The Decline of Journalism Pt 1

Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself visiting a lot more web sites than I usually would for my gaming news. In the past few days I’ve downloaded and listened to loads of podcasts from the big sites and some from the smaller ones.  I haven’t particularly enjoyed doing this; I’ve been looking for something. I’ve been looking for the answer to a question which asked itself in the back of my head one day about a month ago:

What is wrong with modern gaming journalism?

You see, I write for TheSixthAxis because I love writing and I love the site. I never thought of myself as a journalist but in loose terms I suppose that’s what we are; volunteer journalists. I like to think of myself (rightly or wrongly) as a columnist rather than a reporter. I’m not very good at finding and writing up the news because I don’t enjoy it. I do enjoy the opinion pieces, the “news from my point of view” bits and the discussions which spring from that. I like to think that I’m quite good at those kinds of pieces.

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Not just a writer on TSA, an author, a columnist, a reviewer. Whatever, I love words and I love opinions. I love news and current affairs, I like reading about what’s happening around the world. The problem with that is that it only takes ten minutes. I can read all the news I care about while I wait for my iPod to sync in the mornings. Especially with all these podcasts I’ve been downloading.

I think it’s fairly well accepted that printed gaming journalism is a weak heartbeat away from a wheezing death. The reason for this is simple; the internet killed it. Now, we’re all fans of the internet here but don’t be mistaken. This was not a glorious revolution. You shouldn’t be celebrating the victory of the internet over the staid, regulated and stuffy old world of printed media.

Years ago, before the internet changed the world, journalists used to work for their money. A story, even a news story which is basically just dry facts, had to be researched and fact-checked before it went out in next week’s or next month’s issue. Printed media was accountable for the stories they printed. So the story didn’t hit immediately like it does today (which is why print can’t compete with the internet any more) but when it did land it was correct. I’m going to make a real effort to avoid naming specific sites but I think you will all be able to identify who I’m talking about.

These days news-breaking and news-gathering sites are all about immediacy. The site which publishes a story first (and pimps it to the big news-aggregators) gets the hits which means the advertising revenue. Which means the money. So speed defeats accuracy and the accountability is lost because by the time a story is fact checked it is usually too old for anyone to care if it was wrong.

There has been a shift in the past ten years. The publications that used to have the reputation, the readership and therefore the revenue had all of those things because they printed accurate and interesting news. The establishments that have the readership (and therefore the revenue) now are the ones that print a story, factual or otherwise, the fastest. Reputation no longer counts for anything because there isn’t enough advertising money to keep the mass of news and news-blog sites running, never mind spreading it thinner to provide for the sites that actually care about what they write.

Think about all the sites you look at for news. The ones that get the massive readerships, the big interviews (because of their readership numbers) and the mountains of advertising revenue are probably the ones you respect the least.

So what can we do about all of this? Well, there is a movement amongst a few sites (including, in my opinion, TheSixthAxis) to present the news in an original way. The news can come a little later than the straight-up news sites or the clamouring news-blogs but when it gets there it will be presented with a heavy dose of opinion. Now, this doesn’t breed the same sort of hit-counts that the aggregator-addicted news blogs will get. So these sites don’t make the revenue meaning that perhaps they are not as robust as the sites that can afford to pay their writers. The opinion sites live or die on their writer’s personalities, their community’s intelligence and their enthusiasm for their subject.

Many sites try to find a balance. They fire out news as quickly as they can in a blog format but they intersperse it with snappy introductions or lead-ins and some opinion pieces or sarcastic captions. They make money from the readership that the news brings them and they try to retain character and integrity with the opinion pieces and lead-ins. The end result is that they only half work. The news is fired like a machine gun at the reader without striving for accuracy and the opinion is tainted by the constant hit-baiting. Ultimately though, it comes down to whether or not you like the personality of the site.

Exactly the same news stories can be read at any one of a dozen sites all within an hour or two of each other. So why should advertisers pay one site and not another? It becomes a constant game of who can get their stories posted on the big news-aggregators first. It’s about speed rather than accountability. The only differentiating mark that sites have is their personality.

This leads me nicely onto the subject of podcasts. I’ve listened to loads over the past few days and I noticed something about nearly all of them (apart from the fact that most are not very good). When you take away the need for immediacy in a method of distribution you get a far greater sense of personality.

Websites have to be almost instant or they die (or they are held up by volunteer enthusiasts at their own expense). The most popular podcasts are built entirely on the personalities of their hosts. It seems that even though they all discuss current affairs with opinion, nobody wants straight news from a weekly podcast. Why would they, they’ve read it all before on the web.

So does this hint towards a return to interesting news which has been properly researched and delivered with personality and opinion? Probably not, people seem to have an unquenchable thirst for information, regardless of its accuracy. I do hope though, that it hints towards an increase in readership for sites that take their time with a story in order to get it right and make it entertaining. I fear that if those sites aren’t supported by a solid readership and, hopefully one day, financial investment then they will be lost forever to the swathes of faceless or confused sources that regurgitate the same old, hearsay-founded news.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

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