The Attack of the Infinite Monkeys
Online, reading and news are doing OK. It’s just writing and journalism as a profession that seems to be in trouble. Specifically journalism, at least according to the current narrative. The big problem is that writing is easy, and with the Internet, publication is even simpler.
Most of the developed world is literate and the tools needed to write are very common, from mobile phone handsets to desktop computers, tablets and laptops. The sprawling ecosystem of platforms and media the Internet has spawned means making something available is simple. These days the hard part is having something worth saying, and that someone else will care enough about to share.
Before the Internet, the hard part for a writer was making their work public on some kind of scale in the first place. Getting words onto paper, in bulk, and with access to a distribution network of some kind was hard, very hard. Plus the entire process was in the hands of a relatively small number of gatekeepers who only had so many pages that they needed filled. In turn this allowed them to be as picky with content and writers as their business model allowed, restricting access to a handful of professions who met certain standards or had a specific marketable skill set. However, the Internet has changed this, and since the earliest days, creating and sharing content online has been endemic and a major part of the identity of those that use these platforms, from the RFC forum all the way through to Pinterest.
Arguing for Value in the Race to the Bottom
Making content available to the public is easy, far easier than being interesting or articulate. The ability to press ‘publish’, ‘post’ or ‘update’ has no relation to being able to spell, or being interesting, or even understandable. It is easy to do, there is no reason for most people not to, and they mostly do it for free, or in some cases with an optimistic expectation of making millions working from home.
When anyone with an Internet connection is potential competition, where does this leave professional writers, and more importantly, the organisations that package and distribute their work? Even narrowing it down to just the articulate and interesting, there are lot of people giving it away for free.
The quality of content created and consumed both online and offline by news organisations, businesses, consumers and other publishing entities is not arguing strongly for the value of a professional content creating class. It is plainly obvious that you don’t need to be a journalist to churn out content or copy and paste a press release. It is not surprising that building a business based on generating huge volumes of low investment content and sticking ads on it has been popular online.
Bulk Content for Bulk Ad Views
The problem is the number of pageviews required to make it work. To generate the interest and get the required attention, new sites and others using content to generate advertising revenue need a lot of divisive, polarising content. Stuff that provokes an emotive response, headlines that attract clicks and opinions or stories people will want to share. As fast as some legacy media is racing to reach the logical conclusion of this trend, their online-only competition is already there, and doing it cheaper.
A lot of blogs and online news services, from personal blogs to the Huffington Post are accused of lowering the tone of public discourse at the expense of professional writing. In fact, these criticisms have become common place enough to have developed their own collection of predictable tropes. As Arianna Huffington pointed out, “Self-expression the new entertainment”, and it is this trend that has spawned a tidal wave of content posted everywhere from private and public social networks to personal and commercial blogs. Individually they don’t have much of an impact, they don’t scale. What does make a difference is the amount of activity they produce as a group. For every blogger who gives up after their fourth ‘Top Ten Reasons Pants Rock’ post fails to make them internet millions, or walks away from a Tumblr meme blog because their friends don’t share it enough, there are still more who continue to write, post, photoshop, tweet, and so on.
However, to make a play for the mass audience that legacy media is pitched at, they need scale. It is the content farms that have scale, creating masses of content either through aggregation or software tools, or with large teams of underpaid writers churning out short pieces to match a list of targeted search queries. Underpaying for bad content in a way that scales was working so well that it got to the point where search engines had to appear to be doing something once the mainstream press started to criticise the ‘spammy’ search result pages.
Professional Writers versus Professionals Writing
At the other end of the spectrum there are subject matter experts who put their work online. For many, such as scientists, talking directly to the public is an attractive alternative to being misquoted, misrepresented and edited down to a misleading sound byte by journalists from a legacy media channel. There are other benefits for professionals in publishing online and reaching their audience directly, and none of them have to be getting paid per blog post or AdSense revenue.
The critical thing is that there is no shortage of accessible, findable content and specialist content online. There is a large number of experts from a diverse range of fields either already producing content as a part of their job, or doing it because they they enjoy it on their own time. Many are actively engaged in their work and their professional community, and can reach laypeople who are interested in their thoughts and fields of expertise without needing a journalist to act as an intermediary.
Generalists for Cash and Experts for Free
Just as there are a lot of people sharing good quality content just because they can, there is a lot of content created for reasons other than a direct financial return, some out of pure altruism. There are many bloggers and other creators that happily give their content away as fast as the audience will take it because it will help them make money through other means. Their written work might help when pitching for new projects, or build a public profile, sell books, t-shirts, events or just get a new job.
Left in the Middle
Where do the ‘genuine writers’ fit in this world? Content written for broad appeal does not seem to require a lot of skill or attract much return, and material written about niche topics created by subject area experts is easier than ever to find. Writers in general, and journalists in particular, do not seem to fit either end of this spectrum, if literacy and access to a printing press and a newspaper brand is all they can offer.
Professional writers who only provide a link between the information and the means of publication are an artefact of the economics of scarcity. Scarcity of printers, scarcity of platforms and distribution, and even a scarcity of the skills needed to use these tools. In the past to participate in the media you had to be chosen, be employed by an entity that controlled the means of production. It was easier to get picked if you were a professional writer, and because the industry could only support so many writers, most of them seemed to be generalists. With a few exceptions, it was not economical to support someone full time just to write about a niche subject area.
Now you don’t need to be chosen to reach an audience. It does not have to be a full time job just to get access to a good distribution network. There are more writers specialising in obscure topic areas than before, and it is also easier and cheaper to get mass, general, click bait content produced or to aggregate press releases and news feeds. On the whole, journalism appears to be caught in the middle. No longer vital for collecting and interpreting expert opinion, and faced with the falling value of general content. The future demands that writers offer something more than the ability to spell, and the luck to work for someone who owns a printing press.