Journalism, as a business, is dying.
According to Glassdoor, the average journalist makes between $40,000 and $120,000. Like most salary averages, the numbers skew to the low end and I’ve seen salaries for New York journalists in the $60k range – barely enough to get an apartment and food in one of the boroughs. Bloated newsrooms full of these low-cost, low-energy grunt journos are essentially tipping over the once ad-supported online journalism industry, resulting in the slow failure of our democracy.
Plus, journalists are outnumbered. There are currently 6.2 PR professionals for every journalist.
PR, on the other hand, pays much more and is, according to Newsweek, the best job in media. In other words, the folks whose job it is to tell the world the truth are outnumbered by the people whose job it is to tell a certain form of the truth. And when one group performs a full-court press on another, the smaller group usually fails.
The newsroom is also dead. Most sites are run by skeleton crews. In researching this, for example, I popped by the Union Recorder of Milledgeville, GA. They have four people on staff, including the Publisher. Meanwhile, their site is deluged with chum bucket content aimed at making gullible people click on tinnitus cures. Even this picture of a surprisingly good-looking macaroni salad is an ad. Nothing is clearly journalism except the posts about how great the parks are and local crime coverage.
The problem is that real news doesn’t make money. Writing about a school board meeting is not lucrative. Writing about local politics in a dry, informative way is a dud, traffic-wise. Writing “Five Reasons the Apple Watch Will Kill You” is far more lucrative but, in an environment of programmatic advertising, even clickbait doesn’t work the way it once did. Just look at Insider – they cut their newsroom massively, leaving only editors sitting around without writers to edit – and Buzzfeed News, which closed primarily because there is no way to compete in the outrage/click cycle anymore. This lack of journalistic oversight, especially in small markets, leads to school board takeovers, rampant gerrymandering, and a move toward minority politics. In short, the death of journalism is causing many of the problems we’re facing today, including moves towards a more insurgent form of democracy and the rise of stochastic terrorism.
Plus the journalistic race to the bottom makes for boring, terrible content.
Note that I said “the journalism business” is dying. There is still good journalism out there but it is rare and relegated to the very few news organizations left with any clout. Global news is still surging but local news, the news that brings communities together or forces dialogue in environments where no dialogue existed, is gone, probably never to return.
The current journalism business is all about aggregation. Don’t believe me? Check out the “top” tech news of the day, the launch of some kind of fancy scooter.
PR people planted the story for the press who, in turn, did their jobs by rewriting a press release. This happens every day, all day, and the resulting news is like an adult diaper full of diarrhea – it’s gross, awful, and indicative of something wrong inside the producer.
Aggregation vs. Reporting
But why are they aggregating? They have to. The low-hanging fruit for content creation is post count. The more stories you have the more Google pays attention to you. These stories can also be optimized to within an inch of their lives – “5 best women’s running shoes for May 2023” – or they can simply exist, adding credence and authority to a site. A smaller news site, for example, will feel the need to follow national stories, forcing an already overworked staff to create stories that aggregate other news (the writer of this Gizmodo story, for example, aggregated a post from SpacePolicyOnline.) Whether this is journalism or not is immaterial – it was, in fact, the only way to solve the traffic problem that blogs faced in the early 2000s. This tendency to aggregate vs. report leads to layers and layers of me-too crap that pops up on news sites and YouTube.
So let’s say for a second that the 80% aggregation, 20% newsgathering model is all we have going forward. When 80% of your job is essentially rewriting press releases and 20% of your job is talking to hostile interview subjects, which are you going to focus on? And if that 80% of content brings in 99% of the traffic, what will your publisher ask you to do?
But if you’re aggregating you’re not writing. So when I heard about ChatGPT, I thought about how we could use AI to replace grunt journalists whose only job is to change a press release headling to garner more clicks. In fact, if we replace those grunts, we can instead train and hire actual journalists, journalists who have the leisure to work on a story for a week, not five stories a day. Journalists who have the technical skill and training to maneuver the modern world.
I started this experiment on Natural Goods News, a news site about psychedelics. I essentially took press releases and news stories and had AI aggregate them for me. This let me post two or three things a day on the site, increasing pageviews from zero to a few hundred a day. So that worked.
But that process was too slow. Over time I built CopyDesk. This is a tool that takes in news stories and produces aggregated blog posts. When I was running Gizmodo in the early 2000s, I had to write 28 posts a day. This app essentially replaces me completely, allowing one editor to rewrite a dozen stories in a few minutes. There’s a full how-to here. Hopefully, somebody, somewhere, wants to use it.
Journalists won’t admit that this is their workflow. They are proud, majestic creatures, convinced of their infallibility. But they’re about to all be laid off.
There are many who would argue that depending on AI to produce content is akin to the frog carrying the scorpion across the stream – it is the scorpion’s nature to sting and by giving the scorpion a ride the frog dooms them both. AI is like that scorpion. It injects the poison into an already unhealthy system and is currently forcing countless news organizations to rethink their staffing needs. So why not take the poison and allow the body to become healthier? By reducing the grunt journalists with AI, you essentially create an environment where real news is rewarded. When 100% of your time is spent newsgathering, you gather actual news. By ignoring LLMs and AI, journalists are writing their own obituaries.
The journalism business doesn’t have to die. But it’s well on its way to fading away if we don’t do something to save it. AI is the first step, a fever that will cut through the market and leave something scarred but at least healthy. What journalism looks like after the coming cataclysm is unclear, but what is clear is that we need good journalism more than ever and it is nearly gone.