The Decline and Fall of Smokestack Journalism

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

As the Internet changes the landscape, it has required a fundamental re-examining and reordering of many smokestack industries. One that has been affected the most is smokestack journalism. Smokestack journalists are those who came of age under the old order, where they had unique access to information (until as recently as five years ago it was difficult to even get access to a newswire feed, unless you were in the media.) By virtue of that unique access, they were assumed to have unique insights.

The Internet has changed that assumption. With dozens of newsfeeds available on a 7x24 basis (which may explain some of CNN's recent decline in viewers), and the ability to instantly search millions of web pages on any subject, being a journalist no longer has a special cachet. Matt Drudge has made this abundantly clear, which partly explains the traditional media's white-hot hatred of him.

What the Internet has also exposed is that many journalists have either gotten lazy or have limited talents, and appear to have lost the discipline of traditional reporting and feature writing. The public relations industry may have contributed to this, because it provides them with most of their information (which is known and acknowledged in advance to represent a given point of view) including executive interviews, customer case studies, and corporate information served up on a silver platter. Yet rather ironically, the media periodically engages in ‘PR-bashing'. This mostly consists of whining about the inevitable calls and emails from the Muffys and Buffys of the PR trade. What they don't acknowledge is that either directly or indirectly, at least 80% of the information they received is the result of a PR effort - not, as some of them claim, their own resourcefulness. Most of what you see in the media is only one degree of separation from someone's PR effort.

What are the signs of smokestack journalism, and a publication that is headed for extinction? Here a few guidelines:

No Clear Editorial Focus, or Compelling ‘Need-to-Read'

For readers or professionals who want stay informed, they must consume a lot of information which is typically done in summary fashion, or by scan-reading. Only topics of specific interest get read in depth. The Internet is ideal for this, with most search engines pulling up a host of information, 7x24, on any topic under the sun. It is interesting to note that a recent survey revealed that 70% of Internet users who primarily turn to the Internet for their news say that they can do a better job than the news editors.

For publications to compete with the Internet, they have to know their readers' interests and offer something that cannot be found elsewhere. In other words - they have to offer a compelling ‘need to read'. Very few publications can, or are able, to do this. It requires a lot of work and talent and the ability to spot and leverage issues which requires a deeper understanding of the given industry and the dynamics behind it. The recent wave of hype around the e-commerce industry in late 1999 and early 2000 is a case in point. To take much of the reporting at face value, one would have to assume that fundamental financial principles (such as the value of an investment being equal to the net present value of a discounted stream of earnings) had been set aside. Very few publications were willing to say from the start: "This is BS, with no real basis in fact, and pure speculation," until it became obvious to all. Hence their insights into "The New Economy" were usually little more than what one could hear on a street corner. Why waste time reading that?

Lack of Credibility

This is a real killer - an assessment from which, if the reader concludes it, the publication cannot recover. Loss of credibility comes in many ways - sloppy reporting or fact checking, unsubstantiated conclusions, opinion mixed with facts, blatant reporting biases, repeating a vested interest group's party line without disclosure, and in general, lack of an independent (and perhaps skeptical) reporting orientation.

For example, in the recent litigation between Microsoft and the Federal Government many publications gave interviews to Microsoft executives and mindlessly repeated their party line (something about not "giving up the right to innovate"), which was not the issue at all, and repeated other statements which were at times contradictory to the court's actual findings. Almost none of the publications pointed this out during the interviews, and they were content to echo Microsoft's blatant party line. Once an informed reader spots this - they will mentally hit the ‘Fast Forward' button, and also begin to read the rest of the publication with increased skepticism. If a second or third occurrence is noted, that publication will probably be off their reading list.

No Heavy Lifting: Puff Pieces and Cult-of-Personality Reporting

This is the type of reporting commonly seen in coffee-table magazines which are, by design, light reading. This kind of reporting is typically out of place in a professional publication and raises serious questions about the publication's claim to credibility.

One of the more tedious examples of this was a multi-page insert several years ago in a publication that focuses on technology marketing. This insert was a puff piece on Silicon Valley's very own version of Anthony Robbins - who is Geoffrey Moore. I was curious as to why he had received so much space, because I had not seen anything original or unique in his writings (which is a perspective that even he is now acknowledging.) What I found was that the piece was at times incoherent. For example, in a question and answer format, the reporter would regurgitate a synopsis of one of Moore's bromides and his response was: "Yeah, right." It was difficult to believe that the reporter would use this, or an editor would let it get by. Perhaps not surprisingly, I noted about a year later that the publication's editor had moved on to other pursuits.

