Sunday, April 16, 2006

Will journalism triumph out of changes in mainstream and Internet news?


FIRST POSTED: Monday, October 31, 2005
HEADLINE: Mainstream Media vs. Journalism vs. the Internet

Posted by John Burke on October 31, 2005 at 09:22 AM
on Editor's Weblog (World Association of Newspapers)

There have been many discussions about the contradiction between the huge profits that media giants demand and their newsrooms' role of producing quality journalism. Journalists feel that their publications, and their communities, are suffering greatly because of newsroom staff cuts which their corporate benefactors deem necessary in order to increase revenues as much of their audience and advertising migrates to new media, especially the Internet. The Internet also furnishes a platform for journalism, but it has not yet been determined if it will be able to provide society with the kind of reporting it needs to remain informed.

In this respect, journalism is caught in a tug-of-war whose opposing sides are the old guard, which is seemingly cannibalizing it, and new media, which isn't quite yet sure how to embrace it. Depending on which side wins, either a brand new news model will emerge or journalism will be torn apart in the fight?"Lines blur in the new media world. The only line that doesn't is the bottom one: profit."

Nieman Watchdog has reprinted an essay by Director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, Michael Bugeja, entitled "News media profits undermine reporting." In the article, he says that "Profit undermines the point of reportage - community" and quotes former CEO of the Knight Foundation Hodding Carter III who said companies have forgot that they once were "part of the entire civic enterprise."

Former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Tim McGuire, is quoted in the article as questioning how "values of great journalism can exist side by side with the profit demands of the marketplace," and asking editors to "focus on readers rather than profits." But still, large media companies continue to cut jobs.

Bugeja continues, writing that standard journalistic practices such as fact-checking and objectivity have been sacrificed to increase productivity and thus profit. A loss in fact-checking has conversely caused plagiarism scandals at several papers and objectivity is moving closer to being eliminated by a news cycle that pushes the boundaries of entertainment.

City Paper, a Philadelphia weekly has a couple of articles this week complaining about the cuts that Knight Ridder is making to two of its city's institutions; The Philidelphia Inquirer and the Daily News. They are to lose 75 and 25 newsroom members respectively. Reminiscing about the good-ol'-days of Philadelphia journalism, the articles describe present staff morale at rock-bottom and how many feel that they are not going to be able to accurately report on their communities.

On the other hand, some, such as former advertising man at the San Jose Mercury News (another Knight Ridder paper which is undergoing massive job cuts) Lou Alexander, thinks it impossible for large media companies to cut their profit expectations and "plow massive additional money back into journalism." If they began to do that, firstly their CEO would be fired causing millions in legal fees and eventually a bigger company would swoop down, gobble up the company and spit out the publications for a maximum profit (see former posting on Alexander's views).

When considering the two views, neither of them seems capable of maintaining a high standard of journalism while simultaneously maintaining a high profit margin; the first because the financial resources aren't there; the second because the journalism needed to sell content is absent. So what's the happy medium (no pun intended)? Quite possibly, it's the Internet, the phenomenon that's stealing customers from traditional media as well as revolutionizing the craft of journalism.

An article in Online Journalism Review by associate professor and director of the new media program at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Rich Gordon, seeks to support this theory. He introduces the piece with a grim prediction for traditional media: "Some great media businesses -- ones that delivered terrific journalism as well as solid financial returns -- are going to fail within the next 10 years or be acquired by other companies. And those that survive will probably employ fewer journalists than they do today." But at the same time he wonders, "Will Internet business models support the creation of original journalism?" Considering the developments of the past year, he thinks this just might be possible. He cites the Internet advertising boom, individual journalists who are successfully feeling out the Web, the spread of citizen journalism and Yahoo!'s journalistic venture with Kevin Sites (see previous posting) as examples.

Furthermore, three characteristics of the Internet will help a new and beneficial form of interactive journalism develop: the power of publishing it gives to everyone; the simplicity of linking to other information; and the ease of finding relevant information with RSS feeds and search. Gordon's theories may all seem feasible, but another article in Philadelphia's City Paper makes some good points about the sustainability of Internet journalism: "Interactive writers can quickly become slaves to instant ratings." He uses the example of a colleague who edits a niche website on AOL, "Diet and Health." The AOL editor writes, "Every time you click, our page views go up we get more ad dollars then I get promoted."

Essentially, the fact that Internet content can be posted immediately will drive journalists to begin writing for popularity, instead of the investigative journalism society needs. "AOL's narrowcasting encourages even the most diligent reporters to become entertainers," says the articles author.

Taking this all in, if corporate media is to fade away because of poor financial performance and Internet journalism is unable to replace the quality those organizations used to produce, society will be the real loser. But chances are, passionate journalists and citizens will not let that happen. With their intimate involvement in the inchoate media revolution, the tug-of-war will likely end in a draw where both sides will win a little and lose a little. Mainstream media will lose its huge profit margins and win back the trust of its viewers, listeners and readers with quality content. The Internet will lose when some of its developing innovations do not perform as predicted, but will ultimately win by providing an exciting platform for interaction that will benefit democracy and society.

In the end, it's journalism that will emerge victorious.

Sources: Nieman Watchdog, City Paper (Knight Ridder and Internet
journalism), Grade the News (Alexander), Online Journalism Review

Posted by John Burke on October 31, 2005 at 09:22 AM

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