You can’t fix journalism, but you can get a better journalism fix

Michael Estrin on 2016-12-12

After the election, friends, acquaintances, and long-forgotten Facebook avatars seemed to recall that I was once a journalist. As one blast from the past wrote, “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I’m assuming you might be as scared shitless as I am, so I thought I’d ask you, a professional, what can we do [about] the media?”

For more than a decade, I heard friends, lovers, and even perfect strangers claim there’s no point in paying for news. With glee, these folks indiscriminately shared whatever clickbait was trending. And if the topic of quality journalism ever came up (it rarely did), they’d ask, “How do you earn money making something people get for free?” So when I started getting questions about saving journalism, I thought, holy crap, welcome to the party, you complacent tools! The death of journalism has only been a thing for almost two decades, but now that you’re “scared shitless,” we’re going to do something about the fact-free, low-information crap-stew we’re all drowning in!

I began to type out a response. Then I realized I’m a sarcastic asshat without my coffee. So I drank a cup and got right with the world. Then two questions came to mind.

First, hadn’t the writer seen any of those fantastic rah-rah posts bouncing around social media about how it’s time to start paying for journalism?

Those posts all made the critical point that you get what you pay for, which is why those who don’t pay for news end up consuming a news-like substance. Then again, maybe those posts were unique to my bubble, and maybe (just maybe), my bubble is better than your bubble when it comes to understanding Silicon Valley’s oldest rule — if you don’t pay for the product, YOU are the product.

Second, why the fuck was this blast from the past asking me?

Before I became a ghostwriter, I was a journalist, but not a famous journalist. I was just a guy who found stuff out and wrote about it for money. I never covered politics, although I did begin my career covering porn, which is sort of like politics because it requires wading through sleaze and calling out lies; except as a porn journalist you don’t have to demean your craft with sex scandals. I’ve written a lot about advertising and quite a bit about law, both of which have more overlap with porn than you might think. And before I crossed the public relations Rubicon (a real issue in journalism), I wrote about personal finance while the economic clusterfuck called The Great Recession seemed to be falling hardest on the heads of people who got their financial news from whatever website had the best SEO strategy. So yeah, I have journalism bona fides, but why would anyone think I have the answer to saving journalism?

I mentioned the “why me” stuff to my wife, who advised me to “chill.” Evidently, I can be an asshat even when caffeinated. So I went for a long walk. I did some soul searching. I blamed people. Then I blamed the Internet. Then I blamed the people on the Internet. Then I came to a conclusion: you can’t save journalism, but you can save yourself, and you can do it on the cheap.

Look at the ads

Are the ads of the dancing lizard pop-up variety? Do they link to “articles” that start with a number and sound too bat-shit crazy for a supermarket tabloid? Junky ads are a great indicator of a site’s ability to produce original reporting.

Cost: Free, a little bit of your time and a larger junk of your soul.

Consider a news source that doesn’t accept ads at all

We have good public media in this country and because it’s member-supported your dollars give you tremendous say. To quote the late great Huell Howser, “that’s amazing!”

Cost: Whatever you want. But realistically, at least as much as you tip your barista, you cheap bastard!

Subscribe to a magazine (digital counts)

Some stories, often the most important stories, are too big for your daily news diet. Did Russian intelligence interfere with the U.S. election, and if so, what does that mean going forward? The answer to those questions are complicated as fuck, but they certainly don’t start with the acronym tl;dr.

Cost: Less than you pay for streaming each month.

Note the byline

The name of the reporter is just as important as the name of the publication. As one of my former colleagues pointed out, “Too many garbage articles either have no byline or say ‘staff.’ Avoid that at all costs.”

Cost: Free, less time than it takes to scan the ads, and you don’t have to give away any of your soul.

Always ask yourself, ‘what the fuck am I reading?’

Let’s get technical: it would take you 4 gazillion lifetimes to read all the crap calling itself journalism on the Internet. I know this because I’ve written too much of it. You and I both know I’m not exaggerating because the Internet is a bullshit machine that never stops bullshitting. (It’s also a great place to shop). Meanwhile, YOUR TIME is limited, just like the effectiveness of writing in all caps. You can’t waste time reading bullshit news. You just can’t.

What is bullshit news? There are tons of signs. Here are a few.

Slide shows are bullshit.

Stories sourced entirely to another website are bullshit.

Gossip is bullshit. Ok, gossip is also sweet, but if you can take a little analogous hand wringing, too much distraction in your news diet can cause diabetes and leave you blind.

Bottom line: if you’re not constantly asking, “what the fuck am I reading?” you’re lost.

Cost: Using the time is money axiom, one must consider the time spent questioning bullshit, relative to the time spent consuming it.

Ask your friends, family, and coworkers if the journalism they’re consuming is right for you?

Facebook is fine, but talking about the news is even better in real life. Doing so forces you to summarize the article, which is a great way to spot holes in the reporting. Plus, a conversation forces you to ask questions, which is another great way to spot holes in the reporting. But the main bonus to talking about news IRL is that you have to step outside your bubble and face something called reality, which is made up of these things called facts.

Cost: Talk is cheap.

Don’t read the comments

They do more harm than good. Avoid until there’s a civility patch.

Cost: Your soul back.

Michael Estrin has contributed news and news-like substances to Bankrate, which syndicates to Yahoo, The Boston Globe, and Fox Business News. Before it folded, he won two awards for profile reporting at California Lawyer Magazine. After crash landing at the scrappy underdog of porn trades, he switched to the click economy beat and started drinking with advertising executives. His second novel, Not Safe For Work: A Heywood Jablowme Fiasco, won a 2016 Watty Award for its portrayal of a down-and-out rookie journalist at porn’s second best trade publication.