Some folk worry about the impact of the web on print publications. Newspapers and magazines are dying, and readers shifting to the web are to blame. Professors of Journalism complain that amateurs on the web are displacing well-educated professional journalists. I also was a little concerned, as I too had in my mind the notion of a professional journalist as a thoughtful and well-expressed writer.
That notion is wrong, and always was wrong.
I no longer subscribe to newspapers or magazines. Twenty years ago I received and read easily a dozen or more periodicals every month. Now I only occasionally read articles from those sources – sometimes when browsing on the web, but mainly when sent copies in email from friends. Those emailed articles are mainly from Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal – in theory the best of professional journalism.
After a while I started to notice a couple of patterns.
The first pattern was the journalist “making a name for himself”. Some journalists are mentioned by name on the magazine cover. Clearly the publication knows that the name of the writer is somehow more important than the topic. Clearly becoming a “name” is beneficial to the career of a “professional journalist”. Also clearly to become a name the writer’s articles must be accessible and attract attention. Note that popularity is more important than reason, for this pattern of behavior.
The second pattern was new articles that were no more than a rehash of older articles. Often the sum of such articles made no sense. Professional journalists have a problem – they have to write to a schedule. What can you write when you have nothing new or meaningful to say? What you can do is take a current event, throw in a couple of clichés, and you have an article easily digestible by readers. Note there is no need for the article to make sense.
Found a recent example in the Washington Post: Three Crises In One. From the article:
First: the collapse of consumer spending. American consumers represent 70 percent of the economy.
As Americans save more of their incomes, Asians should save less and spend more, so that they rely more on producing for themselves rather than exporting to us.
Clearly the math does not work. If American consumers save more, than means less consumer spending. If consumer spending is the largest part of the economy, how does spending less help the economy? This article is a rehash of a current event (the weakening economy) combined with a usual notion (that Americans spend too much and save too little). In combination, the article makes no sense. Unless American consumers get paid more, you cannot make the equation work (remember Henry Ford?), but the journalist completely fails to make that connection.
The end result of our system of professional journalism is a steady stream of meaningless articles on current topics rehashing popular notions. There might be a few gems amid the stream of mostly garbage, but this is by no means certain. The habits and skills essential to a “professional journalist” are more likely to harm than benefit society. Taken as a whole, and in its most common form -
Professional journalism is evil.