Is the written word really dead?

I was 16 years old when I first started writing in a journalistic environment. It was only a high school newspaper, but I was proud of my accomplishment and deliriously eager to dive as deep into the business as I could.

It was at the same age I was first told the newspaper industry was not only dying, but well past the point of salvation. This was absolutely shocking to me. When I reflected on my upbringing, there was no way I could fathom a world without newspapers.

My mother was a part-time sports reporter for a local newspaper for much of my childhood and I had spent countless hours after school in a newsroom, soaking in the frantic yet calm environment and unknowingly laboring on the foundation of my future career.

I loved everything about it. At such a young age, I didn’t really know much about what was actually happening. I was aware of deadlines, but I never knew what would happen if they weren’t met. I just knew it was a big deal, and it added a level of excitement and wonder to the newsroom.

Above all, I cherished the people who worked there. I’ve been employed in a variety of fields during my relatively young career, but to this day, I can’t think of an atmosphere that felt more like a family than the one in that office so many years ago.

So when I first entered the newsroom as an aspiring professional, I didn’t just think those who proclaimed the industry was dying were wrong—I thought they were dumb.

young zach
Ah, 17-year old Zach. I almost forgot I was a Longhorn fan.

It’s rather fascinating to me, considering this was back in 2008 when the internet wasn’t the foundation of people’s lives like it is today. Sure, we logged onto Myspace and the early adopters were scoping out Facebook, but there was never an incessant need to be online. Moreover, attention spans were at least somewhat tenable and people could bear to read a 1,000-word story every once in a while.

As the years went by and major newspapers began to lay off reporters and photographers, I was forced to consider the possibility of the skeptics having predicted correctly all along. Newspapers and the organizations that owned them were struggling, but I wasn’t sure why. Was it simply the fact the content was distributed the old fashioned way?

That couldn’t be it. Think about it: if it were just the medium through which newspapers were published, that’d be an easy fix. They could just move their platforms online and ditch the hard copies. When all major newspapers created websites and charged subscription fees to readers, it didn’t solve the problem. They were still losing money and they’re still battling for the slimmest of profit margins today.

That leads us to the point of this post and to a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately—is the written word dead? Or, more specifically, is the value of the written word dead as we move into 2018?

I can’t answer one way or another with complete confidence, but I can tell you what I’ve learned in my experience.

The first thing to recognize is that the quality of writing is otherwise irrelevant in 2017 and will continue to be irrelevant, from a financial standpoint, going forward. It’s all about quantity these days. I’m oversimplifying it, but a high volume of articles translates to more opportunities for page views and that’s what pays the bills in an online marketplace.

That’s bad news for good writers because companies have no reason to pay more money for a better journalist when they can hire someone for next to nothing who can bring in the same level of revenue. Also, mid-level writers who break stories have become somewhat devalued because once they break a story, national writers immediately pick it up and run with it and the remaining journalists follow suit. This happens in a matter of second—no one will remember who originally broke the story and, unfortunately, no one really cares.

In the summer of 2017, FoxSports announced it would be removing all written content from its site and replacing it with video clips from its sports network, FS1, leaving its staff of talented writers out of a job. It was a bad break for these employees, but, from a business standpoint, it was understandable to see why the media powerhouse made the move. In 2017, writers simply don’t pay for themselves.

Since the switch to video-exclusive content, page views on the FoxSports website have tanked, with Awful Announcing reporting they’ve lost 88 percent of their audience. As dubious as it sounds, the site is actually making more money, despite the drop in traffic. As it turns out, 17 million views on a collection of videos are worth more than 144 million views on a collection of articles.

Whether or not that profitability can continue in the long run remains in question, but for now, it’s evidence to the point writing stories has lost its value.

People talk about “new media” all the time—particularly in the journalism industry—but that term is not entirely accurate. It refers to social media, which is new, but also video and audio content, which has obviously been around for decades.

I find the audio element the most compelling of the three from an objective observer’s standpoint. Considering the shrinking attention spans and growing desire to multitask, audio seems like it has as bright a future as any media platform. If you’re looking to do multiple things at a time, the best way to consume content is by listening to it.

I can walk down grocery store aisles and listen to my favorite podcasts while texting a friend about our plans for the night. Netflix is cool, but I can’t effectively pick out ripe tomatoes while I’m 40 minutes into Stranger Things.

If you’re multitasking while watching Stranger Things, you’re doing it wrong.

I think the biggest growth potential for audio is in corporate America, where employees who only work for three hours out of the eight they’re sitting in a cubicle are seeking entertainment. That’s good for audio and the written word because consumers can listen to radio shows with their headphones and read articles on their computer screen, all the while retaining their ability to feign productivity.

Those were just examples, but I think 2018 is going to be a big year for audio, especially as podcasts continue to explode onto the content scene. The written word will still have its place and I don’t think it’ll ever fully fade away. At the very least, it serves as an effective tool to promote video and audio content, where the real money is made.



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