Invited Essay: A Reflection by Joshua Benton

This year, the ISOJ co-editors and guest editor invited Josh Benton to write a special essay to discuss the state of the current digital media climate and how the accepted articles for this issue reflect the special journal theme and current media climate.

By Joshua Benton | Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab


The journalist Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize winner (Explanatory Reporting, 2013) and a veteran of both the Los Angeles and The New York Times. But to the extent that the average airport bookstore browser knows his name, it’s as the author of productivity books, most notably the bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

In that book, Duhigg—who, I suppose I should note, I went to college with, he and I working for rival student newspapers back when two-paper campuses were as viable as two-paper towns—outlines the latest research on what causes some habits to stick and others to fail unheeded. He notes MIT research that reduces habits to a three-stage cycle of cue, routine, and reward; align those properly and you can convince anyone to build an action into her day-to-day.

From within the contemporary cult of productivity, you might think of that cycle as: cue (My running shoes are staged, ready next to the door), routine (I go for a run!), and reward (Mmmm, two squares of dark chocolate). Or, in more behaviorist, even Pavlovian terms: cue (A bell rings), routine (Time to salivate!), and reward (Mmmmm, food!).

What both Duhigg and Pavlov found, roughly a century apart, is that once a habit’s cycle is embedded deep enough into someone’s psyche, it is free to shed one of its constituent parts. A Duhigg-trained knowledge worker would eventually learn to start that morning run without the promise of 86% cacao waiting as a reward. Pavlov’s dogs eventually learned to salivate at each peal of a bell, whether or not fresh kibble was in the mix. In both cases, you’re left with an unexpected correlation between two actions, their original intersection lost to history, for good or for ill.

That’s not a bad description for much of how the legacy news industry has functioned in the Internet age. Much of journalism’s fundamental infrastructure—its distribution models, its geographic targeting, its revenue streams, its relationship to audiences—has been either reshaped or blown to bits by the Internet. But many of journalists’ workflows, belief systems, and editorial practices remain driven by structural or financial realities from decades ago.

Why are most stories still framed around what’s happened in the past 24 hours? Why haven’t the classic iterative updates of newspaper publishing been supplanted by forms smaller (the tweet-length update for the news junkie) or longer (the explainer that can serve as an evolving reference over time)? Why does most newspaper copy still get filed in late afternoon? Why are beat structures mostly unchanged from the days when newspapers played a very different role? Why is both-sides objectivity still held in the same professional esteem despite the fact it developed in response to a very different competitive environment?

I don’t ask these questions to impugn the many people working hard to ensure a sustainable future for quality journalism — or to imply that the right answers to these questions are always clear. They’re not. But it’s a point worth raising:  An industry and its workers’ mental model of that industry evolve at different paces, in starts and stops. (We still measure cars by their horsepower, long after all the buggy-pullers moved back to the farm.)

Which is why I appreciate the theme of this issue of #ISOJ Journal, “habits of thought,” which pokes and prods at some of our field’s misalignments of external reality and internal perceptions.

Henrik Örnebring’s article on precarity notes that many of the traditional ideas journalists have about their roles—objectivity is important, we play a key role in democratic governance, we are the trusted verifiers of public claims—rely on a high level of stability in their profession. (It is no accident that they came to prominence in the United States around the same time the newspaper business achieved high profitability and monopoly pricing power in most American cities.) In today’s disrupted journalistic labor market, those institutional impulses have been replaced with a more individualistic set of values—the idea that young journalists will have to fight for themselves, that a stable career is not a given, and that the first few years of post-college work function as a sort of hazing.

That rings true to me, based on my conversations with young reporters, who often think in terms of entrepreneurship or of journalism being one part of a portfolio of jobs (and identities) that can be assembled into financial stability. (I’d note there’s also a tension between those early-career realities and what many of those reporters were taught in journalism school, which many professors still see as an occasion to inculcate the old-time religion into young minds. We still have too many journalism students being prepared for jobs that aren’t being posted any more.)

That connection between professional identity and feeling precarious also help frame the negative reaction so many working journalists had to the expansion of publishing power that arrived with the web. (Think of all the times bloggers were described as Cheeto-stained basement dwellers, or how often Twitter’s 140-character limit was derided as a barrier to any worthwhile content appearing there.)

Kyser Lough and Karen McIntyre focus their article on how journalists perceive the idea of solutions journalism, which aims to both report on social ills and explicitly offer potential fixes for them. This conception of news work is at odds with many reporters’ belief that their job should be strictly observational in purpose—that they might diagnose the illness, but it’s up to someone else to find a cure. Their conversations, all with journalists who described themselves as familiar with solutions journalism, nonetheless found a wide range of definitions for the movement itself, as well as different views on how it intersects with traditional values of objectivity and editorial distance. But their respondents were more unified on the question of what impedes editorial shifts such as this one: management, which can provide conflicting signals (or no signals at all) about how journalism’s traditional frames might best evolve.

Of course, holdover habits (of thought or of action) aren’t all bad. If a vision of tasty chocolate two years ago keeps you running miles today, terrific. And if you want to see the risks of breaking old habits of thought, look to Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown’s long view of the Christian Science Monitor’s digital evolution. For decades, the Monitor had an unusually strong sense of self for an American newspaper—distributed mostly by mail instead of home delivery, a second read for most subscribers rather than a first, and of course founded by a church with a distinctive mission. When the Internet came along to challenge its model, the paper’s leaders took a number of bold steps—abandoning daily print, seeking more of a mass audience online, and leaning into search engine optimization. It was more substantial a strategic shift than nearly any other American paper could muster.

Unfortunately, they were making that shift in a world where they no longer controlled the distribution of their content. Instead of reaching reader’s mailboxes, they had to reach their Facebook News Feeds. The shifting practices of tech platforms made what some considered a digital-friendly approach outmoded before long. And many Monitor staffers remained ill at ease with what had seemed a step away from the paper’s values. Groves and Brown outline what has been something of a return to older habits of thought—once-daily consumption, a calmer reading experience, and a return to reliance on a smaller core readership.

The Monitor’s shifts illuminate a larger issue facing much of the legacy media, especially newspapers. Publishers and editors have been working for more than a decade to push their strategies (and their staffs) in a more digital direction. Knowing the difficulty of organizational change—but seeing what was happening, inexorably, to print—they considered it a tough but worthwhile effort. But now, to the extent they succeeded, they face a business environment where even digital exemplars like BuzzFeed, Vice, and others face revenue headwinds and are laying off staff. A strategy build around maximizing digital ad revenue has bumped into the harsh truth of two tech giants who’ve ingested the sector whole.

Figuring out which habits of thought need changing is hard; actually changing them is harder. But the mandatory prerequisite is identifying them in the first place—understanding why we do the things we do. Only if we figure out the cue and the routine can we reap the reward.