crying-babyI began my media career about seven years ago as an unabashed internet enthusiast. As I’ve said before, I never worked in print journalism and had little nostalgia for the world that was entering free fall as I did my first internship at an online publication. By then, the internet had already provided me an outlet for various creative pursuits for years, and I saw nothing but the opportunity to escape some of traditional journalism’s worst constraints, which were related both to the print medium and to the sorts of gatekeepers and ideologies that controlled it. I never read print newspapers or magazines devotedly, so I never experienced unsettling changes in habits the way many people have as they transitioned primarily to digital reading in the past decade. Blogs and startup web publications were always much more to my taste than “old media”; their immediacy, their freedom, and their ability to evolve and adapt quickly always seemed promising and exciting.

Things look a lot different now. The internet won, and despite killing off thousands of jobs in the print industry, it created many more than expected in an ever-multiplying array of new web ventures. But now that it won, it’s increasingly unclear that was a good thing. A lot of people who work in internet media secretly—or in many cases, not-so-secretly—hate it, and some even suspect they are actively making the world a dumber place, as they very well may be. (I was one of them, which is a big part of why I decided to quit.) Good writing and journalism have not gone extinct, but have been reduced to sharing an undifferentiated plane with lots of cynical, unnecessary, mind-numbing, time-wasting “content,” much of which hardly qualifies as writing at all. The New York Times and ViralNova look exactly the same in your Facebook feed. As a result, journalism that once had a certain amount of aesthetic self-respect, even online, now has little choice but to mimic the shameless pandering of advertising-driven “content.” Where once the internet media landscape was populated with publications that all had unique visual styles, traffic models, and editorial voices, each one has mission-creeped its way into a version of the same thing: everybody has to cover everything, regardless of whether not they can add any value to the story, and has to scream at you to stand out in the avalanche of “content” gushing out of your feeds.

This is not “the internet’s” fault; the internet, after all, is not a thing, it’s a complex tangle of things that people made and change all the time. As Evgeny Morozov constantly points out, the internet is not a force of nature with a will of its own; people control it, fight over it, and decide what it is. It is a for-profit business. Most of the horrible features of the current iteration of the internet media I just described are the result of decisions made by two major internet power brokers, Google and Facebook. The mistake media people made early on was to assume that the internet had laws that had to be obeyed even at high costs to their work, and—as is so depressingly typical of human history—that new ways of doing things were superior simply because they were possible. Once it was clear that the “disruption” of journalism could not be stopped, the media became the internet’s most eager, least critical stenographers and early adopters, lapping up every development that remapped the media landscape on a nearly yearly basis. It was partly in journalism’s racing, competitive spirit to do so, but partly out of sheer terror at the possibility being left behind. Now that internet media is at the front of the internet curve—or at least doing pretty well at keeping up—they’ve made it their job to become the unpaid PR machine of Silicon Valley and the self-appointed mockers of all who resist “disruption” wherever the latest 20-year-old billionaire has decided to inflict it.

The social consequences of this enormous change are hard even to fathom, much less analyze; the consequences have affected labor, privacy, interpersonal ethics, and virtually every sector of the modern economy. As plenty of others have noted before, the relative lack of deliberation and consideration that have accompanied the shift—the degree to which it is simply assumed to be positive and benevolent—should be shocking and alarming. But since my subject here is journalism, I’ll simply focus on that as an example. There is very little evidence the enormous effort invested to keep internet media up to date with the latest tech trends has changed much for the better. The media itself is inside a reality-distortion field where ever-increasing speed and fragmentation are somehow seen as positive. But take a single step outside it and the picture changes drastically. Delete one of your social media accounts, or simply go on vacation for a week, and you will be shocked how little any of it matters. For most people most of the time, flipping through a newspaper once a day—even once a week—is enough to provide a basic level of information about what’s going on the in the world, little of which affects them anyhow. But the internet media now operates as if its mission is to provide 24-hour infotainment. I honestly believe their time would be better spent reading books, watching movies, or spending time with their friends and family than “consuming” “content” from “social.” In case you’re wondering, that is how the people who make their money throwing “content” at you talk about it.

