Some of us still remember or we saw it in the movies, when the newspaper boy shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” made people’s hearts jump with excitement. The smell of fresh ink promised a political scandal, an act of war, or anything else capable of shacking the monotony of daily life. Nowadays, news outlets no longer have to print a special edition. A tweet reaches an audience of billions in a matter of seconds, and the beep of the mobile device is an irresistible call to action for the news-hungry readers of today.
There’s a fair share of irony in how media went from being an exploiter of “change” to a victim of it. The domino was put in motion since the first bits of information were successfully transmitted from one computer to another across a network, a modern re-enactment of Gutenberg’s first printing device. Digital media is cheaper and faster and threatens to send paper press to museums. Crunching the numbers reveals that newspapers and magazines are either making substantial efforts to adapt to the new requirements, or taking permanent residency in archives.
The profile of today’s bestselling content is simple. The news needs to be easy to access, read, and digest, and elicit a certain emotional response, having at is pinnacle viral stories one can access through the optic fiber in a matter of milliseconds. From this angle, it is easy to see why printed media is taking backstage. Even early birds heading for the news stand in the morning are at risk of getting their hands on an outdated version of the current state of affairs. News no longer has patience and neither have the readers.
Unfortunately, with the advent of digital media came a shift towards low-quality shallow topics. People have always loved to keep up with the latest gossip and scandals, and going from the paper broadsheet down to the small screen of a smartphone offered them the needed intimacy to indulge in such guilty pleasures at levels never experienced before, and to the detriment of information that might actually pack usefulness. Even worse is that an alarming percentage of today’s news are either fake, or based on inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading headlines meant to bait users into clicking blindly on the lead that promised the most dramatic disclosure.
That brings the debate closer to the root problem. Since the time of the first newspapers, publishers had to solve the dilemma of who was going to pay for both the effort of writing and that of printing. Online marketing forever changed the rules of the game, passing the ball in a dangerous region populated by metrics like clicks and views. The most common business model is that of online newspapers guesting ads on their banners, and being paid each time a user interacts with them. Their printed predecessors also included their fair share of advertising, but without annoying popups and calls to action that end up distracting away from the text itself.
Media has always been divided along political lines. However, the Fourth Power no longer limits itself to standing on the sidelines and cheering for the favorite side. The so-called watchdog has been tamed and trained to bark loud and long enough for people to take it as the truth. It might sound surprising, but in the age of readily available information, fact-checking has become dangerously rare. It is enough to look at the power social media has over the younger generations and the decisions they make. Driven by people’s fascination with the sensational, the phenomenon of fake news spread like wildfire, often with implications of the worst kind. Editors were always free to make things up and distort reality for the sake of sales, but papers offered some boundaries for decency. The anonymity offered by the online environment means that everyone could become an “arsonist” and not fear the consequences.
Speed and the ability to engage broader audiences imposed severe cuts on quality and ethics, as the boring thought-provoking articles are largely replaced by pieces capable of exploring the very fringes of the human emotional spectrum. Like everything else, writing has become commercial, serving the interests of the higher bidder. Only a few survivors of the old ways are left to keep up the resistance.
We applaud the ones that still want to embrace culture, tradition and positive thinking and their efforts are greatly appreciated.