If you’ve been on Wikipedia at any point this week — and of course you have — then you’ll know. It’s asking for your money. That huge tab blares right in your face every so often as part of Wikipedia’s fundraising drives. Its pitch is brilliant for what it says (they need the money because they don’t sell ad space) just as much as for what it doesn’t say (your life would really be different without it).
The proliferation of Wikipedia, other “free access, free content” sites and now smartphones will continue to revolutionize the way people around the world access information. You can educate yourself in ways that would otherwise have been impossible – or at least required quite a bit more cost and effort. You won’t likely learn “how to think” from the Internet alone, but the democratization of knowledge remains a colossal change in the way we get our facts.
The effect isn’t limited to encyclopedias. It also applies to news. Newspapers, magazines, television stations and even “public intellectuals” essentially amassed thought monopolies until about two decades ago. The information and ideas that were in print or on television were what you consumed. Contrarians who felt something wasn’t quite right could seek out alternatives, but it took time and concerted effort — or a trip to the library, at least.
The bottom line is that organizations that had a lot of unquestioned authority now have to compete for it – and they often can’t. A few that were big enough, like The New York Times, had the resources and the manpower to buy time to adjust in the last 10 years, and they might ride out the wave, but not without more cuts in newsroom staff (a new round of departures at the Times is happening this week). My prediction is that, in the next 10 years, the glitzy magazines so many Yalies will soon want to work for in their careers will start experiencing the same fate. The smaller ones won’t survive. The reason is simple: People don’t care to listen to (much less pay for) the perspectives that the people who work at the New Yorker publish just because they work at the New Yorker.
Some people would call this new impatience ignorance. But it’s just a result of bringing much more rigorous competition to journalism. Fancy publications still hire some of the best writers who will still produce some of the best journalism, but the people who are just hanging on because of the organization’s institutional heft will be getting early retirement offers sooner or later. Reporters who write stories about Pope Francis’ “breakthrough announcement” that evolution is not contested by the Church need to get different beats or go back to school. Or just read a history book. Spoiler: It’s not news.
Columns, for their part, are on their way out — especially print columns where the author can’t link to other sites and sources. Editorials these days are more about conversation that the reader can access and read. YDN-style pieces without this feature, still retained by some major news organizations, will continue to be phased out, though they’ll definitely continue to thrive on college campuses — where amateurs like us will take full advantage and maybe learn something in the process. It’s definitely an opportunity that teaches the writer far more than it ever teaches or informs the readers, who have to be the subjects of naïve, poorly thought-out or sensationalist pieces.
We should embrace the end of columns and the end of news “authorities” in general. Every single person alive can deliver breaking news today, and though organizations that can hire trained, brilliant journalists can and absolutely must remain, those people take up a fraction of those currently employed. I’m hoping this eventually means CNN bites the dust too, since breaking news can now be reported by anyone with a smartphone and paid pundits’ commentary can’t be tolerated by anyone.
The new information and journalism world is full of risks. There’s much more talent out there, and much more trash. The only safeguard against turning into a master conspiracy theorist online — or just a badly informed citizen — is education and civic engagement, which can involve the Internet but which ultimately requires person-to-person interaction.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I’m excited for the end of columns. I’m excited for bad talent being weeded out and new voices that never had a chance to rise. Money, fame and all the rest are still disproportionately large obstacles to people with great ideas who don’t have the means. But the Internet has made it just a little easier.
But for all those who — for whatever inexplicable reason — have continued to read and comment on this stuff, it’s taught this amateurish columnist a ton. I’ll always be grateful.
John Aroutiounian is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.