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Dropshipping journalism – Columbia Journalism Review

Dropshipping journalism – Columbia Journalism Review


On March 20, Nancy Cooper, the editor in chief of Newsweek, sent an email to her editorial staff. The subject was “What is a Newsweek story?”—an odd question at an eighty-six-year-old newsmagazine once considered one of the “big three,” alongside Time and the US News & World Report. The email contained four requirements for any story published on Newsweek.com. One, it must contain original reporting. Two, it must provide a unique angle or new information. Three, the reader must care about it. And four, the news must be news.

These should have been reasonable requests, if not bare-minimum standards, for any journalist anywhere. But Cooper allowed her staff no time to meet these goals. A few months earlier she’d told reporters they’d have to write a minimum of four stories per day, and now they felt she was asking for more while giving less. 

“We don’t want fewer stories or slower stories,” Cooper said in her email, “just to make every story we do better.”

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With two years of near-constant editorial changes behind them, many journalists at Newsweek have found their jobs increasingly difficult to do well—or at all. For most of the dozen or so reporters in the New York office, the day starts early. Their first story is supposed to be filed by 9am, and before it can be written, the story must be pitched to an editor over Slack in the form of a headline. In theory, these headlines appeal both to a reader and to Google’s algorithms, but in practice the algorithm takes precedence. Editors sometimes suggest more viral headlines, or pitch headlines themselves using Google Trends or Chartbeat. (Lack of knowledge on a topic doesn’t stop them from assigning stories, which has led to Newsweek wrongly declaring that Japanese citizens want to go to war with North Korea and incorrectly reporting that the girlfriend of Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock was a polygamist.)

Newsweek, of course, isn’t alone in crafting its headlines for a search engine; not even the New York Times is above writing “Who Is William Barr” or recapping talk show monologues. But at Newsweek, the headline can dictate the news, instead of the other way around. 

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“The approach we were taking to headlines was something a lot of writers objected to on an ongoing basis. They were a point of tension,” says Kastalia Medrano, who wrote for Newsweek’s science desk until February 2018.

The system is a remnant of the International Business Times’ ownership of Newsweek, which began in 2013 and formally ended in 2018, though the outlets still share executives. Many senior editors at Newsweek were promoted from IBT’s click-addicted breaking-news or culture desks. IBT, launched in 2006, is a classic news aggregator, with reporters in the US and Bangalore, plus a UK edition, churning out a high volume of clickbait at the expense of original, quality reporting. Former writer Owen Davis told me the site’s attitude toward search engine optimization was like a “cargo cult mentality”: the staffers who performed the most impressive rain (or click) dance were the ones praised, promoted, and moved over to Newsweek each time Google downgraded IBT in 2016 and 2017.

Cooper’s push for original reporting is in part about writing for Google News, which promotes original reporting higher than aggregated pieces in search results. For the same reason, Newsweek reporters are instructed that a story must be a minimum of four hundred words; to hit this number, one reporter says, he would pad an article about a movie by listing the cast members or summarizing an actor’s previous film credits. 

Another strategy to satisfy editors who demand new stories in as little as an hour: if two reporters are covering different angles on the same topic, the two stories might comprise largely the same summary, with only the lede containing new information.

“You’re chancing it half the time,” says a current Newsweek writer. “You’re being asked to write a story in two hours, and your editors are being asked to edit it in twenty minutes, and we’re all supposed to be experts on whatever it is the story’s about, even if we’re covering the entire world. It’s just not possible.”

Newsweek has tended to hire young reporters, many of them fresh from college papers or internships. In the course of my reporting for this piece, at least ten senior staffers left or were let go, their salaries freed up while Newsweek continued to look for “News Fellows,” contract employees working forty-hour weeks for $15 per hour, the minimum wage in New York City. (Job postings for Fellows have since closed.) Three former Fellows confirmed that they were expected to do the same amount of work as salaried reporters—a minimum of four stories a day, with no overtime—with the promise of being hired full-time after four months. 

“The owners see media as a profitable thing, but it’s profitable because they’ve found an exploitable workforce. There are so many young, earnest, hungry writers who will work for so little,” says Sydney Pereira, who covered climate change for Newsweek until March of last year. “We’re digging the owners out of debt at the expense of our mental health.”

 

Iworked at IBT in 2011 and 2012, the year before it bought Newsweek. I was twenty-four and thrilled. When I was hired, I was one of two reporters covering “world news.” My original contract stipulated that I had to bring in a minimum of ten thousand unique readers a month, an impossibly high number that my editor told me to ignore. The world, US, and business desks were meant to write “legitimate” stories that went on the front page, while a “Continuous News Desk,” later renamed…

Copywriting Jonathan Cartu

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