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Journalism 2017: The content dilemma
The second decade of the 21st century is likely to go down in the history of journalism as the era in which the sidebars became the stories.
The summaries that relieved long stories of the need for discursive exposition and the bullet points that tabulated key points became the core of the narrative and listicles of today’s most popular media.
To fully understand how we got to here, it’s necessary to backtrack a bit, perhaps around four decades or so, to an era in which newspapers and magazines were put together using long strips of typeset text and hot glue.
The process was an improvement over the prior printing technology, which involved slotting slugs of metal into wooden forms (I’ve been around newspapers since typographic leading was done with actual strips of lead), but it was still serious work and required manual dexterity and mastery of the X-Acto knife, which oversaw sometimes dramatic surgery on text in the service of making it fit.
Back then, when a story was cut, it was sliced off, the trailing end of type falling away at the quick whisk of a razor sharp blade wielded by an experienced hand.
If you were really lucky, a committed page layout artist would cut sentences and paragraphs together so that a story didn’t end like a door had slammed in the face of the reader.
There were only two things that a page layout artist dealt with when he began assembling page elements and heating up the glue roller, the advertising and the matter, the screened photos and text that had to be fitted around it.
When I first saw this being done, I looked on with a mix of amazement and horror.
There was a hasty artistic skill involved in putting together newspaper pages quickly.
Smell the sharp, intoxicating tang of glue and hear the whisper of the roller applying it as the artist applied it to the strips of text and photos.
Look at the insouciant elegance with which the gummy strips and image rectangles are tacked to the layout board, hovering at the edges of their intended placement.
Feel the deft application and adjustment of the page elements, smoothed with patient, confident touches and firm taps of the fingertips.
For a newspaper, these rectangles of cardboard only had to last as long as it took for the page to be approved and a negative to be shot, but for a few minutes, this is where the next day’s paper was born, emerging from a layout table sticky and reeking with glue fresh from the ministrations of an artist’s scalpel.
I wrestled with that word for years. Matter. All my notes, my staring into space considering the right phrasing, the most illustrative word, the ruthless review of the final product and neat final draft retyping were reduced to this anonymous, almost dismissive description.
We live in a faster world of communications now, and what was once matter is now content and the appetite for it has grown to staggering proportions.
In a media environment in which advertising falters and can be easily blocked and even more readily ignored, Frankenstein words like “content marketing” are now part of the publishing vocabulary.
At its most basic, content fulfills the same role that matter once did. It’s the reason someone will pick up a paper, switch to a particular channel, subscribe to a YouTube feed or bookmark a website.
Now that everybody wants some, the strings of words that are characterised as content have become looser and more careless, while some work wears the label with tawdry, whorish ambition.
There is, I have no doubt, a way to write engaging, deep and important stories for the Internet, but getting there won’t be through a route that’s littered with links to Twitter, cribbed information from Wikipedia and Facebook and half-baked notions of what constitutes a useful story.
Cutting through the slurry of linkbait headlines and multipage “you won’t believe what happened next” photo threadings is going to be the next generation challenge for journalists who remain committed to creating good journalism and reaching, perhaps even educating readers about what, exactly, that is.
This is not going to be easy and it already isn’t, even for media houses with brand recognition and marketplace clout, because the tsunami of quasi-journalism and outright falsehoods that constitute digitally sourced information has grown at such an astonishing rate.
The blurring of boundaries between formal journalism and writing that clones the form to increase brand awareness, inform customers about services and boost product sales does not serve journalism well, despite the arguments of marketers that everything is directed at the same customers.
Consumers of information are much like shoppers in a store. They may appear to be the same thing en masse, but broken down as individuals, they are very singular in their needs.
It’s pointless trying to sell someone toilet cleaners when they are buying meat, and delivering content like a firehose is a mistake when modern journalism demands the dedication, skill and targeting of a sniper.
The aggregate, curated model of newsgathering is undergoing a dramatic shift and journalism must find its place around the new fires that represent the modern shared experience and understanding of neighbourhoods, nations and the wider world.
Those muster points for information are now overwhelmingly out of the control of media houses who are challenged to match their capacity to inform with an increasingly fragmented, fickle audience.
This is where the work of journalism must be most deeply felt, where informed opinion, deep research and correlation and robust subject area knowledge can make the greatest impact and do the most to shift both the faltering perception and shaky reality of the journalist’s authority to inform, a shibboleth that’s no longer either taken for granted or guaranteed by modern news consumers.
To do that, media managers must turn from the shimmer of content creation and drive a return to the craft and art of authorial journalism.
Doing this will not be cheap nor will it be fast or easy. Media houses will need considerable courage to skip popular attention grabbing gimmicks and use the best tools of the craft to cultivate new audiences and command the attention of readers who find it easy to simply note tl:dr on work that they find too long, but really should read.
Media producers in 2017 really shouldn’t be wasting time fighting to bring readers back to their products; they need to reach audiences where they gather and engage them with stories and perspectives that reestablish an authority that was once taken for granted.
Buying newspapers and listening to scheduled broadcasts is a habit, not a necessity, and it can be broken with alarming ease.
For some, it will never become a habit at all, but this new audience will return to news sources that earn their trust.
Engaging, important and crucial reporting and storytelling will win readers and viewers, but that journalism can only be done by capable, inspired journalists. That’s where all the solutions will begin. If you’re looking elsewhere, stop.
The next two issues of BitDepth will continue this look at the backroom issues affecting the practice of modern journalism.
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