Vagina. Bush. God.
Working in online media, you quickly learn that any headline featuring these three words will garner more clicks than a Pynchon novel translated into Xhosa. Welcome to the economics of new media, where the value of a story is assessed by the number of times a button is pressed.
While a plethora of new sites and sources have emerged in the news business, very few are well-funded. Blogging and online websites exist only, in most cases, at the mercy of advertising revenues. So while the number of voices has increased, the number of well-funded reporters has decreased. It’s reassuring to think that as print news takes a hit, online media will be there to fill the gap, but the story isn’t quite that simple. Content is certainly being generated, but it’s proving no easy replacement for print.
Many publications weren’t initially eager to embrace the online world, often thinking of it more as a repository for print content, a mirror of the hard copy. But right now, the pendulum appears to be swinging in favor of online media as print publications make major cuts in staff and resources, or otherwise fold. But many of us (particularly younger generations who get most of their news online) aren’t feeling the loss of print media, inundated as we are with the proliferation of online content. Meanwhile, it’s not entirely clear that the online content we’re afforded is the best use of the medium.
Andrew Walsh, managing editor of Religion in the News, has observed the phenomenon of quantity being mistaken for quality in religion reporting. In his recent article, “Sally Gets Religion,” Walsh notes that even as reporting staff are being cut at newspapers, major players like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press are producing more coverage of religion in the news. How do they do it? Walsh examines the Post’s “On Faith” section as an example – a joint venture with Newsweek that features the perspective of heavy-hitters such as Elie Wiesel, Deepak Chopra and former Iranian president Mohammad Khatani. These names are gathered in the service of providing quick answers to questions like, “Do you believe that faith can affect your health or is that a lot of new age nonsense?” It proffers the illusion of a dialogue, but there’s about as much back and forth as a one-person game of tennis. Walsh observes that “On Faith” provides “a lot of programmatic statements… Everyone gets a free shot.” In this case, the role of the editors seems simply to post the sound bytes and wait for the torrent of reader comments to come in, leading Walsh to wonder if “the online media [will] be little more than a vast op-ed-cum-letters-to-the-editor venture.”
And the comments arrive in biblical proportions, often featuring some un-godly language. “On Faith” editor David Waters has said that “Even Jerry Springer would be embarrassed by the comments we have on our site. They’re that bad.” Waters says the editors joke about the “Three M’s”: Muslims, Mormons, and Moosekillers — the subjects they know will get hits and inspire comments.
Every newsroom has its joke about what will get the most attention, and it’s easy to get disgusted with your readers when you’re in the throes of policing the profanity-riddled comments regarding, say, the Pope’s new outfit. Yet, the work of editors is to set the tone, ensuring relevance and veracity. Putting forth opinion and commentary is a sure fire way to get a conversation going, and it provides value of a sort, but certainly not the kind that can replace reported stories by well-funded journalists. When developing writer personalities, and achieving hits and comments are the primary goals of a publication, there’s no end to the means that will get you there.
The increase in commentary and opinion and the decrease in investigative and reported work can be seen throughout news media and is not limited to coverage of religion. As journalist Pamela Constable points out, only four U.S. papers still maintain a stable of foreign correspondents. This simple fact seems a bit jarring when juxtaposed with the number of burgeoning news voices online. How we understand what constitutes “news” may very well be changing and we’d do well to turn a critical eye to what we’re being offered up.