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Want Meaningful, Original Journalism? Then Start Paying For It

03/07/2017 12:22 EST | Updated 03/07/2017 12:22 EST

I teach a course in non-fiction writing and one of the topics we discuss in an online forum is what sort of publications students read, and why -- hoping for a discussion of various types of journalism and creative non-fiction writing. Nowadays, however, I tend to get a curious response. People say something like, I don't get my news from newspapers, I just read what's trending in my feed.

They talk about it as if there was no choice involved; the stories simply appear in their social media feeds. I have to point out to them that they are in fact choosing what they read when they click to follow a news source. But I'm not sure my message is getting through. Now we seem to choose our news sources without even being aware that we've made a choice.

Certainly, we do it without paying for any of it.

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(Photo: Pixabay)

Newspaper revenues have been in a freefall for the last five years or so. Traditionally, newspapers made their money by subscriptions and advertising. They're now trying to make money online, and some, like Montreal's La Presse, have gone almost entirely digital.

But with all their attempts, it's been barely enough to stem the bleeding.

I'm not going to suggest that newspapers are or ever were immune to the same issues that poison broadcast news -- namely, pandering to viewers/readers and advertisers. But, at this point in history, they are one of the few remaining sources of original journalism. Most of the news that you read online is what is called "secondary journalism" or "aggregate journalism."

What it boils down to is this: Time and money. To write a standard 500 to 750 word article in the old-fashioned newspaper style means phone calls, maybe even in-person appointments and research, along with searching the Internet. That means, even under ideal conditions, I can turn in maybe two of those in a typical work day. Ideal conditions means that the information and people I need to access are immediately available. If not, it might stretch to a couple of days, even a week or more to put everything together.

In this model, journalism is a full-time job with full-time wages.

An insignificant event is all of a sudden given weight, and any inaccuracies are repeated over and over.

The primary advantage of secondary journalism is time. You're using only online sources, and the standard is often fairly low -- two or three only. Often, while there is a stipulation on using quality sources -- no Wikipedia, in other words -- there is no requirement to use original sources. In other words, if I'm reporting on something NASA did, I don't have to look up the NASA documentation; I can simply reference and quote what CNN or the CBC said about it.

You can cobble a piece together in an hour or two, which is a good thing, because they only pay, at the most, for about two hours of your time. To make more, you get PPV, or pay per view, which is something like streaming music in terms of revenue.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, what happens is that one original story can multiply into tens, hundreds, even thousands of aggregated stories. An insignificant event is all of a sudden given weight, and any inaccuracies are repeated over and over. An unconfirmed story suddenly becomes confirmed many times over.

So, while, it looks like you have many more choices for your news nowadays, in reality, you're looking at a shrinking amount of original research and reporting, fragmented and magnified many more times. With the print world shrinking, we're seeing less and less original reporting that is simply being repackaged and regurgitated, and if the demand is there, that regurgitating action will just keep churning out more and more stories to capitalize on the trend.

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(Photo: Pixabay)

Why? Are all writers and publishers bad people?

That may be so, but it's beside the point. There's a Denzel Washington speech about journalism that's gone viral, where he talks about the endless search for sensationalism. He's right -- it is about the money.

But how could it not be?

PPV is a crap shoot -- I've made between $5 and $500 (CAD) per piece. I can't write meaty, well-researched stories on the important issues of the day. And first off the bat, I can't write for a Canadian audience.

Because you -- you the reading public -- just won't click on them.

So instead of writing about hard science and things like climate change or pollution, my most successful pieces to date have been about Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for those of us in the know). It fuels my nerdy obsessions, but it's not of earth-shattering importance. The most routinely successful stories over the past year, in general, have had to do with reality TV stars and Donald Trump.

Because you -- the reading public -- keep clicking on them.

So, you want to complain that journalists won't delve into worthy topics and look for story lines that others aren't covering? Sorry, but if it's not a trending topic, there's no money to be made.

If that's what you want, then like anything else of value, you'll just have to go back to paying for it.

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