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. 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.”
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. 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?
Of 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.
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. 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.
 Some of the good work that Massing cites includes:
- Talking Points Memo’s long-form piece on the International House of Prayer, a charismatic Christian movement with deep roots in the Republican right.
- ProPublica’s work on the environmental hazards of fracking and the lax oversight of nurses, the erosion of workers’ comp and mismanagement at the Red Cross. For an investigation into financial ties between medical institutions and drug companies, ProPublica compiled a list of payments those companies made to doctors and from it built a searchable database that patients could use to look up their own physicians.