By Bhanuj Kappal Jun. 24, 2016
The reference to journalism as “content” implies that journalism isn’t about telling people things they need to know, but about grabbing as many eyeballs as possible.
Earlier this week, I woke up to the news that the future of journalism is a hellish dystopia of cyber-Orwellian buzzwords, smug Silicon Valley technobabble, and a Biblical flood of video embeds. “Well, duh!” I hear you say. Journalists, editors, in fact anyone invested in the idea of ethical, responsible journalism has had this same recurring nightmare for years, waking up screaming in a pool of their own sweat at least once a fortnight. But this week the nightmare became terrifyingly real. And its name is Tronc.
Three weeks ago, Tribune Publishing – the reputed American media company that owns a number of local newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune – rebranded itself as Tronc. Short for ‘Tribune Online Content’, Tronc is supposed to sound hip and high-tech, just like the company’s plans for a new, futuristic journalism (more on that later). Instead, it sounds like a neologism for a tech-illiterate management that has no idea what it’s doing. It’s not hard to imagine the highly paid branding consultant who sold them on the idea walking out of their office and telling his boss, “I can’t believe those old troncs fell for it.” Alternatively, it’s the sound your smartphone makes when you throw it at the ground, much like the company’s tech disruption fantasy meeting the cold, hard concrete of reality. Twitter’s comedians have had a field day with the word, suggesting new definitions or wondering if it’s a reference to the reefer – the people in charge of rebranding were almost certainly smoking.
Not content with troncing themselves once, the company followed it up with two horrifying videos to explain this new vision to their employees, and motivate them with the cheerful reminder that “change is mandatory, but survival isn’t”. You can watch the videos below, but let me take you through the key points. The first video starts with Tronc’s chief technology officer Malcolm CasSelle telling us, “This is the future of journalism. This is the future of content.” He’s wearing the smile of an IT guy who’s suddenly been handed the keys to the kingdom and is already contemplating his revenge on reporters who can’t learn how to use the goddamn printer. “It’s about meeting in the middle,” adds Tronc chief digital officer Anne Vasquez in the video. “Having a tech start-up culture meet a legacy corporate culture and then evolving and changing.” As somebody who’s worked in a tech start-up, let me translate that for you: “Editorial, you’re fucked.”
“That’s really the fun part, that’s exciting,” she continues, with the same shell-shocked expression as captive American soldiers denouncing the West in Taliban propaganda videos. The video continues in the same vein for a couple of minutes as the two Tronc executives drop buzzword after buzzword until it all blends together into a word soup of “optimisation”, “efficiency”, “machine learning”, and “content”.
To make matters worse, all of this is set to background music straight out of a battle scene from Age of Empires, with surreal graphics stolen from one of (Pinky and) the Brain’s elaborate plans for world domination. It’s the sort of nonsense you use to bamboozle gullible investors when you don’t actually have a business strategy or even a new idea. It amazes me that Tronc’s HR thought its staff of reporters wouldn’t be able to see through the bullshit. The shorter second video is an equally clueless sizzle reel, with gems like “Because newspapers are printed on light” and “A storied portfolio of storytelling is pooled, personalised, and presented to everyone on Earth at the speed of light”. I don’t know what any of that means, except that their copywriter needs some better drugs.
All of this would just be a hilarious branding disaster if Tronc didn’t own 10 per cent of the midsize newspapers in the US, alongside two of the country’s biggest newspapers. Faced with declining subscriptions, falling ad revenues, and an internet-oriented market that no longer has much space for city papers, the company has recently been subject to a hostile takeover bid by rivals Gannett. The desperation that is behind this half-baked reorganisation is being felt by newspapers and news publishers not just in the US, but everywhere in the world, including India. And under all the jargon overkill are ideas that resonate with a lot of the world’s new media entrepreneurs, ideas that bode ill for journalism as we know it.
The first peg of the Tronc rebrand is that they will pool in resources from all their local papers through a “content optimisation engine”, to prevent duplication of efforts and to draw in more readers. So far, so good, even if they don’t say how this will practically work. But alongside this, they also aim to increase the percentage of articles with video embeds (not just any video embeds, but those on Brightcove, a monetisable video player) from 16 per cent to 50 per cent by 2017. The logic behind this is that videos earn them more money per clicks. But what if the story you’re writing doesn’t have the potential for video? Well then you’re shit out of luck. And if you write too many of those stories, you’re probably out of a job too. In fact I’m sending Arré a video of me saying “Fuck Tronc” on repeat while juggling lit candles, just to make sure there’s enough video content for this story.
The second peg of Tronc’s so-called strategy is using “artificial intelligence” algorithms to automate “packaging” – deciding which illustrations, photos, and videos should go along with a news piece.
Don’t get me wrong, video content is great, and one of the things newspapers will have to get into to survive. But it’s not a magic cure, and a mandated quota approach to video embeds is the wrong way to go about it. Without a carefully considered strategy on when and where and how to deploy video, all you’re doing is driving away even more readers because all these videos are playing hell with your page load times. To quote, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, “Video is not an idea. It’s what you do when you have no idea.”
The second peg of Tronc’s so-called strategy is using “artificial intelligence” algorithms to automate “packaging” – deciding which illustrations, photos, and videos should go along with a news piece. Again, nothing wrong with the basic idea, and such tools would be useful for journalists, if they actually exist. But a vision for the future of journalism it is not. Data and algorithms might help make your operation work more efficiently (which is corporate-speak for getting more work out of your employees while paying them the same, or less) but it’s not a strategy in and of itself. As this piece in the Harvard Business Review suggests, Tronc is managing for metrics rather than mission. And Tronc isn’t the only media company missing the woods for the “big data” trees. This tech-obsessed, metric-led approach is becoming de rigueur across the board, including at a number of Indian media companies I’d rather not name, because I’d still like to write for them. And contrary to the sales pitch, this is an approach that will only lead to journalism’s managed decline, rather than the rejuvenation it promises.
But the biggest problem with Tronc and its vision for journalism is apparent in the wording of its press release, which says it will “focus on turning itself into a ‘content curation and monetisation’ company that creates and distributes ‘premium’ content”. Yup, it’s that fucking word again. The reference to journalism as “content” is a deliberate, marketing-led devaluation of journalism as something that sits on the same spectrum as ScoopWhoop’s clickbait listicles and those quizzes your aunts keep sharing on Facebook. It implies that journalism isn’t about telling people things they need to know, but about grabbing as many eyeballs as possible while still, occasionally, breaking a story or two. It’s an excuse to breach the firewalls between the editorial and business sides of a news publication, because unlike journalism, content is about page views and CPMs, and that’s business’s business. Thinking of news as “content” leads us down the path to business models that compromise editorial independence and integrity for the bullshit that is “branded journalism” and “infotainment”. Oh and of course, content is cheap and “being cheap in media” is what has led to this sorry state of affairs in the first place.
This then, may be the saddest part of all. The marketing campaign for Tronc might be a total failure, but the vision behind it really is the future of journalism we’re heading toward. And unless something changes, and fast, we’re well and truly tronc’d.
Bhanuj Kappal writes about music, culture, and anti-nationals. After doing a bunch of odd jobs in the culture industry, he’s now decided to be a freelance journalist, and live at the mercy of newspapers’ accounts departments. Will write for food.