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Are we living in a golden age for journalism? That depends on how you define gold

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Are we living in a new “golden age for journalism?” In the past few days, two prominent new-media players have tried to make the case that we are: first Henry Blodget, co-founder and CEO of Business Insider, made a comment to that effect on the CNN news program Reliable Sources — and then Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington used exactly the same phrase several days later, in an essay about Jeff Bezos acquiring the Washington Post.

To give credit where it is due, the Huffington Post founder has been arguing that we are in a golden age for some time — since at least 2009, in fact, when she spoke at Ithaca College and said: “the fact that newspapers are dying doesn’t mean that there’s no place for journalists.” In her latest post, she said “despite all the dire news about the state of the newspaper industry, we are in something of a golden age of journalism for news consumers. There’s no shortage of great journalism being done, and there’s no shortage of people hungering for it.”

More tools, more reach, more accuracy

Blodget, meanwhile, argues that we are living a golden age because news consumers have a greater supply of content to choose from, and journalists have far more tools and resources available with which to ply their trade. According to the Business Insider CEO, in a post expanding on his CNN appearance:

Journalists have more reach: Because “on the Internet, everything is a click away. What’s more, on the Internet, all stories can be stored permanently and viewed from anywhere, anytime. Compare that to the world of 20 years ago.”

There are no space/time constraints: Thanks to the web, “if the best story length for a reader is just a link to another web site, today’s journalists can publish a link. If the best story for the reader is a book-length investigative article, the journalist can write one of those.”

There is more accuracy: Despite the errors in social media, “all information can be instantly and publicly challenged, debated, debunked, and sometimes even corrected by the source publication faster than ever. And the subjects of journalism can respond to stories directly.”

It’s easier to become a journalist: All you need is “a laptop, a cellphone (camera), a blog, and a few social media accounts. Once you demonstrate that you are good at unearthing facts, sharing images, and telling stories readers like, you’ll be off to the races.”

A golden age for content but not journalism?

old newspapers

One of the most common responses to Blodget is that while it may be a golden age for Business Insider-style slideshows and over-aggregation of other people’s journalism, it isn’t a golden age for traditional in-depth investigative journalism — and in particular it isn’t a golden age for local reporting as newspapers continue to shrink. And even the claim that it’s a golden age for Business Insider-style journalism is questionable, some critics of Blodget say, since BI itself still hasn’t figured out how to actually make money.

The same criticisms were made earlier this year about a piece that Matt Yglesias wrote at Slate, in which he argued that these are the “glory days” of journalism — a claim later echoed by former GOOD magazine editor Ann Friedman in a post at the Columbia Journalism Review, both of which listed many of the same benefits that Blodget mentioned in his essay. Among those who disagreed with Yglesias, perhaps the most vociferous was media writer Bob Garfield in a piece he wrote for The Guardian, in which he said these were the “media end times” and compared news consumers to looters:

“All of that fantastic content Yglesias was gushing about is paid for by venture capitalists making bad bets, established media companies digging into their savings accounts to pay the bills, displaced workers earning peanuts, amateurs, semi-pros, volunteers and monks.”

So is it the best of times or the worst of times for journalism? As I tried to argue in an earlier post, it is both. If you focus on the business side of the traditional media or the journalism industry, you see carnage everywhere — layoffs and closures and newspapers shutting down the presses or firing all of their photographers, etc. How could anyone say that this is a golden age for journalism when the engines of that journalism are sputtering and dying?

Journalism is more than a business

Citizen journalism

If you look at journalism and the media more broadly, however, it becomes just as obvious that Friedman is right, and by extension so are Blodget and Huffington — and it’s no accident that this view comes from two people who founded non-traditional media entities. If you look around, there are new media entities everywhere, from The Atavist and Epic and Syria Deeply to BuzzFeed and yes, even the Huffington Post — and everything in between. How could that not be a sign of a golden age?

As journalism professor Jay Rosen notes in a recent post, the Fourth Estate is no longer solely a collection of people who work for specific news outlets, but a feeling or a way of behaving — an attitude or perspective. As I and others have argued repeatedly, journalism is no longer something you are but something you do — and whether we like it or not, anyone can and will do it. For all of its flaws (and they are many) this is a fundamentally optimistic state of affairs for those who love journalism.

