September 9, 2016

WEISSMANN | You Won’t Read This Either

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Or rather, I bet you won’t read this in its entirety. People don’t really read anymore — we hardly have the patience for it. It’s a clickbait culture, and we only have time for the headline. I’m not talking about purely literary reading, which is at a three-decade low according to the Washington Post, but also journalist efforts — news articles, op-eds, blogs. Recently, a friend sent me a somewhat comical article that connected psychopathic personality traits to the drinking of a common beverage, one she knew I enjoyed. I asked if she thought I, too, exhibited psychopathic tendencies. “Oh,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t actually read the article.”

When people ask me if I am aiming for a career in journalism, I dodge. “Journalist? No, I don’t want to be a journalist, I just want to do something in writing.” Journalism feels like shouting words into the void, your thoughts disappearing after a few days into the infinite annals of the Internet.  Today we are much more captivated by memes, GIFs and videos; journalism has to employ a comedic aspect to grab our attention. Things not only have to inform but entertain, and thus the Internet has devolved into things like An Open Letter to My Best Friend’s Mom and Your Finals Weeks, As Told By The Office. It feels as though we are penning novels, but the people instead want picture books.

And print media is dying a slow death, going down still swinging and waxing poetic about the golden days of journalism. Today newspapers can’t afford to keep themselves in print without outside funding or donations, which can compromise the efforts of a paper now beholden to corporate interests. If you’re particularly interested in the decline of print media, I suggest you check out John Oliver’s piece on journalism, where he contrasts newspapers’ begotten stubbornness to hold on to traditional patterns with the fact that they are still the sources that other forms of media rely on to make themselves credible. “Whenever this show is mistakenly called journalism, it is a slap in the face to the actual journalist whose work we rely on,” he says about his comedic broadcasts.

And yet, journalism is something I believe in profoundly. You’ve heard the phrase “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, if something happens in the world and we fail to capture it, to record it and retell it, did it happen at all? I would argue no, that the only stories that get passed on are the ones we collectively choose to tell. What we know of 1916 is limited to what records we have of that time in history, and what people will know about 2016 is limited to what stories we’ve committed to writing, photo or video. This is why journalistic efforts are vital — it’s still relevant, critical even, to chronicle history.

But how do you do something this important for free? It’s a double bind; newspapers and other media outlets must both function as a business and also maintain informational integrity, and they can barely do one with violating the goals of the other. The advent of the Internet swiftly destroyed the need to pay for one’s information, let alone pay for your information to come from the most accurate source. Today everyone can chronicle history. You could pick up your phone this very minute and author a tweet, snap a picture, take a video and share them all with our interconnected society. This is why to be a journalist no longer seems like a prestigious role — if everyone is a journalist, no one is.

And so we adapt. Print newspapers shift directions to focus on their online readership, freeing themselves from the constraints of a daily publication (incidentally, The Sun prints three of five weekdays this semester, did you notice?). Magazines like The New Yorker publish satire and intelligent cartoons to educate through humor. Data journalism and interactive articles are on the rise. Podcasts have utterly taken over. We take the citizen journalism and organize it into cultural observations and reflections of our society.

And maybe, just maybe, people continue to read to the end of an article.

Ruth Weissmann is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.