more “click bait” worthy articles to attract more people to their site because showing advertisers that they attract X amount of millions is the only way they can get ad revenue to keep their doors open. And articles and lists about kittens get way more clicks then stories about the military coup in Turkey.
I used to work in advertising. You can say I am partially “guilty” for this shift that is killing newspapers and the reporting they are forced to do to keep their doors open. But if I can get on my soap box for just a minute, it’s not ALL advertising’s fault. Advertisers certainly do not determine what interests’ people and attracts them to a website or article. Advertisers are what keep things free, like the internet. So for them to shell out hundreds of thousands of their clients advertising budget on any one medium in particular, it has to guarantee that a certain number of people see it. That’s how we calculate the CPM (cost per million). If it’s a premium website, or can get an audience deemed more “attractive” because of their relevance to the client, advertisers will pay a higher CPM to get in front of those people. When a CPM can get as high as $30, advertisers have to be very strategic of where they put their clients dollars to work. If the advertiser fails in doing that, it could be a disaster for the client. A big enough disaster can lead that client to moving their business elsewhere. Which means people lose their jobs. I’ve been in a situation like that before and it blows. So just keep that in mind for a second, advertisers are people too and they are not evil. The things we know about people’s consumption habits can be considered creepy, sure, but not evil.
Anyway, back to journalism. Websites like Buzzfeed get a ton of advertiser dollars now because people love clicking their picture heavy lists. Buzzfeed occasionally covers news, reporting on “real” issues but it doesn’t make them money. Their “30 most adorable cats” list brings in the bacon for those guys. So a lot of the investigative journalism, the stuff that uncovers corruption in our politics or conspiracies, gets lost in the shuffle for click bait.
There are exceptions to this though, and it’s the thing that gives me hope that maybe journalism isn’t dying like John Oliver says (watch the YouTube video if you haven’t, it’s good but incomplete mainly because it does ignore the advertising component and doesn’t even touch why we care more about puppies then news). Investigative journalism has recently moved to places like HBO and Netflix, where these networks, so desperate for content to convince people to pay for their services, allow journalistic filmmakers to follow conspiracies to their conclusions. These people have agendas though, they are sensationalizing the stories to turn it into a drama in order to attract viewers. The meat of it is factual, showcasing the weird and the injustices alike so I don’t fault the drama. People get invested in these stories, they flock to them, showing there is still a deep interest for such things, but maybe not on a global scale… but that may change.
Let me present exhibit A, B, and C. All examples of where dramatizations of real people and real issues lead to change because people were gripped by their stories. Exhibit A.) Adnan Syed of the popular “Serial” Podcast was granted a retrial in his murder case following the outcry following the podcasts investigation of his trial and conviction in 1999 of his girlfriend. Exhibit B.) Brendan Dassay has his conviction overturned less than a year after Netflix “Making a Murder” show is made available and public outcry ensues over the sketchy evidence and the dirty tactics police used when questioning a simple child. Exhibit C.) Robert Durst, the subject of HBO’s “The Jinx” reveals things on the show that lead to his arrest for the murder of Susan Berman and show his connection to other mysterious deaths of those around him.
None of those convictions over turned or arrests would have happened without the podcasts or TV shows that told these stories. But these are small when you look at the world scale. Sure, things like Wikileaks and people like Snowden get the attention and movie treatment for their part in revealing global corruption but more often than not other things get missed or don’t get the attention they deserve, the eyeballs they need, to make change, to end corruption and human suffering. That is the thing people worry about disappearing alongside traditional journalism, and I do think it’s a legitimate fear. But the internet may not be the answer. Things like HBO and Netflix may be the answer, especially when people only care about cats on the internet. Hopefully journalists can adapt with the times, and I am hopeful they can!