How are we going to pay for all of this? I’m not sure anyone really knows, and if you meet someone who claims they have the answer, you should probably run in the other direction. As Jack Shafer is the latest to point out in a post for Reuters, hard news has arguably never made money in the history of modern media — since it was always subsidized by other things like car ads and gardening columns and movie reviews — and it’s possible that it never will.

So if you are focused on the business of journalism, things look increasingly gloomy, if not downright funereal at times. But if you are interested in the actual practice of journalism in all of its forms, and even some new ones that we could never have imagined even a few decades ago, then calling this a “golden age” doesn’t seem like such a stretch at all.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Oleksiy Mark and Flickr users Shironeko Euro and Petteri Sulonen

21 Responses to “Are we living in a golden age for journalism? That depends on how you define gold”

  1. Michael Phelan

    Journalism used to be about Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

    1. Who is it about?
    2. What happened?
    3. When did it take place?
    4. Where did it take place?
    5. Why did it happen?
    6. How did it happen?

    Now we first have to ask two key questions that weren’t the first questions in past eras “Did it happen?” and “Does it matter?” About 99% of what people attempt to pass off as “journalism” on the internet get a “no” on one of those questions.

    And then the rule used to be that a story couldn’t be reported without at least five of the six questions having been fully explored. Yes, there were occasional “breaking” stories but they couldn’t be published with speculation or opinions about any one of the questions.

    Sure tabloids cheated as did others. But the cheating wasn’t at the 99%+ level.

  2. Nick Murphy

    “Journalism” is undergoing the same compression of the middleman that the internet has foisted on many other industries especially the content industries.

    Today, the industry looks something like this:

    Source -> Journalist -> Publisher -> Consumer

    There are two middlemen between the source and the consumer – and both currently get paid.

    The new model looks like this:

    Source -> Aggregator -> Consumer

    The source now has direct access to publishing tools so there is no longer value in the Journalist/Publisher combo.

    The source will continue to provide value and get paid for something other than writing but will occasional publish content when it benefits his other job.

    The Aggreator replaces the Journalist/Publisher combo and becomes the single middleman that gets paid – the Aggretator is paid to search for all the news that interests me that I don’t have time to find the source.

    Daring Fireball and the new Digg are the beginning of what this new paradigm will look like.

  3. Sally Duros

    A mixed picture: 1) An emerging sector of journalism conducts serious reporting on the very local level — look to the newly formed LION, Local Independent Online News association for evidence. This community reporting is alive and learning — we’ve learned it get its strength from its ties to co-creating a strong economic and social infrastructure for a community. Hence the collapse of PATCH – the newsroom was imported by headquarters into a community – a kind of gentrified newsroom. 2) Convergence and innovation in the public media streams — which I write about for Knight Digital Media Center — are fortifying serious reporting, accountability reporting and investigative reporting. These are nonprofit newsrooms. 3) Newly emerged fields of data journalism are unlocking patterns in community and tributaries for greater truth. But as is implied in @digidave’s comment, an army of serious journalists are now facing the possibility that they might never earn a living as journalists again and for them – as I wrote about in a recent post for Medium — the outlook for earning a living is rocky.

    The bottom line? The disruption in old line commercial journalism is extreme but it is not an aberration. All industries are experiencing it – wrought by the Internet – which is cross connecting silos and connecting the public with voice and choice. New is emerging, but it is gaining its foothold in sustainability slowly. The lightning strike of the Internet has splintered the trunk of the old world economies – we can only look to the horizon for what new will grow and stand on its own.

  4. How about another, more meaningful measurement of journalism’s value: How well is journalism delivering what democracy demands of it so that We the People can be the informed electorate that makes democracy, and thus our republic, possible?

    This is not measured in page views, SEO success, or banner ads sold. It is measured in voter registration, voter turnout and civic engagement.

    Here’s a different business model for community journalism that might make a significant difference: Check it out.

