What’s the matter with Kansas? What’s the matter with us? Why are we like Kansans and vote or act against our own interests? Because we know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
The shrinking of journalism is appalling but it’s just another aspect of the widening Uberized gig economy which people claim to enjoy — so cheap! so sharing! — until they’re gigging themselves and the fun’s over.
Newspaper companies are cutting back, like a failing coffee bar offering a watery brew, ill-trained baristas and no bathroom. At least cabbies are being replaced by Uber, however unfairly. There is nothing to replace journalism. No, not even your blog, however fine.
The dead newspapers — and that includes websites/tablet/iPhone editions — were killed partly by people getting a taste of free journalism/cheaper rides, and they’re going to damage your nation, your city, you. When Uber misbehaves, you will have no one to find out its grand plan. When the Harper government demanded tax audits of environmental charities, charities couldn’t have raised the alarm alone.
Whether you’re right- or left-wing or in the middle, you are almost without recourse in a reporter-free society. Mainstream journalism has a huge reach among the rich, old, young, middle-class, people who are mostly too busy to care, everyone. No one will be interested in your tiny complaint. It may be huge to you but a tweet of misery won’t get things moving.
Take Canadaland, the podcasting website that critiques journalists, among other targets. I often admire it greatly, particularly its recent daring work on child abuse. But a contributor tweeted on Monday: “Remember to email me with any rumours & gossip you might have. I might also make some up.” She had earlier written in her Not Sorry column: “Today I learned I have libel insurance so next week’s newsletter is going to be AMAZING.”
When a staffer re-tweeted this, I tried to warn them that not only had they endangered their libel insurance, they had given anyone an opening to sue them, successfully, by saying they had reckless disregard for the truth.
Libel insurance doesn’t mean you can libel; it means you have the means to protect yourself against accusations of libel. Journalists hate making mistakes, they berate themselves, but mistakes happen. Journalists do not make things up. And here you have a news site endangering its existence by saying it’s OK to make things up. This is not the journalism you need.
Plenty of people love newspaper decline: cops, real-estate developers, scammers, criminals, banks, even governments. Anyone who doesn’t want scrutiny is happy to see it go. But you? You will not like it.
As for Uber, even drivers will grow to like it less. Uber is studying its drivers with a gimlet eye. The Guardian reports that Uber has begun quietly test-monitoring some drivers in Texas to flag dangerous driving via “abrupt movements in a smartphone’s accelerometer, the movement sensor in most phones.”
For Uber’s weak point is its reliance on human drivers. Some are good, some are awful, but there are many. Journalism’s weak point is its reliance on human journalists and editors, who are fewer but must be paid. Good journalism is regulated, in that it is costly, requires salaries, benefits, tech gear, libel insurance, lawyers, editors to guide stories and organize systems and structures, an editor-in-chief, and the confidence of the board.
As Paul Haavardsrud of CBC.ca put it in a remarkable series on Uber and what it means, “the company’s systemic disregard for regulations — a stratagem termed ‘corporate nullification’ — can undermine the laws of the land that everyone else follows.”
“This isn’t just an Uber problem. If they get away with it, every company will do this,” U.S. law professor Frank Pasquale told the CBC. “It’s game over for vast swathes of business regulation: environmental, insurance, civil rights, worker protection, consumer protection, that’s all gone.”
Journalism is already becoming a gig economy by increasingly relying on freelancers and contract employees, who may well be better than staffers, I cannot say. Everyone feels timid and fragile. No one sticks their neck out. There is a massive fading of courage and reporting.
Uber would prefer driverless cars. Journalism would prefer next to no staff. It will be an unhappy span of years before the industrial shakeout ends. Meanwhile, people, drive, write, rent out for Airbnb, TaskRabbit and temp, not realizing they are conniving in their own destruction.
Citizenship is a joint mission; we keep each other honest via different people and organizations inspecting each other for flaws or victories. One of them is journalism. You’ll miss it.