By Rebecca Rose
One of my favorite films is a documentary by Oscar-winner Errol Morris, called “Fast Cheap and Out of Control”. It’s a quote taken from one of the film’s subjects, a robotics expert, who makes a humorousa twist on a famous engineer’s saying. The saying goes that out of "fast, cheap and reliable," it is only ever possible to create a product that is two of those three. Somewhere along the way, against the brute force of commerce, some portion of quality must be sacrificed.
I can’t help but think of his joke whenever I am asked why I opted to make the seemingly backward switch from digital media to print journalism.
With everyone moving into more and more of a digital mindset, the choice to deliberately opt to work for a small print newspaper might seem odd. I’ve certainly made my bones in the digital world, and racked up a strong following as a blogger. I’ve logged more time online, blogging for faceless news sites than I care to remember. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting my love of the blogosphere. I love the Internet, technology and all the gifts that the Digital Gods have given us. I love that we live in a world where my phone is a camera, a MP3 player, and a GPS device that can send Facebook updates and find a recipe for Apple Strudel while I’m playing Tetris online with someone in New Zealand at 2 a.m.
Take the recent election riots in Iran. While the world’s media was scrambling to get even the vaguest word of what was going on in a region where the news under the stranglehold of the state, protesters were sending out updates on their Twitter feeds.
That is awe-inspiring power. The media has a new sense of immediacy, the seemingly unstoppable ability to be a powerful instrument for significant social change.
Unfortunately, like all wonderful things we create for ourselves, we’ve begun to abuse these new tools. Yes, the media has the power to inform us in the blink of an eye when something significant happens.
But blogs have become an easy tool for commerce; a way for budget wary media conglomerates to generate quick cash, all while former print empires breath their last dying breath.
I was freelancing for a large media site (who shall go nameless for these purposes). I was excited to be writing for a very well known and well respected news site, so popular they receive over 2 million unique hits per month. (In blogging terms, that’s like being the Tom Hanks of blogs.) I wanted to report the news and tell stories and be funny and popular, but most of all, I wanted to be good at it. I wanted feedback from my editors, who I was sure would teach me all the ins and outs of blog-journalism magic: How to get the best scoops, how to write the best leads, and most importantly, how to best inform my readers.
But this wasn’t the case. The only time I ever heard from my editor was when he sent a mass email, proclaiming that the next writer to reach 1,000 unique hits for their posts that day would get $100.
Wow. A whole $100. Who’d have thought the news would sell out so cheap?
And this is what brings me back to that line…everything has become fast, cheap and out of control, all in the name of salvaging a quick dollar.
Fast: Get your material up as quickly as it comes to you. Never mind taking the time to confirm your facts, or call a few sources or (perish the thought) actually get out there and report on the news. Just Google and cut and paste, so long as you beat the competition to post time. And that incredible story you broke about some corrupt politician or the start of war in that third world country? Well, that was yesterday, and today, Paris Hilton went and bought herself a new puppy, so you’d better get on that before the other blogs beat you to that story.
Cheap: Editors are at the mercy of financial boards who rarely see beyond the bottom line, especially when page hits equal revenue dollars. Get as many eyes on a page in as short a time as possible, and get the most bang for the buck. And don’t worry about anything pesky like the actual quality of the story; this isn’t about winning the Pulizer Prize after all. What difference does it make that Congress just past some new tax law that’s going to impact you; that’s just boring. And besides…didn’t I just tell you Paris has a new puppy?
Out of Control: Nothing sums up the downside of the digital age better. Things have gotten down right out of control. During times of increased financial duress at media institutions, jobs are saved or slashed on little more than numbers generated by analytic charts. Blogs are increasingly dependent on cashing in on the shock factor; posting the most inflammatory material, solely designed to generate a rash of hits, mostly from outraged or downright disgusted readers, who can’t help but stop to express their outrage. But what do the editors care for how upset you are? Your page views just saved their jobs.
So back to why I don’t find my choice odd. I consider myself downright lucky to have found a home at a family run newspaper, where the readership is held above all other things. Information is not commerce. News is not a commodity, to be traded on the market to the highest bidder. It’s time to stop being so “fast, cheap and out of control”, and try to save what’s left of the reliability the American public depends on us for.