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Is the internet making journalism better or worse? Yes

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For the past several days, The Economist has been hosting a debate between journalism professor Jay Rosen and digital skeptic and author Nicholas Carr, as part of an ongoing series about the future of media. The proposition tabled by the magazine was that the internet is making journalism better rather than worse, with Rosen arguing in favor of the proposition and Carr arguing against it. In the end, neither one wins — or both do — because with journalism (as with so many other things) the internet is simply an accelerator, amplifying both the good and the bad. Whether society as a whole is better off is still an open question.

In his arguments, Rosen admits that the internet has damaged the traditional media industry — by causing a collapse of the business model that has supported most print-based or traditional journalism — and at the same time has led to an explosion of questionable online content that pretends to be journalism. He says:

By unbundling the newspaper and making advertising cheaper and more efficient, the internet has led to a drastic drop in newsroom employment [and] the internet has increased the supply of rubbish in and around journalism: content farms, recycled PR (known as churnalism), stories that are cheap rewrites of other stories, lists and “charticles” with no purpose other than pushing up page views.

Despite that, however, the New York University journalism professor maintains that the internet is improving journalism, and he lists the reasons why, including:

  • It drives down the cost of getting journalism to the people who want it, and that has “opened the market up to more players, allowing more ideas to be tried.”
  • It has made location irrelevant, in the sense that media consumers can get journalism from virtually any source, thus “bringing vastly more of the product within easy reach.”
  • It gives new tools to anyone who wants them, such as search, online databases, the ease of making charts, Skype interviews and so on.
  • It alters the balance of power between users and journalists, “replacing a system in which a small number of gatekeepers employed by a heavily capitalised industry that tended towards monopoly held almost all the powers of the press.”

Journalism gets better when more people do it

In the end, Rosen says, journalism is “not like brain surgery or flying a 747, which are not improved by having more hands on deck.” The more people who are involved in it, the better it gets, he argues. Anyone who doesn’t think that journalism is better now just has to go to the New York Times website, he says, where when news happens they can “read about it right now rather than waiting until the next morning for the paper to land.” Ultimately, Rosen says the internet will improve journalism because it will have to become better in order to survive.

For his part, Carr argues that “what the facts show is that the internet boom has done great damage to the journalism profession.” He also goes through all the data about the loss of journalism jobs and declining revenue, and says that while the internet theoretically has the potential to improve journalism, there is no sign of that happening:

If we can agree that the internet, by altering the underlying economics of the news business, has thinned the ranks of professional journalists, then the next question is straightforward: has the net created other modes of reporting to fill the gap? The answer, alas, is equally straightforward: no.

Digital success stories “modest and fleeting”

While there have been “many noble attempts” to create new kinds of news-gathering organizations online, Carr says their successes have been “been modest and often fleeting [and] they have not come anywhere close to filling the gap left by the widespread loss of newspapers and reporters.”

Carr says he doesn’t believe that democratising media — what Om has called the democracy of distribution — necessarily improves journalism, and argues that Rosen “provides little in the way of facts to support his case.” The biggest problem, Carr says, is that despite all the experimentation, the industry has not found “a substitute for the cross-subsidies that allowed newspapers to use the profits from popular features to pay for broad, in-depth reporting.”

Web only a benefit for the “plugged-in elite”

While members of what Carr calls the “plugged-in elite” like Rosen may believe that the internet has improved journalism, this is because for web-savvy news junkies the “net is a crack house that dispenses its wares for free.” Beyond the elite, however, are the average citizenry who Carr argues are being starved of hard, objective reporting — something that he says contributes to a narrowing of opinions rather than a broadening of them (which sounds a lot like author Eli Pariser’s fears about a “filter bubble”).

So who is right? In many ways, both are. To me, the debate comes down to a battle of optimism vs. pessimism. Carr — who has written a book all about how the internet is changing our brains and making us more shallow — sees nothing but the decline of traditional journalism and a great chaos in its place. Rosen, however, sees the green shoots of new business models poking up through the ashes of the traditional industry.

In the end, McLuhan wins

It’s more than a little appropriate that The Economist debate is taking place as some followers celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of a giant in media theory, Marshall McLuhan — who, as author and fellow Canadian Doug Coupland points out, saw many of the shifts in the way we experience media coming. Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab also has an excellent overview of how McLuhan’s beliefs about how media functions in a digital age are effectively coming true thanks to the web.

As Paul Ford writes in a very perceptive piece at New York magazine, some of the fear about the decline of the traditional media industry stems from a fear of losing control over the machine he calls “The Epiphanator” — that giant engine that churns out happy and sad stories with tidy beginnings and satisfying conclusions. In its place we are seeing something much more like the stream of content that McLuhan tried to describe, in which everyone can publish and everyone can filter (or not), and stories simply rise and fall and live and die regardless of what a traditional media outlet thinks of them.

