A mile wide and an inch deep: The economies of digital news

As the means of funding journalism have changed, so too have the priorities for newsrooms.

A recent piece on Mother Jones made clear that display advertisements didn’t come close to funding the investigative article against which they were served. It was the type of investigative piece journalists, myself included, like to think that other people think we regularly produce.

When it does appear, it is typically as a result of a funding method specifically designed to support longer-form journalism. Those range from Patreon-funded podcasts telling a single story or around a single theme to crowdfunded one-off investigations of the sort published on the late, lamented Contributoria, among others.

But as the Mother Jones piece argues, the real lack isn’t money to fund those pieces but rather a lack of time. At many larger publishers where journalists are implicitly (or explicitly) expected to produce a certain amount of stories per day to ensure traffic targets are met, that has a knock-on effect on the nature of the journalism produced.

Alexis Madrigal is editor-in-chief of Fusion and has previously contributed to Wired and The Atlantic. He believes the lack of time has led to a shallowing of expertise and near-eradication of beat journalism:

“I came up in the science writing world. There’s always some new dinosaur controversy, most of the people writing that story now don’t know shit about that. They don’t have any contacts in dinosaur research world and they wouldn’t know that maybe there was a long history of that debate going back and forth.

“They might call someone in the field, they may actually do a little bit of journalism around it and not just aggregate the press release from the paper but wouldn’t have the reporting depth to be able to contextualise that thing.”

That issue is exacerbated by a change in the structure of newsrooms that favours mass production of those shallower pieces, and made worse still when publishers looking to cut their editorial staff get rid of senior (costly) staff in favour of younger staff who don’t have expertise in a single beat but do know how to mass produce articles.

Madrigal explains:

“A lot of those ‘old hands’ didn’t know how to write things that connected with the reader. You do need to now how to do that. it’s actually turned out to be incredibly hard to retrain newspaper reporters to do that.  

“The management layer of most news orgs is not great at teaching. You’re counting on the natural skills and habits of everybody without that mentoring system that lets people do that sort of stuff.” 

As a result of those changing considerations about how much content a publisher needs to produce to be viable – that led to the peak content problem in which many publishers find themselves – and the resultant lack of expertise, we’re currently in the midst of a crisis of public trust in the news media. Madrigal argues:

“I more blame the distribution methods. If you were to click a random assortment of things that were trending on Facebook, you would also not have very much faith in digital news sources. 

“There is a tremendous amount of total crap out there. We talk about these digital news companies but there is this whole pyramid and much lower calibre places that they’re perched on top of.”

Worse still, that promulgation of content risks the content becoming anodyne, essentially doing Facebook’s job of being a “relentless brand destruction machine” for it. That shallowing of expertise might make sense for the moment, while media companies are voracious for huge scale at any cost, but ultimately it might yet be another symptom of peak content culture that needs to be reappraised.


Alexis Madrigal will be appearing at Digital Media Strategies USA, taking place this Wednesday and Thursday in New York. Stay tuned to TMB for all the write-ups and up-to-the-minute coverage of the event from tomorrow morning.

By | 2016-09-06T00:01:00+00:00 September 6th, 2016|Analysis|Comments Off on A mile wide and an inch deep: The economies of digital news

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