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What’s Holding Digital News Back?

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dig journ 1In the first of three articles in the New York Review of Books on “Digital Journalism: How Good Is It?” author Michael Massing gives himself this assignment:

That digital technology is disrupting the business of journalism is beyond dispute. What’s striking is how little attention has been paid to the impact that technology has had on the actual practice of journalism. The distinctive properties of the Internet—speed, immediacy, interactivity, boundless capacity, global reach—provide tremendous new opportunities for the gathering and presentation of news and information. Yet amid all the coverage of start-ups and IPOs, investments and acquisitions, little attempt has been made to evaluate the quality of Web-based journalism, despite its ever-growing influence.

To try to fill that gap, I set off on a grand (though necessarily selective) tour of journalistic websites. How creative and innovative has digital journalism been? How much impact has it had?

Massing, a former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, doesn’t (yet) make a grand conclusion about why digital innovation has been less consistent and less innovative than expected. Myself, I blame it on analytics. Today’s analytics are as shallow as a Facebook “Like” in terms of measuring the journalistic value of a news item. Nonetheless, analytics—the metrics of page views and time spent on a page, and even at what point in a story a reader stopped scrolling the cursor—are the ruination of any hoped-for innovation. The focus, still as ever, is how to monetize the Web, and that is largely decoupled from consistent journalistic excellence and innovation, as Massing’s course through a handful of high-profile sites indicates.

Today reporters constantly check their page views—almost as much as checking shares and retweets of a story link.

Today, reporters constantly check their page views. It’s done almost as much as checking shares and retweets of a story link. Is the piece trending? How to ride this story surge a bit more, maybe with a related video? What topics are winning out? Reporters in one newsroom in which I have worked in recent years receive a regular update on their story analytics. The pressure to write what “wins” the daily numbers game is hard to resist. We all know a cute puppy story wins over a piece on the new tax increment financing district. But what about all the topics we never see in the running? The sins of omission? The ones that are ignored because they aren’t Kardashian-esque; a sharp-eyed evaluation of a mayoral candidate’s budget plan or a look at the success rates of brownfield redevelopment.

There was good journalism pre-digital and there is good journalism in the midst of this technological Big Bang. The good stuff can be harder to find because of the volume of sheer stuff that author Massing chronicles. Specifically, his section on the Huffington Post demonstrates the point:

In January, the site ran a 21,000-word story about deficiencies in the treatment of drug addiction in Kentucky, and a new section called “What’s Working” highlights efforts by individuals and communities to address social problems. But even this material often seems swamped by the ever-rising tide of gossip, celebrity, titillation, and headlines of the “Rachel McAdams Doesn’t Look Like This Anymore” variety.

The good journalism is also harder to find because the money stream is no longer simply from classified ads. This means that early innovators such as Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the pioneering blog, The Dish, had, subsequently, to seek out funding sources while trying to do smart work.

In a rousing declaration, he announced that he was forswearing all advertising. Given the revenue that advertising can provide, he wrote, this was a difficult decision, but he felt that ads were not only distracting but also “created incentives for page views over quality content.”

Exactly.

This new media form has come with high ambitions—innovative Web-based journalism that can support itself—which have not consistently been met, though Massing tips his hat to several fine examples[1]. It would help me as a reader to know what Massing’s criteria are. He writes at one point that after the Charlie Hedbo attacks:

I hoped to hear from a range of voices that extended beyond the usual American commentators to include some Muslim ones, who, with their distinctive backgrounds and experiences, could add a different dimension to the discussion. The Internet is an ideal vehicle for mixing things up in this way, yet none of the sites seemed to have the inclination—or inspiration—to take advantage.

OK, “mixing things up.” is one thing the Internet can provide.