  5. There is certainly value to both sides of this argument and I appreciate the more positive and inspiring ones, since I am on the fence – both lamenting the loss of many investigative journalists who have been the hallmark of our greatest print newspapers, and the incredible bounty of options and the two-sided dialogue aspect out there in the digital sphere. While I think journalists who are providing a valuable service ought to make a good living,I do wonder how these outlets can become more economically sustainable. I am very interested in co-operative business models – whether worker-owned or citizen-owned – and so I am excited about the Banyan Project and encourage folks to check it out and consider getting involved in citizen-owned journalism outlets in their own communities. (

  6. Ink Stained Wretch

    So a journalist is someone who has “a laptop, cellphone (camera), a blog and a few social media accounts.” Really? Not by a mile!
    A journalist is someone who works at a news organization; whose copy is vetted, assessed and edited; whose reporting adds something to the public conversation.
    Any teenager with a laptop cannot do what professional reporters do, though they can ape it.
    Interestingly, Mr. Ingram fits his own definition of a journalist, but not mine.

  7. Francesco Piccinelli Casagrande

    Ok, I am a journalist, ok? I can use all the tools you mention. Now I’ve got a question for you: who’s gonna pay my rent if the business is dead? We might be in the golden age, but, damn, gold means gold: money, luxury, a confortable desk and a decen wage. Untill journos won’t get that, you can’t talk about golden ages

  8. Did William Randolph Hearst build his newspaper empire to become rich, or to become powerful? Both, apparently. Today’s remaining newspapers want to have it both ways, too. Can’t blame them, that’s human nature aka greed. That era ended, just as the Victrola pushed out the orchestra. Printing a newspaper made Ben Franklin comfortable but not wealthy. It did make him powerful politically. Now everyone can claim that power, no BigBux involved. Hey Big Media, get used to it.

  9. Yes, journalism is improving. It used to be dominated by pure propaganda sheets like the NY Times, which is now dying.

    Google Walter Duranty and Ukraine mass starvation for an education on this.

  10. Chris10280

    What a surprise! Two people with a clear interest in selling journalism saying we are in a “golden age.” Please. The golden age of journalism was when newspapers lined Park Row in NYC. These people today simply pander to their constituencies and build their celebrity. Reporting the facts has little to do with this “golden age.” Working a story; actually investigating and getting facts,developing sources and digging for the truth no matter what the consequences represents real journalism. Today it is all about how good I look on television- how close to the “action” can I be to make me look like I really know what I am talking about? All B.S. no responsibility to anyone but themselves. Narcissism. GoldenAge? Don’t make me laugh!

  11. BuzzyOptions

    There are plenty of people who fall into the hyper-cauldron definition of “journalism,” if you want to define the word as someone who has “a laptop, cellphone (camera), a blog and a few social media accounts.” Unfortunately, there isn’t really anyone who acts the part of a journalist – that is, someone who reports what he/she sees and hears, and writes eloquently enough so that the story is told succinctly and accurately. And with as little bias as humanly possible.

    Even though guys like Ed Murrow or Walter Cronkite had everyday biases and prejudices, you had to listen and look really closely to attempt to get them on it, because they were reporters first, editorialists second. Nowadays, everyone has an opinion – and writes about it. Networks, newspapers, bloggers – doesn’t make any difference.

  12. Susan Bourette

    All I can say is: thank gawd the Toronto Star still exists. Without it, we would be far less in the know about some of the city and province’s most pressing issues. They continue to break stories. So, as an old-time journalist from a disappearing age, I’m still having a hard time understanding the touted “golden age” that is upon us.

  13. DesDizzy

    If you mean by journalism, puerile gossip and infantile opinions devoid of context, subject matter knowledge or balance, then this is surely a golden age!

    • Yes, exactly. Also there is a difference between reporting on an unfolding news event and journalism. One of the key things missing in the new order is a lack of resources dedicated to true investigative journalism – someone willing to expose abuses of power by political leaders and to shine a spotlight on governments when they are abusing the power entrusted to them.

    • Valentine North

      I’m not an American, but I can tell you this applies to every country. News written by outsiders is always more accurate and less biased.

      Today though … it’s kind of hard to call anyone journalist anymore. Even before the Internet became such a huge part of our lives, journalists were split into categories, and that still wasn’t enough to separate the golden stuff from the brown smelly slush. No, today, journalist could be anything, a blogger, a spammer, a trained and experienced professional or just a scraping script on the lookout for keywords.