Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts

This investigation of journalism (544 pages) was published in February of 2019 by Simon & Schuster. The book takes you to 21st-century newsrooms. David read Merchants of Truth and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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Merchants of Truth

The Business of News and the Fight for Facts

Jill Abramson

It’s an unfortunate truth that print newspapers as we know them are collapsing. Newsroom jobs have fallen 23-percent in the last decade. Online listicles and viral videos dominate the media landscape. This book is a detailed look at how news — and facts — have changed over the last 20 years with the rise of digital media.

With riveting prose and audacious quotes from key players, this zippy (and sobering) read takes a deep dive into the state of four major news outlets: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and Vice.

Author Jill Abramson explains there are two major types of reporting. First, there’s the immediate, eyewitness account, usually based around a tragedy or other unusual happening of some kind: a shooting, an earthquake, a politician’s public gaffe. It’s got drama baked in, and we, as curious people with mobiles in hand, want to know what’s going on. This is the world of citizen journalism, viral video, and Facebook shares.

In direct contrast is the deep reporting that puts events in context. This requires time, relationships, research, analysis, fact-checking, and frequently a legal team, and maybe a war chest. Possibly a foreign bureau. This is the kind of reporting that brought down Harvey Weinstein and keeps us up-to-date on the climate crisis that we’re facing.

And this second type — more complicated, absolutely vital — is in danger.

Abramson is the former executive editor of The New York Times and is now a Harvard journalism lecturer. She knows where the bodies are buried, and she applies her decades of experience to analyze the rise of digital news outlets like Buzzfeed — and how they almost meant the demise of venerated institutions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As you might expect, she can tell a story, so this thing is a page-turner with juicy quotes — from Jonah Peretti, founder of Buzzfeed, ‘I enjoy working in morally ambiguous spaces. I find that is where the most interesting stuff happens.’ — and remarkable statistics: ‘The amount of digital data produced worldwide in 2006 alone was three million times the material of all the books ever written.’

Who doesn’t love a roundup of cute dog videos or a list of the top 10 moments on your favorite series? But after reading this book, you might pause for just a moment before you click the share button.

It encouraged the public’s expectation that news be relayed in real time, upending the traditional newspaper schedule that for over a century had served as the de facto circadian rhythm of the profession. As important, it meant journalists would be armed with the power tools of the newsroom—word processors, internet hookups, cameras and video equipment—no matter where they were when news broke. The old, diurnal news cycle gave way to the 24/7 news cycle in a world in which people got updates constantly (and, to a degree, passively) from their smartphones, as if staying informed via an IV drip. — ChaJill Abramsonrlotte

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A lot has changed since the days of William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and groundbreaking girl reporter Nellie Bly. But their dogged commitment to following the story endures because the truth still matters.
Extra, extra! Our new podcast episode is all about the colorful history, hard work, and high-stakes drama of journalism. Join us for must-read books that highlight the media pros and news stories that shape our world.

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