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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Is there a future for digital journalism?

I was asked about the state of the media by a young journalist. Here's the transcript:

Q: How has the nature of journalism changed since you first stepped into the industry, or even thinking about becoming a journalist? 

My first contact with journalism was as a grad student in London in the 1970s. I was writing my thesis and got the part time job as “overnight editor” with CBS News. It was at a time of great intensity in international affairs: the war in Vietnam, the IRA offensive bombings in England, the oil crisis, etc. CBS London was the logistical lynchpin of their vast system of foreign bureaux which at that time, numbered 38 worldwide! 

My job was certainly Office Work 101 (fixing tea, making sure the teletypes didn’t run dry aka, out of paper, answering phones, tracking down the correspondents who were needed for a program or an assignment, booking flights, running out to Heathrow to pick up film from Saigon and yes, it was still the age of film). The basic and driving context was all about telling the news in a compelling and immediate way. By today’s standards, the technology was basic. CBS had access to one satellite to New York and it was owned by the BBC. We would satellite a story from the BBC’s offices, but only if the story demanded it. Otherwise, I would run the film out to Heathrow to make sure it got on PanAm 001 to New York. 

Fast forward to today: as digital technology has made the news more ubiquitous and more comprehensible, the ability of journalism to make sense of this tsunami of information is more complicated. Part of this is purely economics: media organizations like CBS News in the 70s were not expected to make a profit. News departments were expected to be “loss leaders” - bringing audiences in for the value and the prestige of news, then hopefully, that audience would stay for the sports and the entertainment programs. Once news divisions began to be profit centres of their own (in a post-Watergate era), the pressure was on news departments in broadcasting and in print, to return larger and larger profits every year.

With the arrival of digital technologies, the need for traditional journalists and journalism as gatekeepers began to decline as the public found its own way to get the news they both wanted and maybe even, needed. The fragmentation of markets, the decline of profitable news organizations, the pressure from the Internet and the absence of an effective monetizing formula has made legacy journalism more precarious than ever.

Q: What is the biggest thing happening to journalism right now? 

The potential of digital journalism has made some important strides, but it is still (imo) a long way off from being the powerful force for democracy and journalistic inclusiveness that its supporters claim. Instead we have a further atomization of audiences, a decline in media platforms able to create a sense of community around ideas or places, an exacerbation of moral panic as media organizations desperately attempt to aggregate audiences for advertisers by relying on clickbait, celebrities and trivialities. 

Audiences are seeking more reliable forms and my sense is that we are about to witness the return of substantial print journalism, delivered most likely, on different platforms. This would allow digital to serve journalism again, rather than the other way around. Traditional broadcast media will (with some exceptions) become circuses where the public can be alternatively titillated and shocked; print journalism will return to a more substantial method of serving the readership. This will produce a less cohesive social culture which may encourage further intellectual inequality. The prospects for democracy remain uncertain as a result. But I could be wrong...

Q: How was the business of media transformed by digital? 

Aside from the invention of the telegraph and the radio, digital media is the largest single transforming event since the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in the 15th century. Just as movable type allowed anyone to print their ideas, the digital culture allows anyone to express their notions directly to the public without relying on journalistic gatekeepers. Initially, media organization through this would simply be just another way to connect with their hitherto loyal audiences. Instead it had a centrifugal effect, hurling audiences away from legacy media and to other places where they could find people and ideas that they might consider to be more useful to their views of the world. 

This atomization and fragmentation of audiences quickly rendered the previous business model obsolete: ratings and circulation declined even as methods of consuming all forms of media increased. The Guardian (UK) has more (non-paying) readers on line than in (paying) print. As a result, what was once considered to be a great newspaper is now faced with the prospect of massive layoffs and a need to figure out who will pay and how much will it be worth? The Toronto Star is attempting to reproduce the success of La Presse in Montreal with a tablet. So far, the Star has spent a lot of money but has not recovered the mass audiences it once enjoyed. La Presse is more successful because they have a linguistically captive market. 

In short, the business model for traditional media is uncertain with the result that more media organizations are going “down-market” in order to try to salvage what’s left of their audience and a now outdated business model.  

Q: On your blog, Now the Details, you wrote, "if ever there was a poison pill, it is the digital culture." In your opinion, how did technology poison journalism? 

Technology was neither the cause nor the effect of the deterioration of journalism. But it allowed for the dominance of the digital culture to define what constitutes journalism. In some important ways, that happens to be true: digital journalism allows for a more fluid and serviceable form of journalism that can reach the public wherever and whenever the public needs it. That’s an excellent way of doing journalism. The problem is that digital technology also allowed for a de-skilling of the workforce, an increased amateurization of production and a lowering of ethical and journalistic standards. My hope is that at some point in the near future, the public’s need for reliable and contextual information will be joined by a business model that will allow for media organizations to thrive once again.  

Q: With multiple layoffs, and mergers across multiple national newsrooms, what is the best advice you can give for journalists coming into uncertain media times? 

Young journalists need a deeper sense of what constitutes great journalism which is the product of strong writing skills and an insatiable curiosity. Newer media forms are being constantly created and there is a wonderful sense of creativity out there. It may take some time, but the best and the brightest will survive. Young journalists will need to try a number of ventures, even create their own attempts at doing powerful journalism. In the end, I’m optimistic after seeing the talent that exists. But we need to harness the digital culture to serve the public as citizens first, and consumers of news, secondarily. The best is yet to come. I hope...

***FYI, This blog was named as one of three finalists by the Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism. It is an annual award by the College of Communications, Pennsylvania State University. The judges "did appreciate the depth and breadth" of the blog. Much appreciated.


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