Online Journalism is the Future, But is it Enough?

Digital Journalists by Natalie Behrin

With traditional journalism jobs dwindling, the publishing industry is racing to adapt to new technologies that affect how the news is collected and distributed, as well as how its audience reads and responds to it. Paul Briand, who covers issues affecting the Baby Boomer generation for Examiner.com, cites a survey by IBM’s Media and Entertainment Group that shows an increase in online news consumption by readers over the age of 55, a demographic long thought to be a holdout in making the move to reading online. Now that they’re making the transition, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that people could get used to it.

Even within the industry, online reporting is slowly attaining more recognition and validation. The Pulitzer Prizes, the oldest and most prestigious journalism awards organization in the U.S., is displaying its increased recognition of digital journalism. The Pulitzer Prize Board has eased eligibility for online-only entries, although material from web sites affiliated with magazines and broadcast news is still ineligible. Roy J. Harris, Jr., who covers journalism topics for Poynter Online, writes, “Initial indications are that both online-only and collaborative online-print projects will be stronger this year.”

Education and training for the changing scope of journalism is growing, too. The Oklahoma-based Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, which promotes the future of journalism “by building the ethics, skills and opportunities needed to advance principled, probing news and information,” is distributing $1.56 million in grants to 22 U.S. journalism organizations. A significant portion of that money (17 percent) is being given to organizations involved with online news, including $105,000 to the Radio Television Digital News Foundation for ethics resources and training for online journalists, and $50,000 to online publication FairWarning.

Roberto Rocha of The Gazette in Montreal wrote about some ideas he has for the future of journalism. As a technology reporter, he has his own basis for theories, but he also interviewed other industry insiders to shape those theories, including Alfred Hermida, assistant professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia; Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon.com and MediaCritic.com; and Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York.

Some of Rocha’s predictions and suggestions include:

  • News web sites will post incomplete stories, adding information as it’s received, and updating and revising the original story as needed.
  • The importance of the number of inbound links to the news web site will replace the importance of circulation numbers for print publications.
  • Print publications will be eliminated, consolidated, and/or bundled together.
  • News outlets will each have more specialized reporting.
  • Media organizations will need to find other ways to make money. Rocha writes, “The Guardian, for instance, sold 70,000 iPhone apps for 2.39 pounds each, even though the same content can be found free online.”
  • Public funding could be an option to help publications stay afloat.

This last idea is explored in a new San Francisco-based venture called Spot.us. Journalists pitch a story idea, and the public can contribute money to the stories it would like to see written. After the story is published, it falls under a public-use license unless a media company buys the exclusive rights and reimburses the donations.

Another new venture that lets the public dictate story topics is AOL’s Seed. It is part of AOL’s rebranding and transition effort after falling stock prices and declining interest in the America Online dial-up Internet service were dragging the company down. AOL now aims to build a “newsroom of the future,” as Senior Vice-President Marty Moe calls it, by creating original online content — with a staff of 500 full-time journalists and about 3,000 freelance contributors — and by selling accompanying ads. “Rather than merely craft articles and passively post them on the Web, as many newspapers and magazines do,” says Douglas MacMillan, a staff writer who covers technology at BusinessWeek, “AOL is using software to determine which articles to write and then give journalists up-to-the-minute data on how much traffic those articles generate.” Activity on social media sites and search engines help dictate the story topics. “My fear is that once they start analyzing where their traffic comes from and where their dollars come from, they decide maybe journalism should go after Hollywood celebrity stuff and sports figures who are doing dope,” says Alan Mutter, who runs the media industry blog Reflections of a Newsosaur.

Even outside of proprietary software like AOL’s, social media outlets help shape the news coverage, exemplified recently by the earthquake in Haiti. Dr. Jack Lule, Joseph B. McFadden Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Lehigh University and its Director of Globalization and Social Change Initiative, writes that even once the reporters have left Haiti and the news has strayed away from the topic, a spotlight may still shine on the country. That’s fitting, since citizen journalism and social media were what provided the initial coverage of the disaster when most professional reporters couldn’t get into the country.

Even in less dire circumstances, traditional news outlets are turning to social media for coverage, a fact proven by a Cision and George Washington University survey. On a local level, News 8 Austin in Texas talked about its own experiences after the recent plane crash into an office building. Anna Gonzalez, Senior Online Producer, said that News 8 Austin used traditional sources of information such as the scanner, but also for the first time assigned a staff member to monitor social media accounts like Twitter. Police Chief Art Acevedo was critical of the news reports that weren’t first confirmed through law enforcement, calling it “speculation” and “irresponsible journalism,” but Gonzalez retorted that “law enforcement needs to keep up with the speed of citizen journalism using social media.”

