Earlier this month, following news that Joni Mitchell had collapsed and been hospitalized, Time magazine published, on its website, a lengthy appreciation of the legendary singer-songwriter. The piece, headlined "This Is Why Joni Mitchell Is Your Favorite Musician’s Favorite Musician," reads as an obituary in every way but the most fundamental: Mitchell remains, fortunately, very much alive. So Time's story about her began like this:
Music fans around the world steeled themselves for tragedy on the evening of March 31 when Joni Mitchell was hospitalized after being found unconscious in her Los Angeles home. Recent updates indicate that Mitchell is doing well and recovering—a tweet from her official account sent early Wednesday morning placed her in intensive care, but “awake and in good spirits”— but still, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the sheer weight of Mitchell’s discography and the breadth of her influence, the tendrils of which snake through the last 40 years of popular music.
But still, it provides an opportunity... Which reveals a lot about how the media works right now. It is produced, these days, largely on and for the Internet, influenced in ways both major and petty by the forces of Facebook and Google. Journalists joke about the digital maw as a great, heaving beast: something that must be fed, something that both generates and feasts upon delicious, nourishing #content—Seymour’s carnivorous plant, basically, only hungrier and slimier and, quite often, angrier.
I mention this whole thing not to pick on Time and its fauxbituary, but to point out the confluence of pressures that are exerting themselves on journalism right now. There's all the classic stuff—the marriage of reporting and opinion, the balance of quality and timeliness—but a new one has to do with attention dynamics that are unique to the digital sphere. As far as the Internet is concerned, the tastiest content of all, the content that gets top play in Facebook's and Google's algorithms, is the content that is timely—the stuff that is, somehow, pegged to the news of the world. A big news event, The Awl's John Hermann noted last year, "generates an enormous surplus of attention, much more than news can meet." News organizations have an interest in converting that attention into commercial gain ... while also serving the purposes of information and conversation that journalism, ideally, embraces.