Ask any journalist today how the Internet has changed journalism, and the most likely reply will be, “how hasn’t it?”
“The question is so basic now, it’s like asking how the telephone changed the world,” Sreenath Sreenivasan, associate professor of professional practice at the Columbia University School of Journalism, told TechNewsWorld.
“The Internet has changed journalism in every conceivable way,” Sreenivasan said. “It’s changed the journalists, the audience, the advertisers — the whole ecosystem. It’s had the single biggest impact on journalism since the telephone.”
A Whole New World
Indeed, journalists of past generations would scarcely recognize the profession today. Most journalistic research is done on the Web; interviews are frequently set up, if not conducted, over e-mail; and telephone interviews have become the norm. Many reporters never leave the office all day.
Virtually every newspaper, magazine, TV and radio station now has an online component, while Internet news aggregators serve up selections from all across the Web. Meanwhile, the rise of blogs and citizen journalism have created a world in which anyone can create their own journalism — and get it heard by an audience of millions.
At the same time — and perhaps in part as a result — traditional news outlets are struggling. Audiences are shrinking and profits are drying up. Many are cutting their editorial staffs in response, or asking reporters to become “backpack journalists” who can do everything — shoot video, take photographs, write stories, the works.
In short, it’s a time of monumental change — and stress — on the field of journalism.
“I think what’s happened in the last three to four years is that nearly every journalistic organization worth anything now realizes the Internet is a place we need to go,” Jim Foust, associate professor of journalism at Bowling Green State University, told TechNewsWorld. “I don’t think anybody’s denying the Internet anymore.”
However, what role, exactly, the Internet should play is still being decided. “Most every organization is now struggling with how to incorporate all these new changes,” Foust said.
“The Internet has given journalists huge opportunities to cover more stories and to cover them in a different way than traditional media have done,” Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director for the Committee of Concerned Journalists, told TechNewsWorld.
‘Shock Jocks’ and More
“The problem,” Dvorkin added, “is that Internet journalism has so far not lived up to its potential. It’s more about opinion and a certain amount of ‘gotcha’ journalism — gossip and innuendo.”
To wit: Don Imus, whose name just recently went down in the annals of radio journalism history for the racist comments that got him fired by CBS. Imus was just one of countless such “shock jocks” who are popular on the radio today for their extreme views and outspokenness.
In an atmosphere of severe financial pressures, opinion can be one way for a journalistic organization to grow its audience and, with it, its base of advertisers. “Opinion is cheaper than reporting,” Dvorkin noted. “We have this gap between what I call facts-based reporting, where a reporter digs up the facts, and faith-based reporting, where it’s all about opinion. Don Imus was not a journalist, but he had opinions.”
Where’s the Money?
Convergence and media mergers are another common occurrence, and cutbacks often follow. There are fewer journalists remaining, and those left are being asked to do more with less. Reporters today are being given less and less time for the types of real, face-to-face investigative reporting that have uncovered some of the most important stories in journalistic history.
Instead, many journalists get assigned to cover the same headlines that dominate online news aggregators such as Google News. “Because nobody wants to miss the ‘big story,’ you have more reporters covering the same, few things,” Dvorkin said.
Meanwhile, there are more people than ever playing roles in public relations, Dvorkin added. “The public relations spin has become a much more significant element in the practice of journalism,” he said, “and it has become an excuse for news managers not to engage in original reporting.”
We the People
Then there are the bloggers, the commentators, the contributors who are not trained journalists themselves. They’re called citizen journalists, and they are everywhere, demanding their say.
Most big news sites now have a way for readers to post their comments. Blogging sites are exploding in popularity, and on some news sites, such as Digg.com, readers’ votes determine which stories make it to the front page. Taking it a step further, there is a growing number of news sites in which readers do the writing or editing — or both — of all the news that’s published. OhMyNews.com and Orato.com are just two examples in this growing category.
In the old paradigm, trained journalists were the gatekeepers of the news — they chose the stories that were most important, and they reported, wrote and edited them. Citizen journalism is turning that paradigm on its head and making many wonder if we even need trained journalists anymore.
‘The Gate Is Gone’
“Journalists are not dying out,” insisted Dvorkin. “But if they continue to see themselves as gatekeepers, they will be disappointed because the gate is gone. There is no more gate — there’s not even a fence.”
“There are lots of people who can tell a good anecdote, but very few master storytellers,” Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning for The Poynter Institute’s NewsU, told TechNewsWorld. “I think the need for people who can put good stories together — with context, with information that might not be obvious, written in a way that keeps your interest — is greater today than ever.”
“There will always be a need for trained journalists,” Columbia University’s Sreenivasan agreed. Citizen journalists can write about whatever they want, but there are still the wars, the politics, the school board meetings that need to be covered, he noted.
News organizations must focus on “engaging the public in the discovery and creation of journalism,” Dvorkin said.
Rather than using their online sites for corporate communications and “shovelware” — material from their print or broadcast outlets simply moved online without adaptation — these organizations must start creating original content for their Web sites, and using the public’s input to do it, he said.
Whereas much of traditional journalism has been what Sreenivasan calls the “lean back” style, where the audience is a passive recipient, news organizations need to begin striving for the “lean forward” variety in which the audience is an active participant, he said, making use of blogs as well as in-depth coverage.
Into the Future
Journalists themselves, meanwhile, have to change. “Traditional journalists need to adapt, to learn new techniques and to understand that the traditional reader is disappearing,” Sreenivasan said.
No longer gatekeepers, journalists need to find a new role. “Maybe the referee, to guide the discussion and the issues,” Bowling Green State University’s Foust suggested.
A guiding role could be a particularly effective one when combined with technology, Finberg said. “I’m looking for a system that could say, ‘Hey, Howard, here are some things you should pay attention to today,'” he explained. “These stories may not be the ones I would pick myself, and it would be up to me to decide if I want to go any deeper. Today’s Internet guides are crude news alerts — I’m looking for that to be more sophisticated in the future.”
With time, that vision may be realized. “We’re only twelve or so years into this revolution. Not all the rules have been written,” Finberg said. “We’ve got some time to do that — not a lot, but we’ve got some time.”