Is that a scary future or a bright one? It is both.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig, jphilipg and zert sonstige

14 Responses to “Is the internet making journalism better or worse? Yes”

  1. There are now nearly 4 PR professionals to each journalist. The need for companies to communicate directly with their customers has simply moved the journalism profession to a more direct “public” engagement model. Let’s not over complicate this issue. As the media business reshapes its business model the stringer newspapers will simply find a new voice to define themselves.

    Frankly, many of these new breed PR Journalists are better paid and not just content farm machines and becoming the community communications specialists for these needy businesses.

  2. We live in a “Niche nation.” Today’s news media is biased in many ways, and people tend to get their news from sources that have the same biases and ideologies that they do.

    To use an exaggerated and stereotyped example, a conservative may watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh, while a liberal may listen to NPR, watch Jon Stewart, or read the New York Times.

    People come away with just one side of a story – the one that goes with what they already believe – and then walk around talking in absolutes and little soundbites from these sources. They don’t get fully informed on all sides of any issue, and don’t even realize it.

  3. Internet made information more accessible for all as they happen, anytime, anywhere for free. While traditional media, including newspapers tend to dictate what’s newsworthy or not or what to report; in the internet, one can come across all sorts of information without restrictions.

    The internet is another tool to get informed and traditional media should learn to use it to promote better journalism, as they see a need to do so.

  4. ronmac

    The old school journalism was nothing to get excited about. Just go back a few years ago to 2003 and hysteria over WMD’s in Iraq with the msm recycling press releases and packaged lies from the Bush Administration.

  5. On net, I think the Internet is a major positive for journalism, especially in increasing the potential reach of news stories, and the speed in which they are distributed.

    That being said, it is true that the Internet also allows anyone to publish anything, leading to a proliferation of news from questionable sources as well as of stories that may not be news worthy. Be that as it may, the democratization of any medium is a benefit to society as a whole.

  6. I think you can some this up by asking – how would you know if journalism got better?

    Not one of the 4 improvements listed is distinct to journalism in anyway.

  7. The notion of the web simply being an accelerator of both sides of the debate is pretty obvious. The recent furore over News International mob and what was in effect; last gasp desperation for something different to catch a shrinking readership’s eye, indicates a fatally damaged industry where the pressure has put people out of touch with their moral sense. Newspapers are dying. What we are witnessing now is the explosion of life in a new ecosystem that is far more capricious than the one in which newspapers originally evolved. I hope journalism as a PROFESSION emerges stronger and that “the unthinking” who sustain the crap end of newspaper’s day to day churning of utter trivia wake up to their responsibility for the events that have unfolded recently. I won’t hold my breath!

  8. “a collapse of the business model that has supported most print-based or traditional journalism”

    Except that (local) news monopolies/oligopolies never qualified as true business models…it was just Highway Robbery. And this inconvenient fact was exposed by the Internet. Ooops.

  9. Jack C

    Let me throw out a crazy notion, which I’m still trying to work through in more detail.

    What is happening to journalism today is nothing more than a change in the profession’s scope of practice and ultimately, journalism will be far better off for it.

    That is, some of the worst parts of journalism, which traditionally have been of the greatest monetary value, are, not surprisingly, under the greatest attack currently (I’ve made a grave assumption here, I know, but I think it is at least plausible). These areas are also undeniable ones where journalists only held a competitive advantage by controlling the means of production.

    Imagine for a moment that posting on a blog cured the common cold. It would probably change health professions in much the same way that journalism is being changed. Suddenly, most of what health care professionals do and make money off of (for argument’s sake, let’s assume these are true) are now gone. The overall need for healthcare would be reduced and consequently, we’d have fewer professionals, but most professions would remain and they would be made up of professionals with a more specific focus. Would we say that blogs ruined medicine? In the short term, we probably would. In the long term, we might consider it a good thing on balance.

    What will eventually remain of “journalism” is the sort of core stuff (e.g., serious investigative reporting), where journalists still retain a clear competitive advantage, notably, that which is broadly considered to be the best of journalism.

    That these areas of journalism have had no opportunity to stand on their own (financially) doesn’t mean that they can’t. The very explosion of content, which has fundamentally changed journalism, continues to push the value of that sort of content down. It is reasonable to expect that those areas, which require a skilled professional to accomplish, when divorced from the rest, will still be sought after and still retain value.

    • Jack C

      Again, this was really intended to be a thought experiment. I might not have been super precise/careful with my verbiage, so forgive the use of terms like “best of” and “worst of.” I have a deep and profound respect for the profession of journalism (which is why this topic is so fascinating to me).

    • Thanks, Jack — I think you have definitely put your finger on the biggest part of the problem, which is that the revenue-generating aspects of journalism are being divorced from things that arguably add more value, such as investigative reporting, etc.

      Can those things stand on their own and find a business model that supports them, or do they have to be non-profit or funded in some way by outside entities? That’s the big question, one that I’m not sure anyone really knows the answer to yet.

    • I agree with your overall thoughts here. There is obviously a huge change occurring in journalism but, and call me an optimist, but the areas of journalism that require a trained professional to complete, are always going to be a necessity. There is nothing about the internet that can change that.