2. Sharing beats keywords. Reader-to-reader sharing has displaced that scourge of journalism in the late 2000s, search engine optimization. A band of technical wizards realized that a clever set of keywords could trick the algorithms Google had developed in its efforts to bring readers the best information. Headlines had to contain every relevant search term: “Noun Noun Noun Noun Noun Noun Noun!” Tags had to be fixed just right: “Kardashian-diet-sex-baby-divorce-Obama-flat-belly.”
Journalists like me sat through SEO seminars with glazed eyes and a mounting sense of panic: This wasn’t why we’d gotten into the business, and we were pretty sure we weren’t organized enough to trick machines. But while this uninteresting technical crap bore no relation to journalism, it drove big traffic to the outlets that understood it—the Huffington Post first among them. Its victims were readers, who were often served junk they didn’t want, and reporters, whose jobs became increasingly focused on feeding a mechanical beast.
3. Long-form journalism is back. A common calumny from people who don’t understand the social web is that kids these days have short attention spans. The reality is the reverse: Social-media sites regularly publish features far longer than any that appear in newspapers or even in most magazines since Tina Brown stopped publishing 50,000-word essays on zinc in The New Yorker. This goes for silly content—“108 Reasons Corgis Really Are That Great” is not for short attention spans—as well as for serious stuff. One of BuzzFeed’s most popular political stories in 2012 was an 11,000-word reevaluation of Mitt Romney’s father. A broad embryonic movement, an informal network organized in part around sites such as Longform.org and Longreads.com, is offering a vast new audience for what used to be considered magazine journalism.
4. So are journalism jobs. Things are finally getting better for that other class of newspaper employees, reporters. A University of Georgia survey released in August found that more journalism graduates—66 percent—got full-time jobs in 2012 than in previous years. New outlets such as BuzzFeed, Politico and Business Insider have hired hundreds of reporters to beat the incumbents at their own game. This isn’t to sugarcoat a glum fact: A generation of great journalists got screwed. Reporters who were cubs in, say, the late 1980s mastered a game that suddenly ceased being played. They rose to second- and third-rank jobs in newsrooms with an obvious promise that they would rise to the top—only to be faced with endless cuts and buyouts aimed at forcing the old and well paid to leave. This created a harrowing gap in the profession’s institutional knowledge.
5. New business models are emerging. The grim counterpart to SEO-driven journalism is revenue driven by banner ads. As readers learned to ignore those ugly, irrelevant rectangles, publications made them ever more aggressive—jumping across your screen, blinking and dodging, impossible to close—in a kind of lunatic arms race against their own audience. The ads get worse and worse—and they pay publishers less and less each year.
The businesses that have begun to succeed in the social-media ecosystem are taking different paths. First there is sponsored content—high-quality original advertisements that readers like or dislike on their merits. They’re controversial in some quarters, but they’re not unlike the advertising that runs in women’s magazines such as Vogue. Beautiful, well-produced ads are simply an additional reason to buy the magazine, not a reason to scorn it.
Meanwhile, another set of publications has finally made subscriptions work. When The New York Times reported it was nearing $400 million a year in digital revenue—enough to operate even the most ambitious newsroom in America—Business Insider’s Henry Blodget declared that “we never have to worry about the future of journalism again.”
Finally, a vibrant new world of nonprofit journalism has emerged on the web, with Pro Publica leading large journalistic investigations and emerging as a trusted partner in important collaborations. The Guardian handed off a portion of Edward Snowden’s leaked documents to Pro Publica reporters and analysts. And this summer, an investigation that resulted in an exposé of the 50 worst charities in America was led by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom that employs 50 journalists.
And one reason to be skeptical. I’m not a utopian, though I think this is a wonderful moment to be a journalist. The new distribution model is based on psychology, not on ink or radio waves. Its flaws are human flaws, and they have to do with what people share and don’t share. People are not sharing the worst of the old journalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” was the rule of thumb for tabloids, and it motivated the New York Post and your local TV news.
But the social web has its own vices, one of which is that it favors inspiration, warmth and a kind of happy talk that doesn’t always match reality. At its best, this means sharing something like “I gave $100 to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy—I hope you will too.” At its worst, it spreads a false impression that problems can be easily solved if only you’ll share more. The best example of this kind of bad viral news is the “Stop Kony” video, which rocketed around the internet in 2012 with an inspiring narrative calling on Americans of all ages to press our representatives to go after a Ugandan warlord—and, of course, to share the video.
After 100 million views, the U.S. government responded. It sent a military task force to the Central African jungle, and to sharpen the point of the mission its commander kept a STOP KONY poster on his door. The problem: The Ugandan government believed it had the warlord contained and had been working on a nonmilitary solution to his rampages. Many policy experts think Americans’ hunger for inspiration drove terrible policy in Uganda. And Kony is still at large.
But in the end this is a small-bore complaint. There are plenty more reasons to be deeply glad about the state of journalism. I spent this past summer hiring a foreign editor and bureau reporters in Eastern Europe, Istanbul and Cairo; I spent the fall putting together an investigations team. And the market for great reporters, I’m finding, is pretty competitive.