Even in a breaking news event, the instantaneous “coverage” now provided by the internet media generally proves to be substantially worthless. The much-analyzed night the Boston marathon bombers were arrested is an instructive example: every detail was followed for hours on Twitter, while countless false reports were amplified by major media outlets, innocent people were blamed for things they didn’t do, etc. Absolutely nothing worthwhile—nothing social, political, moral, personally enriching—was achieved by the way that night was covered online. If breaking news coverage is supposed to be hours-long, anxiety-inducing interactive entertainment, then it was great. If you simply wanted a truthful account of what happened, a reported, verified, and synthesized account printed in a newspaper a couple of days later was a much better option. All that the internet media, with its celebrated new reporting tools provided, was a lot of wasted hours trying piece through false information about something you had no pressing need to know in the first place. (That said, I do think there’s a distinction between media-led voyeurism like the Boston bomber manhunt and other times that important events, like the Ferguson protests, have become stories after they bubbled up organically through social media.)

When the internet first reared its cheeky head, the old guard acted like incurious old people do, like they could just tune out the newfangled stuff and go on about their business. But now that nearly the entire old guard has converted to techno-utopians, anyone who tries to mount a criticism of internet-ism is mercilessly mocked as an out-of-touch fogey saying the same old thing, even though we now have several years of experience by which to assess that critique. Seven years ago I would probably would have mocked John MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s, the way a lot of media insiders did a few weeks ago when this article about his insistence on print ran. This is how the Times summarized his views:

His thesis is built on three pillars. The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.

As a writer, editor, and reader, I now agree with every word of that. In various professional capacities I’ve had to assign articles that needed to be turned around in a matter of hours just to “have something on it,” even though fifteen other sites had already published nearly identical articles. Those instances were a tacit admission that quality is secondary to keeping up with the pack. They were an insult to writers (asking them to produce work that cannot possibly be worth a reader’s time) and, above all, an insult to the people we expect to read what we publish. The internet is bad for writers because it turns qualities that should be valued—effort, reflection, revision, editing—into hindrances, and makes the resulting product worth little, both qualitatively and financially. Good writing, writing that matters in the present and is remembered in the future, is very difficult, takes a lot of time, and is generally expensive. It takes isolation and focus. Ta-Nehisi Coates didn’t write “The Case for Reparations” in time to post before the morning newsletter went out.

The internet is bad for readers not just because the devices on which they access it divide their attention and intensify the effort required to read anything at all, but because it enables—even demands—the overproduction of worthless material that is difficult to distinguish online from quality work. Quality work is institutionally devalued, and what still does manage to get produced has to compete in flat, featureless spaces that deliberately eliminate the indicators physical mediums have traditionally used to distinguish and prioritize reading material. And even if the reader can be roused from their feed-induced trance enough to click, there is little point in actually reading anything, because so much of it exists simply to produce the act of clicking. A vast majority of the time, the actual writing is indistinguishable from what is on every other site, and if it’s any different, it’s only different in a cynical effort to bring a different angle to the problem of everybody else’s angle on the problem. (In my experience, when editors say quality is what distinguishes their site, it is not because that is actually the case; it is because at some level they realize nothing does.) Readers aren’t stupid, so they sift instead of read; even if they have good intentions of “reading it later,” the Instapaper and Pocket pile up and overflow, rarely touched. As Choire Sicha put it earlier this year:

I do not read a lot of things anymore. A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that. I opened up my Digg reader the other day, because I was on blogging duty at work, and everything was so duplicative of each other. I was like, yeah, okay, there’s that piece of news filtering through all these different websites, all the same things… no wonder I don’t go to them. I need to make a new folder in my Digg reader, I guess, that’s “Things That Are Surprising and Interesting and Maybe Weird.” It’s sort of… it’s not… I don’t know, something’s wrong.

