Modern news media: Too big not to fail?
For three years running, “journalist” has been named the worst job in the world. The employment site CareerCast has surveyed the best and worst jobs for 28 years running, and for the third time in a row, "newspaper reporter" ranks 200th out of 200 professions. "Broadcaster" isn’t far behind, coming in at number 198. (For the record, the job rated 199th is "logger" – cue Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song.)
Okay, fair enough, it’s not like journalists hadn’t seen the writing on the wall, so to speak. Forbes’ Bernard Marr writes in an April 25, 2016, article that “journalist” is fourth on the list of the 10 professional jobs threatened with extinction by the rise of big data. In fact, there appears to be no field whose employment won’t be negatively affected by the rise of the data machines: healthcare, insurance, architecture, finance, education, human resources, marketing/advertising, legal, and law enforcement complete the list of endangered professions.
Marr cites a study by Boston Consulting Group that predicts 25 percent of today’s jobs will be taken over by software and robots by 2020. Oxford University researchers forecast as many as 35 percent of workers in the UK could be replaced by machines over the next 20 years. (The February 24, 2016, Weekly described “How to build the future of work.”)
Apart from “trust-fund baby,” there doesn’t appear to be a career that’s entirely future-proof.
So you might as well do what you love and hope you don’t starve to death in the process. The conventional wisdom is that writers should seek the widest audience possible for their work. Joshua Topolsky, co-founder of the Verge and Vox Media, begs to differ. In an April 25, 2016, post on Medium, Topolsky claims traditional media lost control when information switched from being delivered via analog (paper and over-the-air broadcasting) to being delivered digitally.
Newspapers, magazine publishers, and broadcasters couldn’t figure out how to monetize digital media, so they stuck with their old revenue models: subscriptions and ads. When people went elsewhere and the traditional revenue streams dried up, the media responded by offering more stuff rather than better stuff. The goal is to serve up ads that reach as many eyeballs as possible, regardless of the quality of the content you’re delivering along with those ads.
The result is an unending stream of click-bait headlines, listicles, and other vapid material that’s cheap and easy to produce, and that communicates very little. Topolsky minces no words in explaining why this approach is doomed:
“Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected, and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they will go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.”
Topolsky points out that media has never been about reaching the most people, it’s about reaching the right people. Topolsky’s proposed solution is to start over. Let the old media regime crash and burn so we can start making “Real Things for people,” not programmatic, algorithmic “New Things.” The media is in the storytelling business: the better the stories, the more you deliver to your audience.
How copyrights keep publicly funded research behind a paywall
Just as the free information available online is not worth much, the valuable information is more likely to come with a price tag. That includes research paid for in whole or part by taxpayers.
Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web at CERN in the early 1990s as a simple way for researchers to communicate and share. Now much scientific and other scholarly research is accessible only by paying a fee. A big chunk of this research is financed by public funds. In an April 18, 2016, opinion article on Wired, Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley calls for a rule requiring that all publicly funded research be available via a “permissive license.”
In an April 24, 2016, post on Medium, Joe Brewer attempts to convert Merkley’s article into a “teachable moment” on the nature of capitalism. Brewer presents the roots of capitalism in the early nineteenth century Enclosure Movement that allowed aristocrats to claim public lands by building walls around them, displacing many peasant farmers and turning others into serfs. The increased migration of people from rural to urban areas led to the growth in cheap labor that made possible the industrial revolution.
Brewer writes that this became a double-barreled opportunity for owners to extract profit from the work of poor people. As Brewer puts it, “[c]apitalism was the refined system version of the colonial empires that it grew out of.” The “debt-servitude” that results allows wealthy people to maintain control, privatize public resources, and hoard wealth.
According to Brewer, to prevent a complete takeover by the wealthy, we need “public investment in education, open access to shared knowledge, peer-to-peer frameworks for open collaboration, legal protection of human rights (including those for fair negotiation of contracts), public safety, and all the other benefits that arise through processes of open collaboration in diverse societies.” Unfortunately, we appear to be going in the opposite direction in terms of openness.
Hand-in-hand with wealth hoarding is corruption, which Brewer describes in a separate essay as “systemic… across the globe.” It’s obvious that capitalism has created tremendous wealth that nearly everyone benefits from to varying degrees. We have to re-establish the balance between what works for everybody, and what works for only the economic elite.