Gonzalez further wrote:

It was citizen journalists using new media who directed mainstream news organizations to [the plane’s pilot] Joe Stack’s anti-government note, which turned the story from a local tragedy to one of national and international importance.


Our news policy prevents us from spreading information we haven’t confirmed, so we sat on the note until we confirmed Stack owned the [website on which the note was found]. And even then, we talked about how to report on the note’s contents. With everything we tweeted, we stayed committed to being respectful, factual, and sensitive.

On a more global level, BBC news journalists have been told to use social media as a primary source of information by Peter Horrocks, director of the BBC World Service radio network and newly promoted director of BBC Global News. Mercedes Bunz, who covers online journalism, social networks, and digital media for The Guardian‘s PDA blog, did a Q&A with Horrocks about the role of social media in the BBC, in which Horrocks said:

Aggregating and curating content with attribution should become part of a BBC journalist’s assignment; and BBC’s journalists have to integrate and listen to feedback for a better understanding of how the audience is relating to the BBC brand.

Still, online news has a way to go. Drew Grant, contributing editor for Media Bistro, reported on the FishbowlNY blog about a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, funded by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The study, which was focused on news reporting in Baltimore, had found that digital-only outlets made up only 4 percent of original content.

Grant writes:

If we decry print journalism completely, we’ll not only be losing a valuable resource of news, but nearly all of our original information-gathering stream. Publications as they exist on the Internet now simply do not have the money or man-power to incite long-term, investigative reports or keep journalists embedded overseas the way mainstream outlets can.

Source: “Oklahoma journalism foundation gives $1.56M in grants,” NewsOK/The Oklahoman, 02/20/10
Source: “Who will publish the new news?” The Gazette 02/06/10
Source: “Social media keeping Haiti in the news,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 02/21/10
Source: “AOL Moves to Build Tech ‘Newsroom of the Future’,” BusinessWeek, 02/21/10
Source: “Online news consumption trending up among Baby Boomers,” Examiner.com, 02/10/10
Source: “Social media forever changing the way we cover news,” News8Austin.com, 02/19/10
Source: “BBC tells news staff to embrace social media,” PDA: The Digital Content Blog, 02/10/10
Source: “Q&A: BBC World Service director Peter Horrocks on social media and news,” PDA: The Digital Content Blog, 02/10/10
Source: “Study Finds New Media Doesn’t Fill Journalism Gap,” FishbowlNY, 01/11/10
Source: “In Down Year, Some Award Entries Up Thanks to Online Journalism,” Poynter Online, 02/10/10
Image by Natalie Behring via the World Economic Forum on Flickr, used under its Creative Commons license.

About Rachelle Matherne

  

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  1. Rachelle,

    Your journalism is really breath-taking — great survey!

    Drew Grant of all people perpetuates the myth that online journalists don’t originate news stories, they just critique “mainstream” media. That’s just wrong. Images uploaded to Flickr are news. Videos uploaded to YouTube are news. Comments on blogs or microblogs are news.

    How many accounts of that airplane flying into IRS offices in Austin, Texas, appeared online — on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube — before making the mainstream news? The mainstream media has become derivative of real-time media; they don’t originate stories, they just repeat what real people have seen and posted.

    Grant is wrong, too, that we need journalists embedded overseas. We need journalists to sift and fact-check citizen reports — you don’t need them to originate reports. Every combatant could be a journalist if we’d attach webcams to their gear.

  2. This is a very informative article, although I would frame the issue somewhat differently. To me the central issue is not offline traditional print/broadcast news media versus online social media. It’s professional journalism (online as well as offline) versus so-called citizen journalism. They are different, but they are not mutually exclusive. There is room for both and we need both.

    Professional journalism conforms or at least tries to conform to a set of standards and principles. It exercises judgment over which stories to cover and how to report them. It seeks to keep the public informed about events and issues that matter, even when the public may not be interested. For better or worse, it shapes our view of the world. These principles, standards and goals are not perfect, and news organizations often fall short of achieving them. But if we abandon these ideals and decide to report only what people say they want to know, or worse yet, if we let the public at-large sift through the sea of unsubstantiated information and opinion on the web on its own, we will have a less informed citizenry.

    Citizen journalism and social media also have important roles to play, and in one form or another they are here to stay. The power of social media to spot and report news in real time is well illustrated by the Austin airplane incident. Beyond news, social media and blogs provide a deep reservoir of information and a wide range of opinion that we could not have imagined even 10 years ago. Citizen journalists and commentators enhance the richness and diversity of expression and keep professional journalists on their toes. Tools like Twitter promote free expression and make it available to people who would otherwise be heard. Finally, social media have demonstrated an amazing ability to engage and motivate large numbers of people, as we saw during the recent Haitian relief effort.