Is journalism dying? Is the party over? Perhaps those of us that keep writing are the stragglers at the end of the night—insisting on sticking around as the host takes down the streamers and collects the empty cups.
Actually, journalism is dead. But halfway through the autopsy one of its legs started twitching. It leapt from the laboratory table flailing its arms from side to side. Purposefully, it limped towards the open door. It stood blinking in the sunlight as passerby stopped to stare.
Yes, this is it: the zombie of journalism.
Pieces of new media—blogs, microblogs like Twitter, news compilation sites like Digg, and even social networks like Facebook are cobbled together onto the leftover torso of print media. This ugly brute is the new journalism—a slightly rabid, incongruent creature who behaves little like the polished gentlemen he once was.
In some ways the zombie journalism performs its functions better than the old. It might prove to be a better watchdog on politics than the notoriously elitist media outlets of yore, controlled by a small number of people and sometimes fed by one particular political party. While the Wikileaks phenomenon would be classified more as activism than journalism, the discoveries published on the site were initially propagated over blogs and lesser-known media streams before being picked by the larger players. Low barriers to entry to online publishing open multiple avenues to writers looking to find consumers for their content.
Websites like Jezebel and Curbed.com target a specific niche of people with an interest in particular topics. Jezebel states that it follows “Celebrity, sex, and fashion…without airbrushing.” while Curbed.com is a popular real estate site covering upscale residences. This allows for specialization and depth. Even online news sites have begun taloring themselves to attract particular kinds of readership.
At the same time, having so many news sources creates a hyper-competitive atmosphere. And when this is combined with the speed of information exchange it can create frenzies of media coverage, such as during a crisis. News of a country’s default or stock market crash spread faster than ever. This can create a panic which is difficult to control especially when people get their news from a disaggregated collection of sources that are sometimes trying to outdo each other in sensationalism. This can lead to a misdirected flurry of information that can be inflammatory. It seems the zombie doesn’t quite know what to gnash its teeth into sometimes.
There is one more problem for zombie journalism—and that is making money. This can be seen most dramatically when well-known magazines like U.S. News and World Report, Businessweek, and Newsweek shut down, declared bankruptcy, or restructured/merged with other media entities. Others, like the New York Times, have been forced to reduce newsroom staff.
It’s still possible for journalists to join the flood of content on the internet. Throw your hat into the ring or your username into the blogosphere. But while numerous feisty models for online news have sprung up, many support only a handful of writers. Some of these operations are blog aggregators that provide a platform for professionals, politicians, and experts in various fields to reach their audience. ScienceBlog is compilation of blogs by scientists while Huffington Post, which chiefly provides a news service, also has celebrities and businesspeople blogging on their site. However, blog aggregators are often unable to compensate contributors in the same way as news outlets and magazines. Most bloggers, as a result, usually have a paying occupation other than blogging.
For those who want to be full-time journalists, networks like Patch.com and Gothamist employ a cohort of writers to report on arts and culture, news, and politics in suburban and urban neighborhoods. But even these enterprises have been unable to grow to the size of existing media giants. But their entry has added to the shake-up of old media, with larger publishing groups struggling to make profits.
Despite their financial woes, the old guards of journalism, known mostly for their print product, still function as the center of the new journalism environment. While many newspapers and magazines could benefit from beefing up their online presence and making their content available on multiple devices, the larger publications still set the agenda for the type of news and topics that are covered. This is partly because they are often the only ones with enough resources to cover some of the stories. The expose on the Koch brothers that the New Yorker ran last year is something that a smaller operation might not find feasible. Established organizations are also better able to withstand any backlash an investigation may produce. Finally, they grant a stamp of credibility to whatever issue they are covering.
People writing during this new phase of journalism should carry with them an entrepreneurial outlook. Writers will be able to manage their content and own it in a way that they haven’t before. But the responsibilities of generating revenue will shift to them as well. Journalists will be producers of content seeking storefronts in the form of news sites, magazines, and blogs. Writes may simultaneously contribute to websites like iVillage and Salon.com while maintaining a blog of their own. Some authors already have an online following and they take advantage of a variety of portals when reaching their audience.
The winners and losers from this arrangement are yet to be seen but journalism continues. The zombie marches on, his locked legs shifting back and forth. And while he does alarm people with his haggard appearance, that’s only because he is both dead and alive.
Lakshmi Santhosh worked as a researcher at the San Francisco Business Times and is currently working towards a Master’s in Biotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania.