News to me

Over at the Economist site, I’m debating the proposition “the internet is making journalism better, not worse” with Jay Rosen. He’s pro, I’m con.

Here’s my opening statement:

Journalism and the internet are both hot buttons, and when you combine the two you get plenty of opinions. But there are facts as well, and what the facts show is that the internet boom has done great damage to the journalism profession.

According to a 2010 review by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, newsroom staffing at American newspapers plunged by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2009, and large-scale layoffs of reporters continued through 2010. A 2009 study commissioned by the Columbia Journalism Review concluded that newspaper editorial jobs dropped from more than 60,000 in 1992 to about 40,000 in 2009. Scores of newspapers, both large and small, have stopped publishing, and many others have scaled back the scope of their reporting. The picture appears similarly bleak in the U.K., where the number of working journalists fell by between 27 and 33 percent over the past decade, according to an analysis by the School of Journalism, Media & Communication at the University of Central Lancashire.

The decline in journalism jobs has been particularly severe at the local level, where reporters were scarce to begin with. A 400-page report issued last month by the Federal Communications Commission documents the consequences in distressing detail. The number of reporters covering state governments has dropped by a third since 2003, and more than 50 news organizations have discontinued statehouse reporting altogether. Cutbacks in reporting on city governments have been even steeper, and there have been significant declines in the number of journalists assigned to judicial, education, environment, and business beats as well as investigative reporting. “In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting,” the FCC report concludes. “This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability—more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems.”

The damage is not limited to newspapers. Newsmagazines, local commercial radio stations, and television networks have also slashed their newsgathering staffs since the 1980s, in some cases by 50 percent or more. The bottom line: Far fewer journalists are at work today than when the world wide web made its debut. The shrinking of the reporting corps not only constrains coverage; it also reduces quality, as remaining reporters become stretched thin even as they’re required to meet the relentless deadlines of online publishing. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 65 percent of news editors believe that the internet has led to a “loosening of standards” in journalism, with declines in accuracy and fact-checking and increases in unsourced reporting.

The problems can’t be blamed entirely on the net, of course. Like other industries, the press has suffered greatly from the recent recession, and mismanagement has also played a role in the travails of news organizations. But it is the shift of readers and advertisers from print media to online media that has been the major force reshaping the economics of the news business. The massive losses in print revenues, resulting from sharp declines in ads, subscriptions, and newsstand sales, have dwarfed the meager gains in online revenues. As the FCC report explains, “each print dollar [has been] replaced by four digital pennies.”

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.

Certainly, the net has made it easier for ordinary citizens to be involved in journalism in all sorts of ways. Blogs and other online publishing and commenting tools allow people to share their opinions with a broad audience. Social networking services like Twitter and Facebook enable people to report breaking news, offer eyewitness accounts, and circulate links to stories. Groups of online volunteers have proven capable of digging newsworthy nuggets from large troves of raw data, whether it’s the expense reports of British politicians or the emails of Sarah Palin.

Such capabilities can be immensely valuable, but it’s important to recognize that they supplement rigorous, tenacious, in-depth reporting; they don’t replace it. And while there have been many noble attempts to create new kinds of net-based newsgathering organizations—some staffed by paid workers, others by volunteers; some for-profit, others not-for-profit—their successes so far have been modest and often fleeting. They have not come anywhere close to filling the gap left by the widespread loss of newspapers and reporters. As the Pew Center put it in its 2010 State of the News Media report, “the scale of these new efforts still amounts to a small fraction of what has been lost.”

The future may be sunnier. Professional news organizations may find ways to make more money online, and they may begin hiring again. Citizen journalism initiatives may begin to flourish on a large scale. Innovations in social networking may unlock entirely new ways to report and edit the news. But for the moment that’s all wishful thinking. What’s clear is that, up to now, the net has harmed journalism more than it’s helped it.

Here’s the debate site.

4 thoughts on “News to me

  1. Mattfoley1978

    “they supplement rigorous, tenacious, in-depth reporting; they don’t replace it.”

    True. Has the print media been doing “rigorous, tenacious, in-depth reporting”?

    Studies indicate that they haven’t been:

    41% of all the coverage focused on the tactics and strategy used by both sides in the legislative fight [over health insurance reform]. … Descriptions of the various plans and proposals for health care reform accounted for 23% of the coverage, the second-largest storyline. Some of those stories contained substantive analyses of the various legislative proposals. But many others, while outlining the elements of the proposals, also focused on the political calculus for passage. … The only sector to really devote significant coverage to the workings of our current health care system was newspapers, which devoted 18% of its front-page coverage to that theme. The top online news sites devoted, by contrast, 8% of their health care coverage to that angle, network news 8%, cable news 4% and radio 4%.

    Also, we sort of invaded Iraq for no good reason, and almost no one in the traditional media bothered to report much about it. No one in the media– no one– suffered any negative consequences for cheerleading for the invasion.

    The rise of online discussion has been an indispensable corrective for the traditional media’s lack of rigorous, tenacious, in-depth reporting.

  2. Shankar Desai

    Great post. And I don’t necessarily have much to disagree with but do have a question. You say that the net hasn’t been able to fill the gap of reporting & journalism. Can you talk a bit more about the value that these uniquely provide that the net is currently unable to provide?


    Shankar Desai

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Well, you know my views here, and it’s a lesson in the dominance of gatekeepers and the futility of Z-listers trying to be heard, for me to re-iterate it all. Let me just point to an old column I wrote, with my concise summary of theory vs. reality about the Net and journalism:

    “There’s an old joke: in heaven the police are British, the mechanics German, the cooks French, the lovers Italian, and the Swiss organize it. In hell the police are German, the mechanics French, the cooks British, the lovers Swiss, and the Italians organize it. An Internet version might be: in theory, topic experts would supply our information, social networks would connect us for common humanity, and Google would organize it for authority. In practice, we get our information from the most attention-driven sites, social networks bundle us for marketing, and Google organizes it for ad sales.”

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