An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, March 2015 edition
In a widely shared blog at the end of February, Fredrik de Boer, a doctoral student at Purdue University mused on the sameness of many new media outlets, from the “edgy” Vice to the statistics-based news promise of Five Thirty Eight. Each outlet, from Gawker to Buzzfeed to Business Insider to the Atlantic, may tweak the product mix, but although they have different approaches, they are all chasing the same news stories.
“The mix changes; Grantland is some more sports and a little less news and whatever intern is currently writing the “Bill Simmons” column. Slate is a little less sports and a little more politics and Troy Patterson endlessly writing the word “gentleman” into his Mead notebook in cursive while admiring his new glasses in the mirror. New York is a little of everything with some soothing noises to remind New Yorkers that they are very very important. The revamped New York Times Magazine is a lot of the same edited by people who think you can get more sexy Millenials to your website by adjusting the kerning on your font. The Atlantic is a lot of the same plus Ta-Nehisi Coates plus Coates’s creepshow commenters asking him to forgive their sins. Business Insider is a lot of the same only written for the illiterate. The New New Republic is the same stuff written by every non-white male Gabriel Snyder could find to exorcise the vengeful presence of Marty Peretz’s farting ghost, and thank god for that, plus Jeet Heer with an essay made up of 800 numbered tweets. Buzzfeed is a lot of the same only if life was a Law & Order episode about the Internet from 1998. Salon is the same stuff but every single piece is headlined “Ten Things You Won’t Believe Rethuglicans Said on Fox News” regardless of content. Vox is a lot of the same stuff plus a new-fangled invention called the “card stack,” an innovative approach which allows webpages to “link” to other pages. The Awl is a lot of the same stuff brought to you by the emotion sadness. Gawker is a lot of the same stuff, cleverly hidden across 1,200 sub-blogs along with several thousand words of instructions for how to read the site that are somehow still an inadequate guide. Vice is a lot of the same stuff written by that guy you knew in high school who told you he did cocaine but seemed to only ever have that fake marijuana called Wizard Smoke you could buy at a gas station. Five Thirty Eight, I’m told, exists, although whenever I try to open it my browser seems to show me a strange lacuna into which the idea of a website was, once, meant to congeal. But one way or another, you could take 90% of what each of these sites publish and stick it on any other, and nobody would ever know the difference.”
The same gimmick can easily be applied to any market, whether in print or online media, including Ireland. The Irish Times is a bit more solemn and a bit more Dublin Southside. The Independent is a bit more country and a bit less rugby. The Herald is a bit more soccer and greyhounds. The Examiner is a bit more Munster. Or even a lot more Munster. The Mail is a bit more distaff. The Star is a lot more sports. The Journal is younger, snappier, and makes a virtue of brevity.
Legacy media often differentiated itself from its competitors not by what it reported, but by its geographic reach. When the local newsagent only stocks one or two titles, it doesn’t really matter that all the titles are reporting essentially the same news. But geography becomes irrelevant online. A Donegal reader who bought The Independent or Times because the Examiner didn’t arrive until close to midday is no longer constrained, because each title is only a click away, along with new rivals from RTE.ie to theJournal.ie, or even Joe.ie and Broadsheet. Newsrooms can no longer rely on scarcity as part of their business model. The internet creates abundance, a wealth of news literally at the audience’s fingertips. The audience’s problem isn’t where to get news, it’s deciding which of the many competing news and entertainment channels to spend their scare time on.
Newspapers are in trouble because of their sameness. As they move online, whether behind paywalls or advertising-supported, they lose their geographic distinctiveness. The physical product may continue to sell strongest in a particular market, but online, the target audience is no defined by their location. It may be of interest to advertisers, so it matters when it comes to which advert is served by the algorithm, but their reading habits are defined by age profiles (Generation X Or Millenial? Boomers?), adaptation of technology, and political views more than location. And that audience is as likely to click on the Guardian or New York Times, or Telegraph or CNN, as an Irish site.
That makes for a very crowded marketplace. Its worth noting that, for all that they pick up extra sales in Ireland, the UK titles available on Irish shelves make little effort to capture Irish audiences online, content to settle for covering the major crime and political stories, mostly through wire services. Frankly, Ireland isn’t that important, and while Irish hard-copy sales are a bonus to the British titles, the island is too small to justify major investment to attract online advertising.
Earlier this month, Caroline O’Donovan, a departing staff writer at Nieman Journalism Lab, a fellowship programme for journalists at Harvard, in her parting piece for Nieman, finished up with a manifesto of sorts.
“I believe that, in the future, journalism is going to be okay. I believe in a better CMS. I believe in wildly absorbing interactive news apps and games. I believe in beautiful stories told in VR. I believe in drone-assisted investigations, in non-profit reportage, in small magazines, in speedy and secure communication between journalists and sources, in data big and small. And I believe, as ever, in great content.”
That American optimism stands in contrast with the attitudes of Irish journalists, revealed in a survey by the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway, which showed that while 99 percent of journalists use social media, they distrust it deeply, with two out of three considering it untrustworthy. Journalists in short have a love hate relationship with the internet, at once appreciating its value as a time-saver and connection to their audience, yet believing it is degrading the quality of their work.
For the native publishers, that leaves a limited number of eyeballs to fight over, and the knowledge that the rest of the world is only a click away. Print isn’t dead, and print revenues can provide a base or a while, but there’s a limited time to pivot into a viable online business model. Legacy titles moving online have to compete not just with each other, but with overseas news outlets, and not just other print news going online worldwide but radio broadcasters moving to podcast and television to online video. Mobile journalism – MoJo – is the newest buzzword, and as technologies merge, newspapers are scrambling to train up print journalists to work generating reports using audio-video techniques.
In that context, the Irish government’s recent draft paper on media mergers, and it’s distinctions between print and broadcast, is already looking quaintly old-fashioned. Internet radio, podcasts, an internet video live in a regulatory limbo, beyond the reach of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, and not quite within the jurisdiction of the Irish Press Council. Online radio, the next logical step from podcasting, is being hailed as a saviour in many American newspaper markets, allowing live coverage of everything from sporting events and political press conferences to debates and breaking news. The Irish Times is already experimenting with the format, in both audio and video, and other titles cannot be very far behind. Once the habit of regular podcasting is ingrained, in audiences and newsrooms, then the next logical step is a streaming service, broadcast without broadcasting.
That is the source of Caroline O’Donovan’s American optimism. Newsrooms will survive, but only if they stop thinking of themselves as places that produce newspapers, or radio broadcasts, or television programmes. Newsrooms succeed when they concentrate on producing the news, and not the platform they use to tell the story.