On the Dangers of News Metastasis

Scott Karp, CEO of the news aggregation/journalists’ social bookmarking service Publish2, has a post on his blog that has finally allowed me to identify the disease that is killing mainstream journalism.

Karp reproduces a horrifically detailed snapshot of the volume of news stories generated after the Microsoft/Yahoo talks fell apart. Karp reports a total of 2,000 stories and counting. Suffice to say that the list appearing on his blog is about 40 screens deep and many items link out to yet more stories.

One look at the images and I made the diagnosis: The news business, due to both genetic and environmental factors, is dying as malign matter reproduces in an out-of-control way, destroying healthy tissues nearby and threatening the survival of the patient itself.

This is, of course, the definition of metastatic cancer. Let me belabor that metaphor just a bit.

The malign matter is poor and mediocre news.

The genetic factors are the deeply imprinted DNA of the news business; the environmental factors are obvious.

The reproduction of the diseased matter is out of control because people who run news organizations believe they need to create “their” “branded” versions of news events for “their (!)” readers. (They also operate in packs and lack the courage to ignore what the competition is doing and try to find something more important to do.)

The disease process is destroying healthy tissues nearby and threatening the patient’s life. If the reduced number of writers and editors who truly can add value to a particular news event–and can be economically sustained by emerging business models–are all sent lurching after the same big stories, the institution of journalism becomes weaker and loses value. Who would fight to sustain such a low quality of life?

Karp lays out the case against undifferentiated news content fully, so read his entry for a master class on the matter.

His recommended treatment: What he calls “link journalism”–having writers and editors curate the best content on a topic regardless of source, and focus their energies on the few stories where they can make important contributions.

But that, unfortunately, is what might be called “alternative medicine”–a technique so far out of mainstream practice that it is ridiculed and dismissed by conventional practitioners. [If you doubt this, ask any mainstream journalist sititng nearby what he or she thinks of curating the best links for most stories and pursuing the few stories they can do their best work on.] No, the conventional practioners prefer the protocol they are currently pursuing: surgery, poison and radiation.

You know: Killing the patient in order to save him.

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6 Comments on “On the Dangers of News Metastasis”

  1. Phil Baumann Says:

    Bipolar Affective Disorder should also be included in your diagnoses of MSM. Most of what gets covered is shiny and glittery and then is followed by bouts of depression mired in doom and gloom.

    One Psychiatric MD has described mania where “ideas are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones.”

    We can talk all day about the Long Tail and the future decline of MSM, but the existential pessimist in me says that whatever evolves will evolve around a denominator of most common and trite. Still, the web holds a promise of democratization which opens the “design space” for improved features of news gathering and reporting.

    Scott brings us a great example of abundance of data versus scarcity of meaning. Just how do we squeeze meaning out of noise? There’s a Billion-dollar question.


  2. […] Web 2.Oh. . .really? wrote an interesting post today on On the Dangers of News MetastasisHere’s a quick excerptKarp reproduces a horrifically detailed snapshot of the volume of news stories generated after the Microsoft/Yahoo talks fell apart. Karp reports a total of 2,000 [. . . ]…Scott Karp, CEO of the news aggregation/journalists’ social bookmarking service Publish2, has a post on his blog that has finally allowed me to identify the d… […]

  3. John Kelly Says:

    Riddle me this, Batman: Observers decry the consolidation of the news media, as newspapers and TV stations are owned by fewer and fewer wealthy corporations, arguably stifling diversity of thought and opinion. The thousand-blooming-flowers of the web, however, can introduce a multitude of voices. Hurrah! But mightn’t reducing original reporting and choosing instead to tend link farms lead to the same sort of paucity of diversity as having everything owned by Gannett or News Corp.?

    I suppose the counterargument is that 80 percent of the duplicative reporting is crap. And the zeppelin is headed down anyway, economically speaking, so we have to desperately lighten the load. But let us not forget that something might be lost if we embrace Karp’s model. This is probably inevitable. And it’s entirely unrelated to Rupert Murdoch’s “I drink your milkshake” strategy. But I find it ironic that the end result might well be the same– and sad that no one seems to be mentioning it as they proclaim that the web will magically make everything all right.

  4. Ivan J. Says:

    I’ll oversimplify a bit, but still: news reporting (and blogging?) would improve if it picks up some of the basic rules of scientific publishing. Just as google made pagerank based on the concept of references in scientific articles, blogging could improve if some very basic principles are followed. For instance, avoid plagiarism and understand that reproduction creates no value beyond reducing the costs of finding something. When Scott (the author of that post on mass duplication of content) suggest that links be given for relevant coverage, he is suggesting that “related work” be explicit, whereas asking readers is a much lighter version of peer-review (though it is true that in news & blogs, this light peer-review happens after publication, not before).

    Scott also says that originality is key to whatever a blogger is aiming at (being recognized for good content, more visits, authority,…). This is a basic principle in scientific publishing. Personally, I think the best mainstream media content is well-researched, uses information collected in the field, and balanced, giving various perspectives on the same argument.

    Blogging will have a hard time replacing good journalism in the next 5-10 years. It will certainly do so eventually, when the economic model of profitable blogging goes beyond advertising.

  5. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Phil–Love the Bipo comparison. Though I confess when I got to this part–//One Psychiatric MD has described mania where “ideas are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones.”// I thought for a second you might be talking about me. Yikes.

    John–You joker! (What I meant was: My good friend John–looking forward to your coming back stateside!) To use Jeff Jarvis’ slogan: Do what you do best, and link to the rest. The argument is that as resources to pay journalists shrink it’s better for media ecology–to say nothing of readers–if mainstream journalists focus on the stuff they can really do important work with, rather than doing a big story because, we’re-journalists-and-it’s-a-big-story. I haven’t checked yet, but I suspect that for yesterday’s elections, a handful of major papers in Indiana and North Carolina have something important and original to contribute. Toss in the Wash Post, NYTimes and AP–oh, okay, add in USAToday–and I think we’re covered. I’ll go check Google News, but I imagine there are dozens, if not hundreds, of mainstream outlets that will have devoted resources to their own not-very-good redundant reports on the election. (Of course, if you want your skillion flowers a’bloomin, you got your blogs, which really don’t create a drain on precious funded media resources.)

    Ivan–“Peer review”–and medical publishing generally–casts a fascinating light on all this. Peer review is at the heart of traditional journalism: smart people who know a lot about a topic devoting extended attention to making a report accurate and high-quality. Whatever business model emerges from the current mess, I believe that that process has to be funded somehow. Thanks for introducing the medical publishing idea into the conversation.


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