Online journalism is running headlong into its own funeral pyre. Outlets are increasingly turning over content to places like Facebook, where more people might see it, but where it becomes increasingly difficult to find a financial model that can actually sustain the business of paying people to write and report about stuff. Enter Twitter, which just announced that it’s considering switching to a 10,000 character limit for twits tweets, up from 140 characters, which is going to allow for a lot of people to write a lot more stuff directly on Twitter rather than linking readers to their content someplace else. This poses, or rather intensifies, lots of uncomfortable questions for the medium (no, not Medium, although that too, probably):
Now commence some now-familiar conversations:
— If readers never leave Twitter, what does a publication matter to them?
— If readers never leave Twitter, how do posters get paid?
— If posters get paid, why only those posters? Because they work for publishers? Didn’t we just lose track of what a publisher is?
— How would revenue sharing work? Twitter doesn’t really monetize posts or videos or images so much as it monetizes the entire feed, so… ???? (I think this explains, somewhat, some publishers’ early experiences with Facebook Instant articles, which are returning significantly lower ad rates per-reader than heavily monetized webpages. Facebook’s like “nope, that’s the right amount of ads,” because they also monetize outside of individual posts, in the feed itself; publishers are like, “hey, uhhhh, we need to be making a LOT MORE on these posts to keep doing what we’re doing??” And then everyone backs out of the room shrugging. Allegedly.)
Now, I know there are a lot of people who see this as a good thing. “Now information is everywhere, man, it’s awesome” they’ll say, and I’ll invite them to see what kind of “information” gets passed around my Facebook feed (which isn’t even that bad, relatively, as far as I can tell) or around the more unsavory corners of Twitter. “Great writers will always thrive,” they’ll argue, which…have you guys seen the editorial pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post? They guys (and they’re mostly all guys) thriving there are all many things, but “great writer” is rarely one of them. And anyway, even if that were true it would mean only that “thinkpieces” aren’t going away–it still doesn’t explain who or what is going to be paying actual reporters to go do actual reporting in the future. I sometimes read that “long-form journalism” will survive, and I wonder how that could possibly be true, since long-form reporting takes weeks or months to produce and doesn’t generate any clicks until the very end.
Sorry, but I’m a pessimist when it comes to this stuff. I think we’re heading for a future of less journalism and more misinformation, of people looking for real journalism, struggling to find it, and settling for whatever gossip comes across their Facebook feeds. Or Fox News and the vanity right-wing press, which will continue to exist as a way for wealthy interests to get their propaganda out to the people. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s not seen as a good thing by the kind of people who own media companies (i.e., oligarchs). Because, as Anne Pluta writes at FiveThirtyEight, a misinformed citizenry can be a very powerful tool for people with agendas:
It is in Trump’s interest to allow misinformation — such as his statements about immigrants or Muslim Americans — to flourish. New work by Jennifer Hochschild of Harvard and Katherine Levine Einstein of Boston University found that there are incentives for politicians to keep citizens both misinformed and politically active. For most politicians, it doesn’t make sense to use precious resources to try to move or dissuade people from their incorrect positions — especially if this misinformation supports the political actor’s policy positions or legislative goals (as it does in Trump’s case). Instead, “the investment of resources goes much further in efforts to work around, accommodate, or even encourage the active misinformed,” the researchers write. Moreover, Hochschild and Einstein remind us that people find psychological comfort in having their opinions validated by others, especially by elites. So, there are many cases in which it makes more sense for politicians to encourage people to stay misinformed rather than try to provide them with accurate information.
So maybe this brave new world where everybody gets to pour content into Facebook and Twitter but little to none of it is based on real journalism is just what we want. I have no doubt that we’ll be told it’s what we want, anyway.
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