Something’s wrong. I’ve been convinced of it for quite a while, and so are a lot of other people who can’t say it because they have to pay their rent somehow. So much of it is stupid and worthless, and everybody knows it. And worse, so many people in other offline sectors of society think that what happens in the internet media is the future for their industry, and should be emulated and brought in to “disrupt” things so they won’t be left behind, too. People in internet media love to cultivate that, because honestly, who doesn’t want to be thought of as blazing the trail into the bright future?

This has been a negative post, and for good reason. But none of my hostility to what now passes for internet journalism means that “the internet is bad” or “print was better” or that internet media should be universally condemned and older forms of accessing reporting and writing championed. Absolutely nothing of the sort. I still believe there are parts of journalism, even when they happen in different ways in new mediums, that are a crucial part of a healthy society. I am still glad the internet brought into existence the tools it has for writing, research, and reaching an audience. In general, I’m happy a lot more things see the light of day than they used to, and a lot more criticism and argument about every subject under the sun gets read and participated in, even if a lot of that argument is about ridiculous, bullshit things that don’t matter. The point, rather, is that tools are just tools, and just as they are not bad because they might change things, they are not good just because they are new and available. New tools should be scrutinized intensely and skeptically, as should the people who stand to gain vast new forms of power and wealth when they are widely adopted. That didn’t happen with journalism and the internet, and now we’re paying the price.

UPDATE, 8/28/2014, 5:38 PM: I rest my case:

vox

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • http://garyhorsman.com Gary Horsman

    True enough. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said. The speed and breadth with which information can be disseminated without the benefit of reflection beforehand sparks the brain of vulnerable humans and transforms them into trigger-happy posters.

    In traditional media, people had no choice but to be slowed down by the process which allowed for careful thought and curation. Today, that has been removed. But careful thought is still an option, though the environment seems to put pressure on journalists and writers to keep up or be left behind.

    For myself, I keep doing what I’ve always done: rely on several high-quality sources and try to ignore those who have a clear political agenda. Not easy in today’s media landscape. But it’s buyer beware.

    Consumers need to take charge of their own consumption patterns and not fall into the trap of intellectually coasting along on auto-pilot. That takes effort and a keen interest in seeking truth, even when that truth is uncomfortable.

    • Voice Of Saruman

      As devil’s advocate I would say there are no news sources without a political agenda, and it’s the ones where the agenda is not “clear” that are the most insidious in some ways. The mainstream media keeps us locked into this cycle of fear and longing, while at the same time making us feel that all of this is totally normal, and can’t be changed. This is the underlying agenda that feeds the ever-deepening black hole, the dead end of consumerism.

  • Jordan Muela

    Fantastic article. Thanks for taking the time to pen your thoughts.

  • valzi

    The article’s ridiculous title contradicts your (quite reasonable) essay. Is that because the title was pandering to shock value in order to get a read – one of the problems your essay is complaining about? Honestly, the title was preventing me from easily reading the essay with an open mind, because I kept trying to argue with what appeared to be your thesis (the title), based on your lack of evidence to support it (because your article actually disagrees with the title.)

    • Voice Of Saruman

      Yeah, I’ve got to agree about the irony there. It’s an over the top title that flat out disagrees with the author’s specific statements in the concluding paragraph, even if the title’s spirit seems to jive with the general mood. The “and everybody knows it” is the worst part, it just reads as nonsense.

      Regrettably I find myself agreeing with the general perspective of the piece. Emotions are always running ahead, they make us leap forward to exciting new things that do cool stuff, and make us click on headlines and videos that provoke us, and we cast away the old with a emotional mixture of greed and ego – let’s create this thing (or this web site, or what have you) so we can make money AND be cool. The intellect tries to play catch up, a dissonance starts to be felt, as in, “maybe some of this is a bad fucking idea.” But it gets shoved back down and we’re on to the next emotional thrill, or in the case of endless internet time-wasting, the next emotional sleight-of-hand in which we trade our existential doubts about ourselves and the troubled world around us for any kind of ridiculous escape.

