The 24 hour work day, disruptors and the quest for quality journalism

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Henry Blodget, the founder and chief editor of Business Insider, an online news company based in New York City, is notorious for his role in Wall Street’s dotcom saga. Now he is becoming equally notorious for his shakeup of news reporting and traditional roles in journalism.

Blodget’s poster boy for the new age of new media is his deputy editor Joe Weisenthal, recently profiled in the New York Times’ “Joe Weisenthal vs. the 24-Hour News Cycle”.

The article describes a day in the life of Mr Weisenthal, which starts at 4am and runs to almost 9pm. During that day he will write about 15 posts on Business Insider, send 150 Tweets, engage with readers, and much more.

It’s an exhausting schedule even for the 31 year old Mr Weisenthal, who says he sometimes needs to crash for a whole day, unable to do anything but watch TV.

This media attention on the “new media” by the New York Times, has renewed a debate about the changing work style of journalists, in an age where there are no deadlines and the quality of journalism is under the constant siege of the modern newsroom’s insatiable need for ever more copy.

Dan Reimold, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa, advised his students not to use Mr Weisenthal as a model for their ambitions. He objected to the high number of news stories produced and how little personal life he had.

Blodget lambasted Reimold in this post:

DEAR JOURNALISM STUDENTS: Don’t Mean To Intrude, But Your Professor Doesn’t Get It

The skills required to do what a great real-time digital journalist does are different than those required to do what a great magazine writer does… using the full capabilities of the digital medium, including covering unfolding stories in real-time, using text, pictures, video, and commentary.

Doing what Joe Weisenthal does is extraordinarily difficult. That’s why there are so few Joe Weisenthals. I’m just guessing here, but I’d bet that if we put the good professor in Joe Weisenthal’s chair, he would fail miserably.

I agree completely with Henry Blodget. Criticism of Business Insider’s largely lightweight journalism by journalism professors is valid only when its debated within the context of the economic reality of the news business.

There is simply not enough money generated by online advertising to be able to pay journalists to do the in-depth job we’d like to see, or that used to be common. And there is enormous pressure to do as little as possible in terms of original content, and original research. That’s simply the reality of the newsroom and my chief complaint about journalism professors is how distant they are from a real newsroom (or, even any newsroom at all: one admitted to me that he had only spent six months as a reporter 20 years ago).

Outsiders are often the disruptors

There is an important value that Mr Blodget brings — he’s an outsider. He has no training or prior experience in journalism, except as the target for thousands of journalists reporting on the rise and fall of Wall Street’s dotcom roller coaster ride, which mirrored Blodget’s career as a former star ecommerce analyst and his disgrace at the hands of the SEC.

Outsiders are tremendously important in industries undergoing disruption. Outsiders are quicker, and more able, to take advantage of the business opportunities revealed when disruptive technologies start to take hold of an industry.

The PC industry, for example, was created by small groups of people outside of the computer industry — hobbyists and enthusiasts. The microcomputer was called a “toy” and laughed at by the computer industry, yet it became the heart of a massive PC market that killed off so many computer companies.

Outsiders don’t know how you are supposed to do things. They don’t know that some things that they do can’t be done. For example, journalists would have never invented blogging, or created a news aggregator such as Google News.

As a newspaper journalist, you would never republish a rival’s news story in your own newspaper with your own headline as a blogger might do, or collect a bunch of headlines from other newspapers and republish them. That’s not how things were done or supposed to be done, and it’s why many journalists find the current new media landscape so abhorrent.

Abhorrent, or not, these are examples of how outsiders can exploit new, disruptive economic pathways, simply due to the fact that they are able to try things out that the incumbents would never do.

This is exactly why disruption happens — the old guard can’t do what the young Turks do because they were taught you couldn’t do that. Outsiders don’t have the same restrictions, which is why Mr Blodget has been able to build Business Insider into a popular news site, and raise millions of dollars in VC funding.

The poor state of the media

Even with a journalism-lite approach to the news (where reporters post as many as 15 news stories a day based largely on work by rival reporters) there’s not much money to be made. It’s a poor way to make a living. Blodget is not lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills and stubbing them out on the backs of hard working journalists doing original reporting elsewhere.

In 2010, Business Insider had its first profitable year: it made US$2 127 on revenues of US$5-million. Even by rewriting other people’s news stories, there is barely any money to be made — so how can quality journalism be supported?

I used to know journalists that wrote just one or two news stories a week, who would research features for months only to have their stories spiked. There used to be a lot of money in the news business to support high quality journalism.

Instead of criticizing the Business Insider editorial team for its lax standards, and its penchant for sensationalism and gratuitous use of racy photos, journalism professors should be railing against the failure of the industry to establish a business model that works, and rallying students to learn new techniques in producing quality journalism in quantity.

No gain and more pain ahead

The reality of the news business is a harsh one and there’s still more pain ahead. Advertising revenue continues to fall for many news organisations even as their readership has been booming. It’s truly a disruptive time when publishers can lose money amid a growing audience.

The stark economic reality of the media business is that there’s little money in producing original content. In a world where a click is a click, and has about the same value regardless of the quality of the underlying journalism, it is the means of production that defines the final product.

Henry Blodget and the Business Insider editorial team aren’t the ones responsible for the poor state of journalism today: they are merely the expression of what’s currently possible given the means available — which isn’t much, a whole lot of nothing much (about 250 news stories a day at Business Insider).

We desperately need a viable mass-media business model that rewards quality journalism. It’s one of the most challenging problems we face as a society, and one of the most elusive.

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  • http://www.nextlevelofnews.com Steffen Konrath

    I stumbled upon a few statements you made in your article, Tom. The economic reality is harsh. Right. But there is still enough place for quality reporting. The Weisenthal example is a worst case scenario: someone ruining his life and health. That is what Daniel Reimold is referring to, if you read his article carefully.

    A business model – you obviously favor – which demands such working habits fails completely and from the beginning. If exploiting employees is the only reason to make money, it would be better to terminate such businesses immediately. Stop working in such a business if that’s true! And it is also not a model for the future of journalism!

    Fact is, that only original reporting keeps people returning to a site. The kind of aggregation practiced by Huffington Post and by Business Insider is a nightmare from a market point of view. In fact these are the models (aggregation) which kill the news industry from which they profit a lot. To be fair: Huffington Post also provides original reporting. The articles of BI provide little to zero value in contrast.

    I agree with you that the advertising problem has not been solved but as you can see from Facebook & Co. it is a problem even the big players in the market.

    - Steffen Konrath,
    Future of Journalism & Media
    Blog: http://www.NextLevelOfNews.com

    Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/#!/stkonrath

  • http://adunaphel13.wordpress.com mental detritus

    Mass-market churnalism will soon collapse under its own weight, as discerning readers grow tired of regurgitated stories. Only then will in-depth, well-written journalism will have its place.

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