David Plotz – Digital journalism: From scourge to trend-setter

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Doug Junke

For David Plotz, the advent of digital journalism has been the best of times and the worst of times, to borrow from Charles Dickens.

Slate editor Plotz addressed Tuesday’s Congress 2014 Big Thinking crowd of 125 at Brock University with his engaging speech, “Fast, cheap and out of control: How the Internet has made journalism  better than it’s ever been.”

But by way of background first, Plotz grew up and still lives in Washington, D.C., graduated from Harvard in 1992 and has been a writer with Slate – an online current affairs and culture magazine -- since its inception in 1996, becoming editor in 2008. Slate has won two U.S. National Magazine Awards.

He has published two books: The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Plotz got his start in journalism by being rejected by 91 out of 92 newspapers to which he applied. It only got worse … before it got better once he found a home at Slate.

“I’m here to argue that maybe it’s not that bad, that maybe all the things that people have savaged the internet for — speed, carelessness, chaos, the destruction of the daily newspaper — are actually creating a golden age for journalism,” he said.

Slate and its peers had to overcome a world where no one took them seriously and “the poobahs were skeptical of digital journalism. Remember the first time most people heard of Internet journalism was when Matt Drudge broke the story of Monica Lewinsky’s affair with President Clinton. So the first rap on internet journalism was: Look, they have no standards. They publish lies and don’t even care,” said Plotz.

As blogs came along and flourished in the 2000s, the critique morphed too, said Plotz.

“It became: There’s no journalism on the internet, just bloviating and navel gazing by a bunch of guys in pajamas with bad breath and no friends.”

 Along came sites like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed with its 80 million readers a month and the rap against Internet journalism became, “It’s just a bunch of 23 years olds stealing stories from the New York Times, and dumbing them down,” he said.

But even as newspapers cut staff and print circulation declined, “digital journalism has, to all intents and purposes, become journalism,’ said Plotz.

“A first notable fact about it is that there is just way too much of it. The New York Times now publishes 250 items per day online, which sounds like a lot until you realize Huffington Post publishes 500 per day. And Fox news publishes 1,500 per day. And Yahoo publishes 3,000 per day.”

It’s heaven for a news junkie as most journalists now write stories plus tweet, do news sites, Facebook and LinkedIn posts, vines, videos, podcasts and email blasts. Increasingly it feels like everyone is publishing everything all the time and no one actually has time to read any of it. We’re drowning in tweets, and quizzes, Plotz said.

And although it all sounds bad, he said, there is an upside.

The real purpose of journalism, he says, is “to inform and entertain the public. And by that standard, it is clear we are living in a golden age. There has never been a better time to be a reader and watcher and listener of news. Never have you had so many choices, and so many that are excellent. And it’s also still a pretty excellent time to be a journalist.”

 He reminded his listeners that:

  • Today every single magazine and newspaper in the world is available to anyone with an internet connection, and instantaneously
  • Anyone in the world can publish and broadcast. There are no barriers to entry, as witnessed in the Arab Spring.
  • Wikipedia has made up-to-date, accurate, comprehensive information about practically everything available to everyone in the world, instantly.
  • A generation ago, data was hidden away and guarded in government files. Today, that data is available to all, allowing statisticians, journalists, web designers and pollsters like Nate Silver to make predictions far more accurate and useful than anything that ever existed. 

While newspapers, news magazines and network news have declined, the digital age has given birth to new kinds of journalism, including obsessional journalism that used to be confined to micro-circulation newsletter; explanatory journalism that seeks to create social capital; and podcast audio is surging.

Investigative journalism, like that done by ProPublica which won Pulitzer prizes in 2010 and 2011, and long-form journalism is alive and well, said Plotz. “At Slate, for example, every staffer is required to take a month a year to do a long-form project.”

Why is this digital explosion happening, he queried?

Technology is cheap. Distribution costs are zero. And labor plentiful and inexpensive.

“More importantly, digital publishers are inventing new business models as fast as digital editors are inventing new forms of digital journalism.”

Among the business models are subscriptions, freemium models (most free, extras for members), clubs, sites that sell merchandise or link to Amazon and generate affiliate revenue. Some host webinars and other digital events. Some syndicate their content. And the list goes on.

And Plotz added, “The new business models need great journalism to prosper.”

So is there anything wrong with what is happening?

  • There is a risk of losing the newspaper as the driving force in American journalism.
  • Digital journalism is creating “tons of jobs for young people” but do they which pay enough to buy a car or house, or to afford to have a child? There are few mid-level and senior positions.
  • Digital journalism moves too fast. “It has almost reached the point that news is rarely broken by news organizations anymore: It breaks on Twitter or even Reddit, and news organizations swoop in to make sense of it.”
  • There is one particular problem with our digital golden age that confounds and scares Plotz. The increase in speed has been accompanied by — especially in political journalism — ideological sorting. Political news no longer comes primarily from nonpartisan sources. Instead, media organizations on the left and right filter it for their consumers. We now read in enclaves, he said.

“One of the disappointing and scary things I have learned as an editor is that one of the best ways to attract readers is to pander to one side or the other...,” Plotz said. “The smart but even-handed story doesn’t perform nearly as well as the dumb screed. This fact is pushing journalism into ideological pockets. It’s comforting to only read what you want to hear. It’s also boring, and narrowing.

“As a journalist, this worries me. As a citizen, it terrifies me. This is the one change brought about by digital journalism that seems genuinely dangerous, and genuinely hard to undo,” he said.


For complete coverage, see the video of Plotz’s speech below:


Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2014