Who Killed Journalism?

Spoiler alert: not the internet.

I was in journalism school in 1993 when someone from Halifax’s now defunct Daily News visited our class, to explain how newspapers could use a new technology called “The World Wide Web.” They demonstrated the cutting edge of interactivity at the time, a cartoon where you hit a politician on the head with a hammer. The politician made a funny face and a noise when you whacked him. We laughed, filed it away as light entertainment, and got on with the serious business of learning how to report the news. We should have paid more attention. Virtually every news outlet in the world similarly underestimated, misunderstood or ignored the internet’s impact on their business until it was too late. As a result, we may be witnessing journalism’s final death throws.

26 years after that cartoon, journalism still fundamentally doesn’t understand the internet. Newspapers have had over almost 30 years to come to grips with the online world. The fact that they haven’t is due less to the internet and more to bad management.

The internet will kick your ass

30 years is an eternity online, but peanuts in the history of journalism: newspapers have been around for about 350 years. That difference in time span might explain journalism’s inability to adjust and keep pace with technology, but doesn’t excuse it. Three missteps highlight that inability to change:

  1. Insistence on the subscription model.
  2. Misuse of paywalls.
  3. Ignoring the problem until too late.

I don’t subscribe to your point of view

Subscriptions are a relic from a time when you could save money by signing up for a year’s worth of news. On one hand, it was cheaper than buying a newspaper at the corner every day, and on the other it provided dependable, yearly revenue to the publishers. Subscriptions worked well when people had no choice but to receive a large chunk of dead tree on their doorstep daily, and had to wade through ads and sections they weren’t interested in, to get to the stuff they wanted. You paid for all of it: the stuff you wanted and the stuff you didn’t, because you had no say in the matter.

People now have a very large say in the matter. We cherry-pick the content we’re interested in. Editors no longer dictate what content we receive, which makes the subscription model not only irrelevant, but undesirable. Why pay for an automotive or lifestyle section you’re not interested in? Why pay for something to be delivered every day if you only want to read it when something tweaks your fancy?

Unfortunately, journalism has been unable to imagine a future without subscriptions. Micro-payments haven’t taken off, which leaves publishers to either put up a paywall or bleed cash. The former rarely work, and the latter is a dead-end.

The great paywall of nope

Paywalls generally haven’t worked, because (surprise) people aren’t willing to pay for something they can get for free, and until every journalism outfit in the world starts coordinating their efforts, you can usually find a free version of any given story somewhere.

Paywalls also reduce readership, forcing newspapers to choose between a smaller readership that pays for the product, or a larger one they can monetize for ad revenue. It’s a devil’s bargain, and the paper loses either way.

Time was on their side

There’s no easy fix for journalism’s cyber-woes. However, after almost 30 years of the World Wide Web, no major news outlet has been able to come up with a more creative response than forcing people to pay for something they can get for free. This is neither a vision for the future, nor a strategy, nor management acumen: it’s what happens when you ignore a problem until you can’t anymore. 30 years is more than enough time to figure out how to make micropayments, a hybrid subscription model or any other number of revenue models work. The fact that no major outlet has found a way out of this mess is a failure of imagination and management.

If journalism ultimately goes belly-up, it won’t be the fault of the public, the reporters or the editors. It will be the people at the head who ignored the problem, and lacked the creativity and vision to find a way to make it work.

Why: An Ode to Richard Feynman

“Toes on the line!”

She was oddly emphatic for a yoga instructor, almost religious in her fervor. For some reason, she considered it crucial for us place our tootsies on a line of white tape, six feet behind another line of white tape, and so on across the room. Line after line of white tape, which – for some mysterious reason – it was important to line up on.

Except I didn’t do it. I couldn’t see any reason for, or benefit of, lining up on a strip of white tape to do half-moon pose. Why? I was plenty far away from my nearest yogi, and in no danger of crimping their standing-head-to-knee poses. What need was there to line up with military exactness? It was yoga, not the marine corps. If yoga isn’t about celebrating our whole-grain individuality, what is?

So I didn’t line up. I deliberately defied the yoga teacher and her lust for conformity, obstinately standing several inches behind the white line, much to the chagrin of my wife, yoguing next to me.

“Why couldn’t you just do it?!” she groused afterward.

Micro-aggression v.s. Micro-conformity

I thought about it for a second. Why not? It’s a micro-conformity, and one which – for some reason – the teacher considered important for all students to observe. What’s the harm in indulging someone, even if the reason behind the request is small or invisible? Why does anyone need to be an individual 24/7?

I only needed to think for a second before answering, but I did so under my breath to minimize further marital friction: “Why would I?”

“Why?” is a powerful word. It’s audacious. It bucks conformity. It keeps us honest. It’s insurance against mindlessness.

Some of the greatest minds in history were renowned for asking why. Newton asked why an apple falls from a tree. Einstein asked why light and matter behave the way they do. Another brilliant scientist – although less of a household name – made a career out of relentlessly asking “Why?”

The Sage from Long Island

Richard Feynman was a Nobel-prize-winning physicist. He was also a New York wiseass, with a Queens / Long Island accent thick as a brick, who brooked no B.S. He was renowned for his no-nonsense approach to everything from explaining science to investigating the Challenger disaster. His common sense was relentless and much of it focused on asking, “Why?”

Whenever someone tells me I’m being stubborn or obstreperous, I think of Dick Feynman and his shameless pursuit of “Why?” Whenever anyone wants me to conform for no good reason, I think of the brilliant, simple, irreverent genius from Long Island, and his unrepentant individualism, and I ask myself why more people don’t ask “why?” Here was a signal intelligence that gave us insights into sub-atomic particles, who had his paintings hang in galleries, acted, played percussion, wrote best-selling books, and – most importantly – educated (literally) millions. All of it was based on a relentless individualism that bucked authority, probed beneath the surface of phenomena, and relentlessy, shamelessly asked, “Why?”

Why should I believe you? Why are you saying that about those people? Why is that true? Why do want me to do that?

As anyone with a two- or three-year-old knows, there comes a time when asking “Why?” becomes tiresome. Luckily, most adults don’t even come close to asking “Why?” that many times.

Trump, Russia and the Power of “Why?”

In 2018, asking “Why?” is becoming crucial. In a Trump era of creeping authoritarianism, we’re being asked to swallow falsehoods, lies and half-truths without question. Fake news and foreign propaganda increasingly inundate us. “Alternative facts” have become standard. Now, more than ever, we need to ask “Why?” and not just do what we’re told.

As if that weren’t enough, it seems that every week we hear new accusations of cults brainwashing people. One of the defining aspects of cults is an intolerance for questions about the activities of the cult or its leader. In other words, they’re allergic to “Why?” That should tell you all you need to know about the power of that one little word.

My wife still rolls her eyes when I don’t do what the yoga teacher says, whether it’s toeing the line or adjusting my posture (no, holding my leg that way isn’t going to magically unlock my chakra energy; I’m reasonably confident of that.) But my behaviour is more than obstinacy or stubbornness. It’s an assertion, however small, that I’m not going to mindlessly do what I’m told. That starts with questioning and resisting the smallest things.

Unless you can answer the question, “Why?”