Another opinion piece about that opinion piece
April 19, 2017 § 5 Comments
There’s been a bit of a drama in the South African media arena in the last week or so. In case you’ve not been keeping up (tsk) here’s a summary: someone deliberately wrote an opinion piece to prove a point, sent it to one publication, who rejected it, then sent it to the South African Huffington Post, who chose to publish it in their blogs section. It caused an outcry at first because it was deliberately controversial and poorly argued. But hey, it was driving traffic to their site.
However, the main outcry was because it turned out the writer was a figment of the hoaxsters’ imagination. The editor had written a piece that appeared to support the writer’s point of view, and then the publication hastily backtracked when an actual journalist sensed something was amiss, did some basic research, and blew the whole thing out of the water.
Confused yet? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. There are excellent analyses of various political, journalistic and other concerns here, here, here and here, which will explain it all much better than I could. And I’d suggest you read them in order.
The reaction to this has been quite startling. There have been calls for HuffPo’s editor, Verashni Pillay, to resign. I’m not sure that’s the solution; I’m still thinking about all of this. But there is one part of me that feels like this kind of event was almost inevitable in the media environment we now live in. And that’s the part that really interests me.
I’m old enough to remember a time when keeping up to date with the news meant that you actually had to pay something – the price of a newspaper or magazine, your TV licence or satellite TV subscription. That time has passed. It’s an information era now, they tell us, and everyone expects to have that information for free, on tap, 24/7/365 – with little or no thought to how that news arrives on the screen of whatever device you use to consume it.
When you’re not paying for the news, but expect it to be there, for free, whenever you want to consume it, I don’t need to point out what the problem is (I hope). And while advertising revenue traditionally provided the vast majority of a news organisation’s income, that revenue stream has become more and more difficult to capture. What this has meant is fewer journalists in the average newsroom, and often what’s termed as ‘juniorisation’ – a euphemism for getting rid of the older, more experienced journalists, who cost more, and replacing them with younger, and therefore cheaper, people.
So now you have a website for your news organisation with an insatiable need for more and more content – words, pictures and videos to fill it up. And you have fewer and fewer staff members to provide that content – staff members who firstly don’t always have the gravitas required to make difficult decisions and, selfishly, insist on going home to sleep from time to time, and see their families or friends once in a while. I mean, really!
But wait! You have a cunning plan! There are bloggers and other members of the public out there, many of whom are just dying to have their say. And they don’t mind being unpaid for their labours, because they quite like the idea of being published. In some cases, this is the only way they would ever be published, because of the mind-numbing dreck they churn out, not to put too fine a point upon it.
What you have, as a result is something that looks very much like a win-win situation. The newspaper can satisfy its content needs without handing over any cash, and the unpaid contributors get to have their say on a newspaper’s platform.
There is a positive side to this – in a sense, it democratises the media; opens it up to diverse voices and opinions. But as they say, opinions are like arseholes. Everybody has one – just because you have one, doesn’t make it worth knowing about.
In your traditional newsroom, you see, not everyone gets to have an opinion. The right to espouse an opinion is earned. It’s earned through years of experience and knowledge and research, by working a particular beat, by reading voraciously around particular subjects, and being exposed to people who are the best in their field.
And then, once you’ve been given right to publish your opinion, you are required to analyse thoughtfully, think critically and back up your opinion by referring to facts and evidence, those old-fashioned notions. Good writing and language skills are generally required as well.
Alternatively, you are an expert of some sort who writes an op-ed for the newspaper: again, because you have some expertise in an area. You might submit the op-ed, in which case your bona fides will be checked out (patently not what happened in the case of the HuffPo piece), or you might be asked to submit one, because your bona fides are well-known. And not everyone will agree with your opinion, but it will be published anyway, because that’s how adults behave. And there was quality control – it went through several stages before it was loosed upon an unsuspecting public if it was controversial.
Today, however, it’s too easy to scan something, think you have the measure of it, and post it – because you know it will be controversial and probably go viral. It’s too easy to accept whatever drivel comes your way in your pursuit of that catch-all: ‘content’. It’s too easy to think of unsolicited submissions to your publication as ‘citizen journalism’, which is a positive development when it actually is citizen journalism; not so much when it’s a vomiting of vitriol. Because, hey. It’s going to drive the clicks, add content to your website and besides, it’s not going to cost you anything!
Well, it may not cost rands and sense, but it may cost you your reputation. In the case of the HuffPo, many are calling for the editor to lose her job – that’s quite a cost for her. And in a media environment where the advertising pie isn’t big to start off with, it may cost you a great deal of advertising revenue.
Mess up badly, and the advertising revenue could dry up all together – advertisers are very skittish creatures. Think I’m exaggerating? A big food company once threatened to withdraw all its advertising from a local media conglomerate some years back just because a journalist had criticised its new packaging, for example. No, really. They threw a major commercial tantrum, and the conglomerate nearly lost massive amounts of money. (I can’t find a link, but this kind of thing happens all the time.)
And what it all boils down to, is that old Afrikaans saying, goedkoop is duurkoop (loosely translated, buying cheaply often ends up more expensive in the end). If you want a quality product in a factory, you need quality workers and quality machinery. The same applies to newsrooms. You also need people to buy your product – the same applies to news. It’s a product, and you should be paying for it.
Remember that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you pay nothing, monkeys start to look like members of MENSA by comparison.
People complain about paywalls and subscriptions, but in a world of fake news, outright lying, shoddy reporting and the fairly recent formation of dedicated fact checking agencies (does it not blow your mind that we need to have these?) we should be looking for reputable news organisations – yes, they do exist – and paying for quality, not quantity. And those newsrooms should be paying for the content they put on their pages – because when you’re paying for something you are far more likely to ensure you’re buying something of value, not so? And in the long run – in the greater scheme of things – surely advertisers are far more likely to stick around for quality over tacky quantity?
I know journalism isn’t exactly in its heyday at the moment. But I also know that it’s bloody hard to be a journalist at the moment. And that many colleagues in news are burned out by the impossible demands placed on them – produce more and more with less and less, blood from a stone. But you can’t expect quality anything for free. Somewhere, something’s got to give.
I bumped into an old colleague in the supermarket the other day. She’s 50, she’s a seasoned, superb journalist and political analyst and she’s just been retrenched. And after we’d caught up a little she remarked of her retrenchment, “There’s no room for analysis in newspapers anymore.”
And that was one of the saddest things I had ever heard.