      • VitaminP

        True, the child always wants to have fun. Ideally, however, there’s a grown-up in charge. Choosing reading material is no exception.

  • Rich Goldstein

    “And I watched as everyone I knew spent their lives trying to be watched on a stage or watched in a film or listened to on record and they thought ‘Maybe that way I could get a little love out of this life.’ And I watched as the best of my generation abandoned their dreams and settled for making a little money. And I watched tv and read the papers and listened to the radio and made all the fancy scenes and said all the right words and wore all the right clothes and knew the names of the hip people but I still felt out of touch so I stopped watching tv and reading the papers and listening to the radio and making the fancy scenes and saying the right words and wearing the right clothes and knowing the names of the hip people and I felt more out of touch than ever, but I didn’t care anymore.

    “And I felt you slipping away. And I felt myself slipping from you. And I wanted more than anything else for it to rain for one whole day like it used to but all there ever was was sun, relentless sun, hot beating sun. And everyone wore their sunglasses and walked around like flies under a magnifying glass with their eyes removed.”—Dan Bern, “Wasteland” [http://danbern.com/lyrics/wasteland/]

    “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”—Ani DiFranco “My IQ” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya8zuiIU-4E]

    • Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

      Thanks for sharing those Dan Bern lyrics. I haven’t thought of that song in a while, but am going to listen to it on repeat for the rest of the afternoon. Cheers.

  • The Shambolic Skeptic

    Rubbish.

  • bartbrouwers

    Although there is no doubt that your emotions are sincere, and yes, we all feel rather overwhelmed by the power of the internet, it still seems to me that your “call to scrutinize everything new” is a little naive. And dangerous, in a way. Not only would it halt relevant developments, but also would it impede changing a bad situation for the better.
    That said, I must admit that I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for that.

  • Remy Brooks

    The article is well written and touches on some important themes, but I think can be summarised by the fact that deep, expensive journalism hasn’t found a way to pay for itself in the age of the Internet.

    To make it work in the past, newspapers bundled the “good” stuff with the funny pages, lifestyle and sport sections to make them work. They have never really had to stand on their own and pay their own way, because although these pieces of journalism actually do have cultural importance and value, the actual market of human beings who want to read them is not that large.

    What we are seeing now is just the modern equivalent of bundling the “good” stuff with the things which actually have a large potential market and pay the bills. Its the reason you will see more and more listicles, and quizzes invading the “pages” of your favourite websites.

    A list of cute cats has a potential market of 10s of millions, while a deeply reported insight into the latest research on climate change maybe has a low 7 figure level of interest.

    The cats will pay for climate change.

  • Michael Andersen

    Nobody goes there any more, it’s too busy.

    Lots of modern reporting and writing *jobs* suck (though, thankfully, not mine yet). But consuming media just keeps getting more awesome. More, more, more of whatever we want, all the time, mostly for free or very cheap.

    I agree it’s too bad we don’t get to write as many artful, revealing 5,000 word profiles. And of course there are lots of polarization/atomization/information shortage problems still to fix. But online content continues to be a massive success.

  • grayzip

    A lot of these problems go away by simply assuming readers are as smart as you are:

    Readers know immediately when an article is not worth reading and click away from it; no huge harm done; full-page newspaper ads were annoying too.

    A duplicate article just to keep up with the pack has journalistic value — a reader, like Sicha whether he appreciates it or not — can glean what’s likely important in part by noting how prevalent it is on their feeds. The reason for every site to cover it is so the reader will stay there. The reader will only read a handful of such articles on a given topic. It’s in your business interest that one of them be yours, and always was even in the either good or bad but in any case old days.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates did write “The Case for Reparations.” Nothing you cite stopped him from doing so. Indeed more people saw the piece than would have in the pre-online world.

