Fast Food Journalism Sucks and You Can Help Get Rid of it
Yesterday I had a meeting with my boss.
My boss, if you were wondering, is a nationwide editor at one of Australia’s biggest media companies. We were there to talk about my performance.
Or rather, she was there to talk about my performance. I was hoping to have a nice big whinge.
Last year, a few months after I moved from a job I liked to take a new one at this, one of the country’s biggest papers, I was told we had a new deal. A deal with a big, exciting, existing website. We would all be expected to provide content for that website. To be exact, 15 pieces of content a week.
Yesterday, my boss told me my 15 extra pieces of content were not up to par. Not the quality she was expecting from an experienced writer.
“Not good enough.”
Not good enough.
It’s a comment journalists across the world have heard this year. Not from their bosses (though I’d wager I’m not the only one in that boat) but from seemingly every person with an internet connection.
Why are we still writing about Kim Kardashian? Where did our investigative content go? Why were so soft on Donald Trump? Also, did we know we handed Donald Trump the presidency? And also, while we were doing all that reporting about America, where was the focus on Australian politics?
Our reporting was too right wing, and also too left wing. It did not support Australian values, or it supported the wrong ones. There were too many thinkpieces, and also not the thinkpieces that I, personally, wanted to read. We damn media outlets keep expecting people to get their news from social media, but also, why was there no link on Twitter to that story about my kid’s school.
All of this talk was going on on social media, and on the blogs of a million and one “business influencers” or topless women who write poetry, and all of whom probably make more money than I do.
And I want to say one thing to all of these people, and to my boss, and to the internet at large.
All of us. Really. Even those of us who have given up are trying.
Journalism is not a career you choose because you do not want to try.
First of all, we are trying to meet our deadlines, always the deadlines with us. And we are trying to meet them with less support than we have ever had before.
Sure, in the old days, a reporter might conceivably file three stories a day. In the old days, a journalist would be assigned those stories by his or her editor, then speak to the relevant people, then write the story in a little flippy notebook* and then call someone in the office.
A person in the office would type the story for them, another person might handle any relevant production** , someone else would sub the story, someone else or that same person would place it on a page and do the coverlines***, a photographer would handle the photos and any relevant artwork, and the editor would double check it and have a generalised grouse about the many things he considered wrong with it, and with life in general.
The ad reps would operate completely independently, then count their money and use it to throw elaborate Wolf Of Wall Street-style pool parties (which I assume they still do.)
The reporter would go and have a drink with one of his contacts while wearing a fedora (the timescape on this example has jumped around a lot but whatever I am too busy enjoying fake memories of these much happier times.)
Now, I do most of that.
Ok, not the pool parties. Or the fedora.
But yes. Literally ALL of those things “someone else” used to do are done by me. And I had to find that story in the first place, and pitch it my editor, and maybe he was at a meeting and didn’t get back to my email, and then did get back to it and wanted the story to already be finished, obviously, because he has a deadline.
We’re all about those deadlines.
No, I don’t do all of that stuff on every story I write, but enough so that I can say, with every slice of my journalistic integrity intact, that all of those things are part of my job description during a regular week.
In addition, I fight with the ad reps, who make more money than me but never, ever enough so that they will leave me the hell alone. I also fight with IT, because no journalist ever has been able to adequately explain to a programmer how to make a computer program that does anything close to helping us do our jobs. Seriously, nerds, one of you Silicon Valley types could make some very delicious money if you’re not busy designing the Uber of donuts, or whatever.
On top of that, I do all the boring things that every person who works in an office does, like beating up the photocopier and sitting in meetings and going to a co-worker’s birthday lunch and trying, trying, trying to get out of there somewhere at least in the vague realm of 5pm so I can have some semblance of a life away from my prehistoric Windows-based computer.
So, on top of all this crap, and writing a bunch of other stuff that this website does not want, I’m expected to write them 15 stories a week.
Like duh, they are terrible.
Obviously. I am not a superhuman – and additionally, I am not able to snap my fingers and make “the news” happen. If I could, I would be writing a story called “Local Whinger Wins Lotto” right about now. Sometimes, “the news” that this certain website is looking for happens and sometimes it does not. It normally does not happen 15 times a week.
But look, complaining aside, this is all very serious.
Oh, not for me, my boss has probably forgotten all about me by now. She was very understanding and probably now has 25 other reporters to go and meet up with.
This is all very serious because the media is a thing that needs to be taken seriously.
Not because those of us in the media are all obsessed with ourselves – although obviously we are, please see this whole article as evidence – but because our entire government is based on the media being a thing that is taken seriously.
Yet somehow, it is also still a business. It needs to make money.
The government can’t fund it, because that might affect what we report on.
So, we’ve relied on people to fund it.
You see, Gen Z, people used to buy this pile of dead trees called a…oh, you’ve seen them in the old movies you ironically watch? Excellent, excellent. Because people used to buy the paper and it used to pay journalists to write the paper. But people don’t do that anymore. Now people expect to read their news for free on the internet.
And then companies used to pay the paper to advertise in the paper, but now companies all advertise on podcasts and coffee cups and the Instagram accounts of various hot young “influencers” who will probably be my boss someday and run a seminar for me on how to attract an audience to my content.***
So, if people don’t pay us and advertisers don’t pay us, what does?
