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Altercation: Why Journalism Isn't Conveying the Threat to Democracy – The American Prospect

It’s not just both-sidesism. It’s also how journalists’ jobs have been compelled to dumb down.
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January 14, 2022
5:00 AM
Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP Images
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks to media in the Senate subway, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, January 13, 2022.
This week’s Altercation guest author is Caitlin Petre, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, who has recently published a book called All the News That’s Fit to Click. The book, which examines how audience metrics are reshaping journalism in the U.S., originally came to my attention from a review in Jacobin by Victor Pickard, who noted, “In short, we ignore news media’s death-by-metrics at our peril.”
By Caitlin Petre
The U.S. press has come under fire lately for failing to take seriously the increasingly authoritarian flavor of right-wing politics—and its attendant threats to our democracy. Much of the furor is justified: When one of the two major political parties is becoming fundamentally anti-democratic, journalists’ long-standing affinity for “balance” inevitably benefits the would-be autocrats. And if journalists are doing key parts of their job badly, we can (and should) condemn that, loudly.
But we also would do well to think about why that might be the case. What’s driving the media’s current failures?
Many critics point the finger at traditional journalistic norms, and with good reason: Some of the problems are baked into the professional values and habits of U.S. journalism. Newsroom ethnographers as far back as the 1970s observed that journalists wrote with two aims in mind: to avoid being accused of political bias and to impress other journalists. Both tendencies persist today. Skittishness about being seen as biased resulted in the both-sidesism that too often characterized coverage of Trump. Meanwhile, coverage of the Build Back Better bill exemplified journalism’s insular tendencies, providing a play-by-play of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s objections rather than explaining the legislation’s actual content and its implications for Americans.
Read more Altercation
Looking at journalists’ professional values and habits of mind can help explain why the news so often falls short of what democracy needs. But it is not enough. We also need to remember that journalism is a job, and journalists are workers. In their book on creative labor, cultural sociologists David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker argue that “bad work”—that is, work that is boring, insecure, isolating, excessive, or poorly compensated—is more likely to produce poor-quality cultural products. Unsurprisingly, the opposite is true of “good work”—work that is fairly compensated, secure, autonomous, and interesting. If we want to understand why journalists are creating so much news that is of so little civic value, we need to look closely at the conditions under which they labor.
As a sociologist interested in how journalism is changing in the digital age, I spent years doing just that. For my book, All the News That’s Fit to Click, I conducted observations and interviews at The New York Times, Gawker Media (before a lawsuit forced it into bankruptcy), and Chartbeat, a tech startup that specializes in creating real-time web analytics for newsrooms. I found that digital journalists are often subjected to the kinds of production quotas and work speedups that are more typically associated with a factory floor or call center. This intensification of news work is facilitated by the spread of analytics tools like Chartbeat, Parse.ly, Quantcast, and Google Analytics, which make it possible for managers to calculate precisely how much traffic each writer is bringing to a news site in the form of page views, unique visitors, minutes the readers spent, and many other measures. These tallies increasingly influence the way journalists’ work performance is evaluated: High traffic can tee you up for a bonus or promotion, while persistently low traffic might jeopardize your job.
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Rather than resist this kind of data-driven labor discipline, journalists often get hooked on the roller coaster of validation and disappointment that these real-time analytics provide. Many become devoted—even compulsive—players of what I call the traffic game, pushing themselves to work ever harder to beat their own traffic records or those of their colleagues.
How might these working conditions make the news worse? The easy answer is what we might call the Clickbait Explanation: Traffic incentivizes journalists to produce content that will “do numbers,” and such content tends to be heavy on cats and Kardashians and light on substantive stories.
But the Clickbait Explanation assumes that journalists know exactly what kinds of stories will garner traffic. The truth is more complicated, as I learned when I interviewed and observed journalists at Gawker. Working under intense time pressure and beholden to the whims of the mysterious and ever-changing Facebook algorithm, Gawker writers expressed a lot of uncertainty about what, exactly, would attract high traffic. As Andrea, a writer (who, like all my interviewees, has been assigned a pseudonym), put it, “Anyone who tells you they’ve uncovered the secret to virality is probably a bullshitter.”
