Old Media Needs an Opinion

Journalists are objective. Bloggers are not. The two have been duking it out since the dawn of the Internet age. Journalists think objectivity will save their jobs and bloggers know that is nonsense. Old media is not irrelevant, but they are digging themselves into a hole. Let me explain.

First, understand that journalism has never been objective. Newspapers first emerged as political publications funded by partisan parties and read by the top of society’s pyramid. Then in a move to both democratize media and increase profits, newspapers dropped their prices and attracted multitudes of immigrants and workers as subscribers in order to sell those eyeballs to eager advertisers.

That should sound similar to today’s content farm with one big exception – newspapers were written by an elite group of thought-leaders (and still are), and so the power to create and distribute information remained in the hands of just a few.

Fast-forward a century, give or take a few decades, and you have the media industry that politics and technology built. But now the Internet has given everyone the opportunity to create and distribute information. No longer is news controlled by large media conglomerates, but by anyone who wants to contribute to the conversation.

On the Internet, we have largely admitted that individual and institutional objectivity is impossible. Not even Google tries to offer impartial news results when you search, preferring instead to offer up “the most articulate and passionate people arguing both sides of the equation,” says Google News’ founder, Krishna Bharat. Today we trust algorithms to deliver objectivity since humans cannot.

Objectivity is null on the web because the reader can always self-verify and fact-check themselves. That is what the proliferation of information is there for. You will be tracked. “Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links,” technologist David Weinberger argued back in the day. “Transparency is the new objectivity.”

Fair enough if you have the time to click on all of those links, but none of us do. Not to mention transparency often stifles meaningful dialogue. Nevertheless and despite my own bias on it, transparency is just as useful as objectivity in holding individuals and companies accountable, and as a big bonus, it doesn’t require you to act like an impartial noob.

Now, here’s what’s important.

The real reason newspapers can’t transition online is because they’re holding onto the veil of objectivity as the reason for their relevance. Readers, in turn, cry foul because they know objectivity is unreasonable, and instead uphold the virtues of new media. Then everyone declares traditional media is dead.

Sad face.

The thing is, objectivity is irrelevant, not news organizations. Rule number one in running a business is to determine the value you provide to your customers. A newspaper’s value doesn’t lie in it’s impartiality, so it’s ridiculous that traditional media continues to place those virtues on a pedestal. The traditional news model is not outdated, but journalists’ ideologies are.

Why do news companies continue to praise impartiality? Well, the veil of objectivity did allow newspapers to have a successful advertiser-subscriber model. And being profitable subsequently allowed newspapers to fund long investigations that readers came to rely on. So media organizations often confuse their business model, objective reporting and actual good journalism – that is, investigative reporting, news that is highly crafted and cared for, and that continuous sifting and winnowing for the truth at all costs.

A journalist doesn’t ask “Why? What? How?” because they’re impartial. They ask because they care. They ask because they have passion for the topic. They ask because they want to uncover injustices, right wrongs and make a difference.

There’s no reason why the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and New York Times should insist on objectivity as superiority. It has nothing to do with the actual amazing content they provide day in and day out.

The real travesty is not the loss of impartiality then, which never existed anyway, but the fact that without big profits, there are no big budgets, and no big investigations. Only half of the states in the U.S. now have even one full-time reporter in Washington, D.C., for instance. Can we keep our politicians accountable through our computer screens if a smaller and smaller number of people show up in real life?

No, we cannot. Nor can we uphold fair labor practices or ensure financial rigor at banks or keep up with everything else that’s important to our society. Blogs don’t have big budgets either. So journalists and bloggers both end up having to pander to page-view journalism, which serves advertisers alone (witness the devolution of media).

Here’s what the New York Times and the rest should do. Let go of objectivity. It’s elitist, it’s unattainable and it’s not important. Talk about real benefits. Charge for access and load up on advertisers to make mad money and deliver mad value.

It’s okay to have an opinion. In fact, it’s what makes us human.