The usual. Dodgy corporate hyjinks.
Deals and schmoozing and boozing and also gambling, lots of gambling, all the news companies loooove investing in that glorious gambling.
All of which is amazing fodder for higher ups to go “we can’t afford more journalists. We gave all our money to the Department of Gambling. You need to get more out of your people. Also, they need to take a 15% pay cut, even though their current wage is $45,000 a year and thus unliveable anywhere in a major city.”
And then, we have to write 15 stories a week.
And all of them are crap.
You know what you don’t have time to write when you have to write 15 stories a week? A real slamming, stat-filled takedown of Donald Trump.
Or housing affordability.
Or the wage gap.
Or literally anything worth anything.
So instead, you write a story about a b-list celebrity who fell over at a club and flashed her vag and you post it, hoping nobody will notice and…
Oh, wait a sec.
Stop press, if you will.
Everyone fucking loves it.
Because it turns out, nobody wants to read that other bullshit anyway.
They want to complain that it’s not there. But let me tell you, the stats are in, and they do not want to click on it.
So your boss tells you to write more articles about vag.
And more people like them, so you write a few more.
And repeat. Until death.
Quantity up, quality down. That same old equation despised by businessmen everywhere.
So, let’s all take a moment to wallow in the depression that is capitalism, shall we? Then we’ll talk solutions.
Another moment, I know I need it.
Ok….ok. We’re good now I think.
And yes, as promised, I have answers for you.
OBVIOUSLY, because after old white dudes have mucked it all up, it’s always us ugly brown-haired chicks who have to come in and bloody fix it. Standard freaking life.
Jokes, normally it would be a racial and sexual minority it’s just that my profession hasn’t learned how to cope with either of those things yet.
But can we fix it? Yes we can.
1/ Go and pay someone your legit money for journalism
No, amateur porn does not count as journalism – it doesn’t matter if it’s politically themed****. Your mate’s sad Patreon for their restaurant blog is also a no-go. Choose a major paper in your state or city and subscribe to it. Go on. I believe in you. It’s no more than you’d normally waste on porn, or beers as you slag off your mate’s terrible restaurant blog*****. Most papers have discounted their web subscription-style programs so heavily, and will throw in so many free extras, you might even make money.
2/ Read or listen to some real reporting about a real thing
Don’t worry, you don’t have to give up vag slips completely – I already made you give up porn and you need something good in your life. But while you’re on the internet, go to the home page of that paper you just subscribed too and read an article that makes you do a little inner yawn. You know what I mean – that stuff you pretend you read but probably really don’t – like politics, finance or world news******. Actually, you don’t even have to read it – just open it and leave it there a while as you stalk your ex on Facebook or pay that huge electricity bill you’re blaming on your housemate.
That way, the paper will let a journalist keep writing about that stuff, instead of re-assigning them to full time coverage of Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat.
3/ Cut journalists some friggin’ slack
Let me tell you a secret about journalists.
We earn like, no money.
Like ridiculously little money. $45,000 a year was my pay at my first job, and it really has not risen very far since then, which is terrifying.
We cannot afford anything else, and thus, the only thing we have is our integrity – which we now compromise every day for the chance to, maybe one day a week, write a story we think really matters.
I’m saying this to prove that we must be trying. We must think this is important. There is literally no other reason to do it.
So yeah, look, if you have to say shitty things, I get it. People who are trying hard can still be bad at their jobs – and the media does have to do better, we know.
But if a journalist does great reporting, celebrate it, like and share it, show the big wigs at the top that this is the kind of content you want to see.
And please, for the love of God, stop calling every hack with a blog a journalist. Because only certain hacks with a blog are journalists and dammit, I am proud to be one of them.
*THESE ARE REAL and we still use them! Isn’t that funny? Before I got told to buy one when I was at uni I always assumed it was a movie trope, like women wearing makeup to go to bed.
**Production are magical people whose basic job description is “get the thing made.” They liase with the right people or do back end stuff to post things online or lay out the pages of a paper and generally do things the people whose names are on stuff do not want to do and we love them. Mostly. Except when they get mad. Which is most of the time, we are not organised people.
***I’m hoping there will also be a section on looking hot while staring wistfully out a window, which I am yet to really nail.
****Do they have politically themed porn? Does anyone even pay for porn anyway? I tried to be funny and relevant but I am way out of my depth here you guys. Halp.
***** Which I would probably also like to mock- can you invite me sometime?
******While we’re on world news – if you want the papers to cover it, you need to actually READ THE DAMN STUFF not just re-post that viral Instagram post that goes around every time there’s a terror attack in a Western nation, and some poor speller tries to put the media on blast for not covering a similar attack in the third world.
Yes, it is undoubtedly appalling that people are racist and terrible, but the media is only a mirror of what you want to read – and you, let’s face it, are probably racist and terrible, like the rest of us. As I was taught at university: 1 Australian death = 10 English or American deaths = 100 European deaths = 1,000 deaths anywhere else. I nearly cried the day I heard that, because humans literally suck so hard, but it’s true that stories about world news are shoved at the back of the paper for a reason – people don’t read them.