Edward Kosner writes: Desperate times call forth desperate journalism. Suddenly, what we used to think of as the big-time press is being convulsed by a spasm of amateurism.
Rolling Stone, since the 1960s a paragon of hip investigative journalism and gonzo reportage, finds itself sweatily backpedaling from a single-sourced exposé of gang rape at the University of Virginia, an article that rattled the campus designed by Thomas Jefferson and went viral.
The 30-something Facebook zillionaire who bought the New Republic two years ago decided to convert the century-old journal of political and arts commentary into “a vertically integrated digital media company.” The two top editors quit as they were being pushed—and nearly all their staff and contributors followed them out the door, devastating the magazine.
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Not long ago, Newsweek resurrected itself in print after a near-death experience. Its very first cover story claimed to identify the mysterious Asian creator of bitcoin, the brave new digital currency—only to have the putative inventor surface to insist persuasively that the magazine had the right name, but the wrong man. And the vastly experienced author of a new 500-page biography of Bill Cosby managed to blow the lead: to leave out detailed accusations by more than a dozen women that the beloved comedian had drugged and raped or otherwise sexually molested them.
Inevitably in any journalistic trend story, there is an element of coincidence in the cascade of these sorry episodes. And, even in the best-run publications, mistakes are as inescapable in journalism as they are in any sustained human activity. But there is an unseen common denominator to all these fiascoes that helps explain why they happened, illuminating both the existential dangers that serious journalism now faces and its fraught future.
“Here was a story made to go viral—doing journalistic due diligence on it might blunt its sharp edges and sap its appeal. As it happened, the Rolling Stone piece was undone by old-school reporting by the Washington Post, which has the resources to do its job…”
Quite simply, print editors and their writers, and especially the publications’ proprietors, are being unhinged by the challenge of making a splash in a new world increasingly dominated by the values of digital journalism. Traditional long-form journalism—painstakingly reported, carefully written, rewritten and edited, scrupulously fact-checked—finds itself fighting a losing battle for readers and advertisers. Quick hits, snarky posts and click-bait in the new, ever-expanding cosmos of websites promoted by even quicker teasers on Twitter and Facebook have broadened the audience but shrunk its attention span, sometimes to 140 characters (shorter than this sentence).
Whether they realize it or not, and most do, print journalists feel the pressure to make their material ever more compelling, to make it stand out amid the digital chatter. The easiest way to do that is to come up with stories so sensational that even the Twitterverse has to take notice. Read the rest of this entry »