Writers buffered themselves against these uncertain, high-stress conditions by pushing themselves to produce an ever-larger volume of posts. On sites with large audiences like Gawker, virtually any post was guaranteed to get at least a few thousand unique visitors, thus contributing to a writer’s monthly tallies. And a few lucky posts might even become traffic “hits.” Eddie, a writer, compared his job to playing the lottery: “You pick your numbers and you’re diligent about it, and the more lottery tickets you buy, the more likely you are to hit it big.”
In recent years, scholars and journalists alike have lamented the rise of “churnalism” or the “hamster wheel” of digital news, under which journalists are asked to produce more and more content with fewer and fewer resources.
High-volume posting had consequences for Eddie’s mental health; he told me he regularly talked to his therapist about traffic. It also presented a major opportunity cost: “[Traffic] compels me to produce more,” he explained. “However, producing more, blogging more, keeping the post count up necessarily means that I don’t take time to work on the longer, slower, reported-out features.” In other words, the traffic game discourages journalists like Eddie from creating the kind of thoughtful, context-rich reporting that might help audiences make sense of political and social complexities. In addition, as media scholar Mike Ananny has argued, a healthy public sphere needs journalists who can offer not only speech but also space that allows people to listen, absorb, and reflect. With its relentless emphasis on novelty and quantity, the traffic game punishes the kind of strategic silences that could enrich civic life.
Eddie is not alone. In recent years, scholars and journalists alike have lamented the rise of “churnalism” or the “hamster wheel” of digital news, under which journalists are asked to produce more and more content with fewer and fewer resources, and thus end up over-relying on press releases, wire copy, or aggregation. Increasing media concentration and the growing share of media companies that are owned by hedge funds and private equity firms, which tend to be laser-focused on short-term profits, have only made matters worse.
There’s no doubt journalism is due—frankly, overdue—for a reckoning about how its norms, values, and practices could better support the diverse democratic public it purports to serve. But relentless production pressures, enforced by traffic metrics, make it all too tempting to cling to some of the profession’s worst habits. In order for journalism to take the kind of “pro-democracy” direction that many press critics are calling for, working conditions in the industry must improve.
There are reasons to be hopeful that such improvements are possible. The shift high-profile news organizations have made toward subscriptions in recent years seems to be easing daily traffic pressure in those newsrooms (though questions remain about whether this model is widely scalable and how it will affect the socioeconomic and racial diversity of news audiences). Another bright spot is the wave of unionization that started with Gawker in 2015 and has since swept through dozens of digital newsrooms. With bargaining demands that range from pay scale equity and diverse-hiring initiatives to the outlawing of traffic quotas and guarantees of editorial autonomy, many of these unions have demonstrated an understanding that newsroom working conditions and the civic value of news are inextricably linked. Anyone concerned about the current state of news, and the future of democracy, should take note.
If you want to hear more from Caitlin, here she is on Brian Stelter’s CNN Reliable Sources podcast.
So today is my birthday. It’s not a big birthday. It doesn’t end with a zero or even a 5. But for the past few years, I’ve been utilizing one of the few non-evil aspects of Facebook to ask people to contribute whatever they can to an organization that reflects my values as well as any: T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights). If you want to learn more about them, here’s the group’s website, here’s their donation page, and here is my Facebook page in case you want to give them money and make it look on evil Facebook that I have generous (sheesh) “friends.”
Finally, in keeping with this week’s birthday theme, here are The Ramones with Mr. Burns; here is Marilyn Monroe with JFK; here and here is Loudon Wainwright III; here is the great Stevie Wonder singing to Martin Luther King Jr. (whose birthday is the day after mine), and here are Bono and the Edge singing it too; here’s B.B. King; here’s Jimi Hendrix; here’s Elvis, and here, of course, are the Beatles! (Collect and save for all your “friends.”)
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently ‘Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse.’ Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman
January 14, 2022
5:00 AM
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