Imposing the ethos of prime-time network TV (not to mention the ethos of the sweatshop) onto the business of journalism in an age of instant gratification and societywide ADHD will not end well.
Not for journalists.
Not for their Internet-startup employers.
And, most of all, not for the audience, which has become a digital crackhead expecting journalists to give it a quick fix next fix of titillating tidbits that . . . HOLY S***, DID YOU SEE WHAT MEL GIBSON SAID ON THAT TAP . . . GLENN BECK CALLED OBAMA A SOCI . . . THAT DAMN PELOSI . . . LINDSAY LOHAN IN JAIL! . . . SQUIRREL!
WHAT WAS I saying? Oh, yeah. The story in The New York Times the other day. Won't end well. Read on:
Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding — or shaming — writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms. The Christian Science Monitor now sends a daily e-mail message to its staff that lists the number of page views for each article on the paper’s Web site that day.BUT NOT ANYMORE, boyo. Every single second is deadline now. And not just for the big, important stories that we need to know about and need to know about now.
The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all display a “most viewed” list on their home pages. Some media outlets, including Bloomberg News and Gawker Media, now pay writers based in part on how many readers click on their articles.
Once only wire-service journalists had their output measured this way. And in a media environment crowded with virtual content farms where no detail is too small to report as long as it was reported there first, Politico stands out for its frenetic pace or, in the euphemism preferred by its editors, “high metabolism.”
The top editors, who rise as early as 4:30 a.m., expect such volume and speed from their reporters because they believe Politico’s very existence depends, in large part, on how quickly it can tell readers something, anything they did not know.
“At a paper, your only real stress point is in the evening when you’re actually sitting there on deadline, trying to file,” said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, in an interview from the publication’s offices just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.
At Gawker Media’s offices in Manhattan, a flat-screen television mounted on the wall displays the 10 most-viewed articles across all Gawker’s Web sites. The author’s last name, along with the number of page views that hour and over all are prominently shown in real time on the screen, which Gawker has named the “big board.”NOT GOOD. What's the solution? Got me.
“Sometimes one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a monolith,” said Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder. Mr. Denton said not all writers have warmed to the concept. “But the best exclusives do get rewarded,” he added, noting that bonuses for writers are calculated in part based on page views.
The pace has led to substantial turnover in staff at digital news organizations. Departures at Politico lately have been particularly high, with roughly a dozen reporters leaving in the first half of the year — a big number for a newsroom that has only about 70 reporters and editors. At Gawker, it is not uncommon for editors to stay on the job for just a year.
Physically exhausting assembly-line jobs these are not. But the workloads for many young journalists are heavy enough that signs of strain are evident.
“When my students come back to visit, they carry the exhaustion of a person who’s been working for a decade, not a couple of years,” said Duy Linh Tu, coordinator of the digital media program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “I worry about burnout.”
I fear this is one of those dilemmas that solves itself -- for journalism and the consumers who gorge on the Internet (and everything else) -- when the whole societal ecosystem collapses from the weight of its sheer unsustainability.