Analytics, analytics, all they fucking care about are analytics. This is what journalism has become. It no longer has anything to do with your interviewing or writing skills. Just analytics
My last article was my pièce de résistance. A multi-interview deep-dive into the life of an Afghan refugee who came to Canada with nothing more than the torn clothes on his back.
A nineteen-year-old who spent the last five years of his life in a refugee camp determined to make it out alive and start a new life. The kid got his hands on every book he could and learned five different languages, so wherever he found himself, he would have a better chance to integrate.
He made it out, and he made it to my small town, and I sat down with him and conducted multiple detailed interviews. Did anyone read it? Not many. Not enough to get me ranked in the top ten most read articles in our analytics system. So, at the last weekly pitch meeting with the editor, ole Jamie Wells says
“Hey, I, uh, noticed that your articles haven’t been picking up any steam lately. I can’t guarantee job security if you’re not ranking in the system, okay?. So, let’s get out there and get some good stories this week. Check out Caroline’s last few articles.”
“I’m covering everything that’s going on in Mill Haven,” I answered, knowing that an argument was futile, but also knowing that I was going to defend my side, anyway. “I just wrote the Afghan refugee article, interviewed veterans for Remembrance Day. I even spent an afternoon digging through archives at the museum for stories of local World War 2 heroes. I did the Lakeview festival, several on the hospital crisis, and an 800 word article on the sale of the sawmill. Christ, Jamie, what else do you want me to do?”
“Just check Caroline’s last few articles, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.” I answered, feeling veins pulsating from both sides of my head.
It was no dig at Caroline. She was a fine reporter, but her last few “articles” were only rewrites of police reports. Headlines like, Two Dead After Sunday Crash on Route 11. 21-Year-Old Overdoses on Fentanyl. One Dead, One in Critical Condition After Accident Near St Pauls. Headlines that wrote themselves. I felt like screaming at the prick, Do you want me to go out and hit someone with my car, so I can get a top ranked article and keep my fucking job, Jamie?
Yes, I understood that those press release rewrites were the top three ranked articles in the province. But not one of them had anything to do with reporting, at least not in my humble opinion. The RCMP shared the releases; the reporters reworded them, and the public jumped on them like the vultures they were. It didn’t take Woodward or Bernstein to do that.
I stared at the blank screen of my WordPress page, feeling disillusioned about a career that I once considered a dream, but now realized was just another pointless job. The more time you spent doing anything in this life, the more you realized dreams were only the wanting of things that seemed out of reach. Once you grabbed them, reality set in and those dreams ceased to be. It was a bad time to be a reporter in a safe city. The vultures were no fans of the happy ending.
Then, for the hell of it, I started typing in the headline section. 73-Year-Old-Man Dies in Bank Robbery After Heroic Effort. Would you like that, Jamie?. I continued writing.
A 73-year-old-man has died after a heroic effort on Monday morning at TD bank on Main Street. Two masked assailants carrying automatic weapons entered the bank demanding all cash on hand, says Wendy Andrews, a 52-year-old resident of Mill Haven,
“I don’t trust online banking. I still come on Mondays to deposit cheques and socialize, you know? Like people are supposed to do. Then these men came in, waving guns around. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to die until an older gentleman ran at them and tackled them both from behind. He was like a linebacker. We called the cops. The masked men panicked and shot the old man before hightailing it out of the bank.”
This shit just writes itself. Even Wendy Andrews, a name I just made up on the spot, seemed to fit the article. Good ole Wendy, no way she’ll ever make the transition to digital banking, not my Wendy. I even gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for coming up with her quotes for the press. They seemed authentic enough, and if that were a legitimate article, the province would gobble it up. And maybe next time, when things slowed down on Caroline’s end, Jamie would tell her to check out my articles. That would be the day, wouldn’t it?
But the facade revealed itself to be just that, and Jamie’s high-pitched nasally voice echoed in my ears, “I can’t guarantee job security, if you’re not ranking in the system, okay?” So I closed the WordPress page and refreshed all the tabs of my different news sources to see if any breaking stories had developed since I started writing my little piece of fiction.
A story had been published seconds ago with the headline, 73-Year-Old-Man Dies in Bank Robbery After Heroic Effort. This was the breaking story of each of my news sources. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It had to be a coincidence. Even if it was the grandest coincidence I’d ever experienced, it still had to be one. Just had to be.
I clicked on the story from the RCMP website and scrolled down to see that it was word for word what I had written. Even the quote from Wendy Andrews, the woman I was sure I had just made up. But there she was telling the “press,” though I was the only press in town, that she went to the bank every Monday to socialize, ya know? Like people are supposed to do.
For a moment, I didn’t know what to do or what to think. I actually pinched the skin on my arm. As ridiculous as it sounds, I did it. Pinched and twisted, but there was only pain. There was no gasping moment where I awoke in the middle of the night lying next to my wife. No, she was at work, and I was at work, and this press release was somehow filled with the words that I had written only moments ago.
I went back to the article, and decided that I would continue writing, just to test this insanity. I added at the bottom. “The man’s dying words were, Gosh, I love this town, and I love this country,” says bank manager Margaret Macmillan. Another fictionalized name. I gave a half-hearted laugh at this. An all Canadian man giving his life, and not regretting a single second of it. It was a pleasant touch, I thought, but it wasn’t reality. No, sir.
Lather, rinse, repeat. I hit refresh on the news pages, and once more started with the RCMP release. There it was at the bottom. “Gosh, I love this town, and I love this country.”
Jesus Christ. This is crazy. But…. I paused. This is job security. If I sent this to Jamie now, he would have to praise my punctuality, and Caroline would certainly be knocked from the top spot by the end of the day. A man who died yesterday is old news compared to a man who has died today.
I edited the story a little, added some more fictionalized information that I was sure would prove to be reality once I hit refresh on the RCMP page, then sent it to Jamie. For a brief moment a voice inside my head whispered, “you killed this man. You killed this man.” But I shook it off with relative ease. And it was soon replaced by an even louder voice that said, “Think about the analytics.”
Top ranked stories every day for this small town reporter. I thought of next week’s editorial meeting, and Jamie telling the rest of the reporters to check out my articles for ideas on how to rank high in the system, and have some of that sweet old job security.
All that mattered in reporting these days was analytics. Goddamn analytics.