The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 3

Part 1 of this series sketches the history of journalism in the U.S. from the pre-Revolutionary era to the present day.Part 2 recalls the emergence of the Internet and the growth of the long tail of online advertising.

The shift from highly centralized corporations to distributed, networked “clouds” of micro-businesses is a hallmark of the Internet age, and it finds its expression most clearly in the rise of social media.

Social media services can best be thought of as ad hoc organizations of contributors providing media content of some sort over the Web. The variety of such services is stunning: blogging, for editorial content; Flickr, for photographic postings; YouTube and similar services for video; for sharing of musical tracks; Twitter (more about the Twitter phenomenon below); DeviantArt for sharing graphical art; eBay for buying and selling; Craigslist for advertising just about anything, including job listings; LinkedIn for business profiles; MySpace for music profiles; Facebook for general profiles; Wikipedia for encyclopedia entries; and so on.

This short list doesn’t even begin to consider the universe of related applications that provide value-add to a primary social media service.

The T-Blogger as the New Journalist

Blogging represents one of the most immediate threats to traditional journalism, to the extent of likely supplanting it completely within the next decade. A blog consists of a do-it-yourself article published on the Web by means of easy-to-use content management tools. What makes a blog so devastating, however, is that once it’s posted, that blog content is syndicated through specialized news feeds, which means that anyone who has subscribed to it will be notified (in one way or another) of every new post.

That solved one of the major problems of the Web: knowing when new material was posted to a given site. However, it also had an unintended side effect. The first large news sites on the Web were not that radically different from newspapers or magazines, in that competing effectively required a significant investment in infrastructure: servers, content management systems, customized programming and so forth. The investment in printing presses served as a barrier to entry against anyone becoming a publisher in the 1930s, and that looked to be holding increasingly true for the Web in the early 1990s, as large media corporations set up their “Web presence” with multimillion dollar Web site roll-outs.

Blogging, however, changed the dynamics of publishing on the Web completely. Anyone could set up a blog within perhaps an hour tops and at little to no cost; could post content to it as often as desired; and lay out that content in a way that appeared visually identical to what was being published by the large news organizations (or could go the other direction and make the output unique).

Early on, most blogs were, ironically, journals that recorded day to day personal experiences. Yet over time, different styles of writing emerged as people with different talents, interests and needs-to-communicate started writing.

Some bloggers began to treat their entries like news articles, reporting on local events or even on global events as their means permitted. Some began to concentrate on analysis writing — particularly those people in areas such as financial services, who could provide their own opinions about trends in the markets; or political analysts, who performed the same service in the halls of power. Some became reviewers and critics of everything from consumer electronics to food to film and theater, and some concentrated on writing tutorials or technical articles.

The upshot of all this has been that a second area of journalism — the creation of “news” content — is increasingly shifting from the domain of the “professional journalist” to the “dedicated amateur.” For a relatively short period of time, this arguably reduced the overall quality of news content. Certainly, that is the opinion of many dedicated professional journalists, and there’s some merit in it.

Student Becomes Teacher

However, the same thing is happening now as happened back in the 1990s, when amateur designers found themselves establishing a new visual feel for Web sites. The professionals approached Web design with a certain disdain, applying the same rules that had worked so well in print … but they didn’t work terribly well on the Web.

The amateurs, starting with fewer preconceived rules, were able to establish themselves more quickly in the new media, and in many cases became the next generation of professionals, while established design firms either made the transition or faded into obsolescence.

Bloggers have been diligently producing articles — in some cases, several articles a day — since 2003, which means they have had six years of exploration in a completely new medium, finding out what works and what doesn’t, all the while studying the works of established journalists to compare and contrast. In many cases, what it means is that these dedicated amateurs know their medium — and know its writing styles and limitations — far better than the supposed professionals.

Not surprisingly, many of the more forward-thinking professional journalists started blogging on the side. As a consequence, they are now far better placed than many news organizations, particularly those that are undergoing upheavals as they make the transition to “online” or “virtual” publishing.

As a side note, there’s some question about how effective these “real-to-virtual” transitions really are. In general, if an organization had already established a fairly broad online presence in the earlier part of the decade (or even earlier), the issues of Web presence, infrastructure investment and the like have generally been solved.

The likelihood that a purely offline publication will survive the jump in the current environment is pretty close to zero, as a dedicated offline subscription base generally does not, in fact, translate into a dedicated online readership.

The Online Conversation

A second phenomenon that has been taking place is what might best be termed the “Online Conversation.” While there have been a number of different instances of this, one of the most recent (and most popular) is Twitter. Twitter began as yet another “social nightclub” conceit, letting users post (very) short messages describing what they were doing at that moment, and letting them subscribe to their friends’ feeds to see what they were doing. Like a lot of significant social media, however, Twitter evolved.

At some point, the Twitter staff decided to add the ability to embed shortened (tiny) URLS into the status messages if longer site URLs were supplied. That meant people could start pointing to articles they’d just read and pass that information to all of their “followers.” This setup became the equivalent of “headline news” — short teasers that could function as succinct reports of breaking news events in real-time, often delivered via an Internet-connected handset. They could also be linked to longer news stories, images, videos, or analyses.

The coming-out moment for such real-time journalism occurred when an observer in New York, Janis Krums, who was videotaping flights coming out of the airport, watched in disbelief as a jet took off, then emergency-landed in the Hudson River. He caught the plane’s aborted flight with his cellphone camera and uploaded the shots to Flickr, sent out a running “tweet” stream as events unfolded, and was even there to cover the orderly evacuation of the plane.

Krums, an amateur blogger/twitterer, managed to report the critical breaking news in its entirety before the first “professional” journalist could even arrive.

What’s significant here is not Twitter in and of itself, but the integration of the various social media, first in an ad hoc way, but increasingly in formalized ways. Someone can Twitter a given online blog posting or event, which, if its interesting, will get picked up and spread around so that others can also determine its import. Among them, someone will follow up on the story (possibly via Skype or a similar electronic phone system), check it out, post a video to YouTube and photos to Flickr; then either write up another article or do a podcast, linking it back to Twitter or Facebook. The posted article, once published, will then appear on a news feed that can get pulled in by subscribers, and possibly get posted as part of an electronic newsletter sent via email.

Notice that despite the fact that the information involved may be newsworthy, there’s no mention of publishers, editors, printers, graphic designers, or even newsboys delivering the paper from a basket on their bicycle. The whole process, from the actual event to a notice landing in your email in-box, might take place within the space of an hour. Where the event happens is not really a factor. The blogosphere and twittersphere were essentially tracking a recent Obama/G20 meeting in real-time, with aides on the scene capturing events as they were taking place at a locale that, for many “observers,” was half a world away at a level of access that was very exclusive.

Facebook has recently made it possible to embed tweets into the Facebook stream, while Google indicated that it was in discussions to acquire Twitter and integrate it into its own increasingly sophisticated news system. Whether or not the latter will happen, the reality is that new media are already talking to one another, and will likely serve only to accelerate the demise of the traditional media institutions.

Kurt Cagle is the managing editor for Kurt Cagle on Twitter.

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 1

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 2

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 4

The Rise and Fall of Traditional Journalism, Part 5

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