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Churnalism and Its Discontents

My first job out of college was writing a travel column for an American newspaper as I backpacked through Southeast Asia, China, and Korea. I took my assignment seriously and wanted to write once a week, taking time to edit each piece.  But the newspaper had a different plan for me. When a week passed after my first entry and I told my editor I was still editing my second, he patiently advised, “Olivia, this is a blog. We would rather you write less well and more often.” I was reminded of a shrill late-night television commercial for used cars or cheap electronics — “How do we do it? Volume, volume, volume!”

Little did I know, I was not the only one given such lax instructions. It is difficult to conduct a news search today without turning up something churned. As newspapers and magazines make last-ditch efforts at survival, journalism is becoming churnalism. The internet and social media have created an expectation that anyone with a connection can have instant access to the news. But instant access demands instant updates, and so reporters face constant pressure to rapidly regurgitate outside sources without fact checking. More often than not, the quality and credibility of their content is compromised.

Don’t believe me? The practice of churnalism is so pervasive that it prompted the creation of a “churn engine to distinguish journalism from churnalism.” On www.churnalism.com, you paste text into a box and can see what percentage of it matches with any other text in the press. The site allows you to follow the trajectory of an article: it is published, it is copied by other news agencies who make minor modifications but none that suggest any original research, still more agencies copy the copies, and the changes accumulate like a game of telephone. 

BBC’s Waseem Zakir is credited with coining the term, but churnalism gained notoriety with the publication of Flat Earth News, a book by British journalist Nick Davies. Here Davies exposed that only 12% of stories in the British press were generated by reporters, and a mere 20% of the stories were original. “You may faintly recognize news in some of these articles, especially gossip,” wrote the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan,but the prose is so odd as to seem extraterrestrial."

The need to quench the public’s thirst for instant updates has fed a cycle of rampant commodification. Instant updates require more staff, and more staff must be paid less. Staff who are paid less produce a lower quality product. This is Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” meets yellow journalism of the turn of the 20th century. Economics dictates that the product must be so cheap and therefore of such low quality that almost anyone can write it. Increasingly, anyone does. Content farms hire people to write up to 10 stories per shift, paying as little as $10 a story. The copy and paste tools have never gotten so much use. 

Despite the low quality of the articles, a large segment of the internet community consumes them eagerly, so they remain lucrative. As the Internet grows, economies of scale grow. The content provider pays the costs of writing the article just once, but with each passing year there are more and more eyes to see it. More and more money is on the table. One rehashed article, if properly search-engine-optimized, can generate enough page views to support a low-paid writer, even if ads pay just cents per page view. There are no fixed costs for distribution — no printing presses, no trucks. There is only the economic reality, sad for everyone who cares about quality journalism: In a competitive market, an industry will expand until the revenue falls to the cost of production.

But you don’t need an economics degree to figure this out. It is as simple as the lesson you learned back in that first game of telephone: A rumor is just a warped version of the truth. Unfortunately, the same is true of a lot of the news we read today.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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