What else? I wonder. I hope Massing tells me in the next leg of his three-part tour of this subject, as I enjoyed and learned from the first voyage. Assessments necessarily have a standard. The reviewer comes to the work to be evaluated with a set of expectations to which he or she holds the work accountable. Digitalization has changed the economic structure of news—oh, and the look and feel and content and color and shape and duration, too. Do the criteria for what makes twenty-first century news excellent also necessarily get recast?

edward-r-murrowOf course it does. Massing isn’t telling us outright what his criteria are, but reading between the pixels, I gather we are still rooting for the pre-digital pantheon of truth-telling, promotion of democracy through an informed citizenry, and transparency. The digital-news-era metrics of opinion, immediacy, and economics also include quality. I’m just not sure that the latter gets all the followers it deserves. If it is true that news reporters are following the lead of analytics, the news audience can control via their cursors what their screens deliver. As always, when change comes, we suck in, gasp for the fresh, pure air of values past, and then our lungs (and values) acclimate.

This instrument can teach, illuminate, and even inspire. But only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.

The Internet is not the first technology to sweep the globe and change things forevermore. In thinking about the future, we might look at how smart people from the past reacted to similar seismic change. In 1958 in Chicago, the great journalist Edward R. Murrow gave a speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation in Chicago about the troublesome changes brought on by television and resulting programming that focused on economic profit instead of informative content.[2] Think of the Internet instead of television as you read these three paragraphs and know we’ve been here before:

(para 23) I am frightened by the imbalance, the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation.

(para 35) To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent, and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse, and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

(para 36) This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Sue Ellen Christian, Zeteo Contributor

Sue Ellen Christian is Professor of Journalism at Western Michigan University and a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. She has also worked in the newsrooms of the Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times.

 

Credits & Links

Click for pdf of What’s Holding Digital News Back?

Michael Massing, Digital Journalism: How Good Is It?, New York Review of Books, June 4, 2015.

Wordle image is from a NiemanLab blogpost, Yeah, but what does it mean for journalism? A visual rhetoric guide, by C.W. Anderson, September 17, 2010. As Anderson describes his project: “[U]sing Wordle, some time-delimited Google searches, and quick-and-dirty cutting and pasting, I decided to take a look at how the conversation about “what it means for journalism” might have changed, or not changed, since 2008.” The image copied here is from 2010. To see earlier moments in the evolution, visit Anderson’s blogpost.

Photograph is of Edward R. Murrow.

Endnotes

[1] Some of the good work that Massing cites includes:

[2] Edward R. Murrow, “Wires and Lights in a Box” speech, October 15, 1958.

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1 Comment to “What’s Holding Digital News Back?”

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo says:

    One thing I’ve noticed about Internet “news” is how much it resembles undergraduate writing: heavy on links and long quotations from other writers. There is little original thinking and lots of sharing, which is to say that Internet news is, among other things, a powerful rumor mill.

    My college teaching experience was in the pre-Internet era, but I’m aware that college professors are making an effort to curb the sort of plagiarism that the Internet, with the ease of a couple of clicks, encourages. I think there is a huge generation gap here, between pre-Internet professors and their Internet-ready charges. How does an undergraduate today understand that copy-and-paste is not actually writing?

    I have been a journalist at various times in my life, but I missed out on being a beat reporter. I did some interviews and wrote reviews and opinion pieces and crap like that, but I never had to dig for the facts. The beat reporter is on the front lines of journalism, and his or her dispatches are “the first draft of history.” On the Internet, beat reporting is mostly the cell-phone video of police brutality taken by a passer-by, and this has been an important contribution. But the reporter who becomes an expert on a beat can offer so much more.

    I think we need to monetize the web in a way that supports more beat reporters. I guess that’s what bloggers are supposed to be, but they are mostly armchair pundits, collecting news and adding their comments. I contribute to a web site called Beacon that pays writers to pursue topics that interest them. I don’t know how it’s working out. I get reports randomly from Beacon. Mother Jones is another non-profit that is attempting to get funding from readers for its reporting. It’s a hard slog.

    Maybe journalism is like poetry, an underappreciated art form. And what it may need is a benefactor like Ruth Lillie, who dumped a rumored $500 million on the Poetry Foundation. (I think it was actually closer to $200 million, but still, that’s a ton of money.) There has to be a billionaire somewhere who cares about journalism. The billionaires who care about propaganda (the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, etc.) are legion. Couldn’t we just have one who funded the real thing?

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