    You say that live-tweeted coverage was harmful in the case of the Boston bomber but helpful in the case of the Ferguson protest, but you do no delineate any difference between the two so you just sound confused. Any force can be used for good or ill, and cause positive or negative outcomes. If live-tweeting is so harmful then is Ferguson a special case or is your premise wrong?

    • http://about.me/wtneary Walter Neary

      This is very good context. That said, a big harm he points out is that writers often lack the time they used to have to do research and ‘think through’ a story and discuss it with others before writing. That is different. As someone who spent 15 years in print, the difference I see is that many writers/reporters no longer do multisource stories (speaking in broad generalities): they interview one person, maybe two max, add some snark or opinion so the piece has ‘tude, and then they’re done. Add this article to the Pew’s findings about the Spiral of Silence, and it’s a good week for pessimism about life online. Of course, as you note, the world will adjust.

      • grayzip

        I do worry about rigorously-reported journalism falling by the wayside as the entities that have historically bankrolled it fall by the wayside themselves. Though honestly I worry about this mostly because I keep being told to worry about it. Yes, certain signs are all around us: The newspapers that fold, the newsroom layoffs, etc. etc. etc. And yet: My experience as a news consumer is that there has never been more well-reported longform journalism on seemingly every topic under the sun both available and easy to locate than there is today online. Granted it exists amidst lots of low-substance garbage. And worrying about the kids today preferring garbage to substance and thereby summoning the apocalypse is always fun but hasn’t panned out yet and it’s been eons. So I guess I find it hard to worry about all this just yet and maybe ever. The state of the internet is cluttered, but hardly awful.

  • TrevorButterworth

    A lot of good points, but one also needs to remember that the value accorded to pre Internet journalism was mostly as fish wrap, as the saying went. Marx considered his and Engels’ journalism as “mere pot boiling;” Cyril Connolly despaired of Orwell frittering away his talent at the BBC. I suspect we will come to see paper or something much more like paper as being more critical to reading than vinyl was to listening, simply because the three dimensional quality of printed text delivers a better cognitive experience. The proliferation of pap can only increase the novelty and force and value of serious writing. The challenge of doing serious writing will remain unchanged: remember that the great work of Thompson, Didion, Wolfe, Herr, Halberstam, and Talese was often a product of luck, visionary editors, and a willingness to defy convention. It can happen again for another generation, just perhaps not ours.

  • Nancy V Mills, APR

    Great article David! Was just reading Walter Cronkite’s lament of journalism quality last night in which he blasted tabloid style news and the takeover of media by those who focus only on profitability. I would say Facebook and Google fall into that category, perhaps with a bit of ego to see who can be “the” ruler of the Internet. As a result, Americans, by and large, are very disengaged and uninformed about national and international affairs that impact their lives. Appreciate your thoughtful article very much!

  • JWPortland

    this is an excellent article – thank you so much for writing it!

  • Russell Scott Day

    Gutenberg just printed Bibles you know. There is heaven and there is hell, you know. Don’t build your house on stand, sand, maybe a big rock. Ok.

  • VitaminP

    Let’s remember that Facebook and Google became influential because millions of consumers acting individually made them so. It was economic democracy in action. While the media thought they were shaping public opinion, public opinion was actually overhauling their entire business model.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Funny Sessions mentions Coates’ story. The Atlantic is not paywalled, which is a big strike contra the substrate of M. Instead, they offer all sorts of services and events based on the Atlantic brand, which means they’re not purely a journalism company.

  • Venus Brown

    Well said, David.

  • Jillian Bandes

    “A lot of people who work in internet media secretly—or in many cases,
    not-so-secretly—hate it, and some even suspect they are actively making
    the world a dumber place, as they very well may be. (I was one of them,
    which is a big part of why I decided to quit.)”

    Me too.

  • tensacross

    The more “informed” someone thinks they are by the “news”, the more indoctrinated they are, and the more susceptible they are to propaganda.

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