How Journalism Changed—and Why It Went Negative

By Jack Limpert

Henry Fairlie wrote a Washingtonian story in 1984 about how journalists were getting rich. Get on television talk shows, get big checks by making speeches. Journalists increasingly could make big money and do just enough reporting to get by.

Oz Elliott, the former Newsweek editor, then teaching at the Columbia J School, told me that he wasn’t happy that journalists had discovered that selling attitude was a lot easier than reporting.

Then the Internet: To be seen as successful you had to build your brand. Journalists were judged by how many followers on Twitter. That encouraged journalists to be more public, more clever, more opinionated.

Old journalism had the writer do the reporting, then the editor and reporter decided on the headline. In the new journalism, the writer comes up with a headline and does just enough reporting to make it work.

For a writer to get the most attention, the more emotional and negative the better. In the landmark Daniel Kahneman book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, psychologist Paul Rozin pointed out that the negative trumps the positive in many ways. . . .A paper titled “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” summarized the evidence: “Bad emotions. . . have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.”

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