In the 1950s, M. King Hubbard devised an economic theory about what would happen when humans hit our peak oil extraction point. Several decades later, I think Hubbard’s theory, with a little tweaking, makes for a pretty good descriptor of the current media landscape. Or, as I like to call it, “peak content.”
Most of the time, when we talk about journalism and media, we talk about ad dollars, circulation revenue, and attention (let’s be real—clicks) from the audience. I’m not the first to write about the decline in the quality of editorial content or ad dollars. But it is rare that we discuss what online media in particular is doing to journalists, writers, and editors in the fast-moving digital age.
Essentially, many newsroom writers and editors feel that they are bumping up against their maximum output, even as their bosses demand ever-more productivity.
Jim Tankersley is economic policy correspondent for The Washington Post. In an interview with Quartz, Tankersley notes that while reporting has always been demanding, the current environment has created problems far beyond the bounds of workplace exhaustion.
“What strikes me lately [. . .] is how relentless the demands are on all of my reporter friends, no matter where they work or what they write about,” Tankersley says. “Everyone is juggling. If you want to do big, important, time-consuming pieces, the ones that really serve your audience and your community the most, you almost have to be able to turn out quick-hitting stories at the same time.”
Young people in the media frequently complain about all of the extra skills young journalists now need to get hired and create compelling content. We worry about how hard it can be to get a job. We spill a lot of ink whining about the decline of quality content and reporting, and the rise of so-called click-bait. We bemoan the difficulty of making money while producing good journalism, and we try to fix the problem through technological innovations, subscription services and partial paywalls.
While Tankerlsey says those who are able to pull off this type of multitasking should be applauded, he’s worried that the younger reporters especially “are often running perilously close to burnout. We should all worry about reporters running out of time or energy for more ambitious work,” he says.
The constant pressure of deadlines and the realities of the journalism economy can lead to feelings of disempowerment. And when journalists feel disempowered, they not only lose their ability to do their jobs well–they also stop caring about whether they do a good job.
Even as I write this piece, I feel a little guilty. I’m asking people who work full-time at publishers (full disclosure: I used to work at The Economist, then news startup Storyful, and now at my own news startup Catchpool) to give me quotes for a piece that will run a competitor’s site. What’s their incentive to even give me an opinion?
Frankly, I think the incentive is born out of desperation. These are dark times. The current state of rapid media creation and frantic consumption is creating widespread stress and anxiety that’s no longer sustainable. Right now, journalists need all the empathy they can get.
What are some other implications of peak content exhaustion? There are plenty of practical considerations. If the media continues to be created and spread at such a rapid rate, we know the effects are unlikely to be positive. Fact-checking already has a troubling tendency to fall by the wayside. The need to churn out constant content also means that editors often lack the time to do more than proofread. Then there are the intangible things we’re losing: the art and joy of writing; the ability to leave the office in search of interesting people and stories begging to be told. Most worrisome of all, we could lose journalists’ ability to act as watch dogs on behalf of the public.
Every journalism student knows they are supposed to shine a spotlight on the issues that matter. But it’s hard to do that when your boss wants you to churn out 10 posts a day. And when journalists are expected to maintain an active social-media presence and share their thoughts on every fresh twist in the 24-hour news cycle, it’s difficult to find the time to identify the stories that truly need telling.
It’s a sad truth that some of our greatest reporters have had to bail out in search of a saner or more impactful job thanks to the new media ecosystem. Budding journalists should do their best to prepare themselves for the stressful realities of the job.
“When building a journalistic career today, it’s easy to be pulled into going after whatever shiny objects look enticing,” Dr. Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and director of the Center for Progressive Development, tells Quartz. “To counter that, you need to build a strong inner core of self-knowledge regarding your own values and a capacity for inner calm. [. . .] Trying to define for yourself a larger vision of your career development also will help to manage the stress and sense of being overwhelmed.”
Certainly journalists are not the only professionals to experience burnout. But the issue should concern anyone who cares about current events. When journalism becomes unsustainable for its practitioners, the news itself is bound to suffer.