Friday, October 12, 2012

Internet's News Impacts - Bad and Good(?)

Kaila Colbin has an interesting piece today on what the Internet has meant, and may mean, for the future of journalism. She starts with the argument that

The need for speed is not only killing your company, it is destroying any standards of accuracy and integrity that remain, resulting in, for example, media outlets publishing reports on Supreme Court decisions before said Court has even finished reading said decision.
That's hardly news, though, or solely the fault of the Internet.  From journalism's earliest days, being first with the news has been an important focus. As newer media forms develop, particularly those that can package and disseminate their news products more quickly, the tempo of journalism speeds up.  Before the Internet was widely diffused, cable news networks 24/7 news cycle and potential for real-time coverage of events, critics say, transformed the focus on speed to a critical need for immediacy.  Another outside influence is money - specifically the commercial nature of most news outlets, and the need to generate sufficient customers to subsidize news (directly through subscription or indirectly through advertising or other subsidies).  When money was flush in news, it had little impact on journalism; but digital technology and the Internet expanded competition and shifted revenue streams to the point where most news organizations have shifted from serving audiences to battling for audiences.  And getting and keeping your audience becomes a primary focus.
   The problem for journalism, though, is not the simple facts of a faster news cycle or commercialism - it's the concern that the push to be first and to attract audiences is trumping core journalistic principles of verification and accuracy. Colbin illustrates the concern with a quote from Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst for research firm Forrester.
“…the way today’s world is set up is that 1) whoever publishes first (whether it's accurate or not) 2) whoever is the most interesting (and thereby gets the most social shares and rewarded by Google) wins… the only way for journalism to focus on fact checking and accuracy is to change the business model, and if the two requirements listed above (fast and interesting) get page views (and thereby ad dollars)… this will only persist.”
To be fair, I'd argue that the Internet isn't directly responsible for any decline in journalism, at least not in that way.  In terms of speed and money, the rise of the Internet has provided a platform for greatly expanding the level of competition traditional news outlets face - and pushed a need for them to try to make their news products more competitive, and more valuable to potential news consumers.  But shifting focus to speed and entertainment over traditional news values isn't the only option news organizations have to try to be more competitive or valuable to the market.  In fact, I'd argue that doing so lessens the core news value of their product and makes them less competitive.  For journalism and those organizations that are first and foremost "news outlets," those are bad business practices and business models.  For "gossip" or entertainment outlets, not so bad.
  I would add that I think that the Internet's most significant negative impact on news and journalism - or at least people's perception of news - comes from a different pair of structural features: interactivity and disintermediation.  By opening up the range of news and information sources, the Internet allows news consumers to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of news.  They no longer have to rely on journalists' judgements on what's newsworthy, or more critically, their accuracy.  Internet news consumers can independently authenticate or verify news and information, or its falsehood.  And the more the Internet news consumer finds discrepancies in news judgements and reporting, the less faith and trust they place in journalism and the less value they place in those news products.
  Interactivity contributes to that spiral in a couple of ways.  First, news consumers can themselves become news producers - adding their perceptions of events they witness, or contributing specialized expertise in topics addressed in news reports. Second, when people do so in good faith, the response of the "real journalists" is often dismissively arrogant, and sometimes openly hostile.  That's not going to help build faith and trust.

  But the impact of the Internet on news and journalism does not need to be significantly and relentlessly negative.  For instance, journalists and editors could, in most cases, employ the Internet and digital telecommunication to quickly and easily authenticate and verify information - meaning that those traditional journalistic principles do not necessarily need to be sacrificed at the altar of speed and immediacy. In addition, providing access to background information, original source materials, and other supporting information can add value to the basic news story.
  Journalists could also take advantage of the Net's interactivity to seek out, identify, and work with relevant experts when covering stories outside their own level of expertise. Colbin notes one such effort - The Conversation - that pairs journalists with academic experts to the benefit of both.  Academics get more, and more accurate, reporting on research results, and journalists get access to the expertise to allow them to better evaluate the information they get from outside sources and to provide a fuller understanding of the background and context of breaking news.
  In addition, the Internet offers the potential to explore new business models and funding sources.  The news industry collectively bemoans the fact that online advertising revenues have not yet been sufficient to replace declines in traditional advertising revenues, and are unsure about the potential for subscription or direct purchase revenue potential.  True, but beside the point - online news outlets have a cost advantage in that their distribution costs are minimal.  Besides, online advertising revenues are the fastest growing sector in advertising/marketing spending, and online news outlets are increasingly considering and testing pay/subscription models.  Currently, there are enough successful online pay/subscription models out there to suggest that they could be reliable revenue streams, if the outlets can develop a mix of content, a market segment that recognizes that value, and a pricing scheme that works for that mix.  But the real opportunity of the Internet is that it enables so many other revenues sources and streams, including donations/subsidies, pre-pay models, crowdsourcing, etc.  Earlier this year, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at a range of alternative online funding sources.  Colbin discusses the background for Avaaz Daily Briefing, funded through donations from more that 20,000 people.

  Certainly, the Internet, along with the explosion of digital technology and telecommunications, has, and continues to, radically reform media and news markets, principally by radically increasing the options for news consumers and increasing competition for traditional news outlets that, for the most part, hadn't faced intense competition in decades.  But the same forces increasing competition are creating new opportunities for creating and disseminating news and information, for traditional news outlets as well as other individuals and organizations.  Admittedly, not all of these new and alternative outlets will be financially successful, or will produce accurate and trustworthy information.  But there's nothing that would inherently prevent the production and distribution of journalism in its highest and proudest traditions.  In fact, the Internet makes doing that much more possible - it will be up to news organizations to take advantage and compete successfully in the news/journalism market.

Source -  Internet Creates Media Problems, Seeks to Solve ThemOnlineSPIN
The Search for a New Funding Model,  Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism report

Supporting Videos
A New Way to Do JournalismAndrew Jaspan discusses The Conversation at TEDxCanberra2012

"End Times" Clip from The Daily Show on NYTimes and decline of print journalism (for fun)


  1. Being a subscriber of an Australian broadband service provider, I believe we should all be advocates to internet freedom while at the same time doing our share by responsibly using this technology.