Frankly, we don't need another article about Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, or the other over-reported players or companies. It's difficult to believe that there hasn't been more than enough written on those individuals, and that readers wouldn't want to see new commentators, or ones who haven't been as overexposed. But these gushing ‘sitting-at-the-foot-of-the-master' articles continue to appear several times a year, always purporting to say something new, when in fact it's the same old propaganda. These features have become cliches, simply the high-tech version of using sex to get attention when you really have nothing new to say.


Misinformation can either be deliberate or inadvertent, and is either a byproduct of sloppy research, a lack of critical thinking or due diligence, or can reflect an undisclosed editorial agenda.

The example I often use to illustrate this is the oft-stated comment that since there are two million marriages a year in the United States, and one million divorces, therefore the divorce rate is 50%. Who hasn't heard or read that, at one time or another? Would you be surprised to know that it is a false statistic? How can this be? Simply this - the rate of occurrence of an event is the number of times that event happens (divorces) divided by the base (total) number of the 'universe' (marriages). There are approximately 94 million marriages in this country. Divide one million by 94 million and what do you get? About a 1% divorce rate among existing marriages. The initial cliche statement that you have often heard should be restated as the number of divorces is 50% of the number of new marriages - which in itself is something of a meaningless statistic. It's like trying to draw some kind of inference about longevity by comparing the annual birth and death rates. This kind of misinformation, when repeated by the media, is especially dangerous when it is used to establish public policy, or to set business objectives.

Much the same faulty logic appears with distressing regularity in the media, usually in any area requiring some specific knowledge, or that is emotionally charged or ‘politically correct'.

In the business media, one of my favorite examples is the bankruptcy of a Scandinavian furniture store chain in the Boston area in the early 1990's. One of the founders came up with the amazing logic that "a computer error" resulted in the over-ordering of inventory, causing the bankruptcy. This excuse is so transparent as to be laughable, but to this day the media repeats it almost every time they interview this executive.

As a pilot, I usually read the media's coverage of aviation and also see many basic, avoidable misinformation errors. Some are the simple lack of fact checking (the Boston Globe recently reported that a pilot was flying a "Piper Cessna" - which would be the same as driving a "Chevrolet Ford"). On a different note, when the final NTSB report came out on the John F. Kennedy, Jr. crash (see the related article on this web site about the media's coverage of the crash), the Boston Globe had an editorial that bemoaned that it wasn't necessary to "assign blame" for the accident. Unfortunately, the Federal Aviation Regulations aren't that forgiving, and hold any pilot in command (such as Kennedy) "directly responsible for...the operation of that aircraft"(FAR 91.3 a). To anyone who is familiar with the Federal Aviation Regulations and pilot responsibilities, the Boston Globe's orientation appeared to be based on misinformation - emotionally desiring an assessment that isn't supported by the facts.

Excessive Graphics or ‘Over the Top' Design

Wired magazine lead the charge in this several years ago when they were first published. I found the graphics so severe that I couldn't even read the text on the table of contents. To this day, I still don't bother to read Wired. Besides, their orientation has been duplicated in other publications such as Fast Company. In a recent review of several months of accumulated magazines I noticed the same over-design characteristics in the recent issues of several other business publications. For example, large, unnecessary graphics on the table of contents page so that it spills over onto several pages. Lead-in photographs accompanying articles which occupy either a third or a half of a page - very obvious space-fillers. The smarter publications want their contents to be easy to assess and locate so they have a tight table of contents, use graphics to help you read it quickly, add an executive summary to each article and then cross-index the articles by editorial mentions of companies and people. That's about as close to a search engine that you can get in a printed piece. With that kind of easy content assessment - chances are the reader will at least review the entire contents - and most likely find at least one article of interest.

No Searchable Web Site or Indexing

As a consultant, up until a few years ago I had an elaborate system of files of printed articles and information that could be of future use. No longer - I just fire up my meta search engine on the web, or access databases of published articles (dating back 20 years) and get whatever I need in short order. This capability has a significant implication for publications - that they should have their contents accessible and indexed on the web. If they don't, they are of little use to current or future readers. I have noticed that even subscription-only newsletters are beginning to understand this - for example - Jeff Tarter's well-regarded Soft*letter is now accessible on the web. Conversely, publications that do not have a searchable or indexed archives are of little or no value in the Internet era.

The Internet, like any form of new technology, will cause some dislocations of established industries and the media is no exception. Media professionals can, and have, quickly adapted their work styles to accomodate the new technology and tend to regard it as a talent multiplier. The marginal players, on the other hand, regard any change that breaks down artificial barriers to information as a threat, and rightly so. But it is only a threat to the smokestack journalists.

Copyright 2000 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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