Yglesias

Objectivity as a Business Strategy

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Something that goes unmentioned too often in the United States is that “journalistic objectivity” as traditionally practiced by reporters at American newspapers and television stations is a business strategy as well as an ethos. The way it works is that when a market has only a small number of competitors (one or two daily newspapers in a given city, three television networks) the economic incentive is to try to be generic and inoffensive. Attracting passionate fans doesn’t really help you—even if you love the Indianapolis Star you’re not going to buy two copies a day.

In a more competitive marketplace like the one highbrow magazines and UK newspapers have always operated in things look different. You need to differentiate your product, and it pays to develop an audience of passionate fans. That’s the Internet.

The regulative ideal of “objective journalism” should be understood as a particular ideology associated with a business model of being bland and inoffensive. This particular approach has some pros and some cons, but it has only a tenuous relationship to the idea that what a writer ought to do is to describe “objective” reality. Those of us operating in a different economic paradigm have our own ideological theory which holds that our greater ability to call a spade a spade affords superior reality-describing powers. I think people are largely coming to realize that the shift from one mode to another is inevitable at this point, but people used to the older ways are likely to continue to prefer their model. What’s more of an open question, I think, is whether the concept of a journalist—rather than some more generic idea of a “person who writes about stuff”—will stay viable in the emerging new era.