A Primer on Media in the 21st Century: Part II - Pacific Standard

A Primer on Media in the 21st Century: Part II

It's been said that the so-called new media are driving a stake into the heart of the traditional dead-tree model. A recent Project for Excellence in Journalism report shows that while new media are growing in popularity, old-school reportage is still important and relevant.
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This is the second of two articles examining the Project for Excellence in Journalism's latest annual examination of the news media in the United States.

Last year was a watershed for the Internet as news source, no doubt about it. But while they are growing and becoming more significant, new-media outlets are still not filling all the gaps left by the decline of newspapers and other traditional media, according to this year's Project for Excellence in Journalism report titled "The State of the News Media."

More than a third of Americans reported getting most of their 2008 campaign news from the Internet — three times as many as in 2004, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. For national and international affairs, only television outranked the Internet as a news source. Young voters and political activists alike turned to the Internet for news as much as they did television.

Despite the fact that the gap is narrowing as Internet use grows faster than any other medium, Americans are still more likely to read a newspaper or listen to news radio than to seek out news on the Web. At the same time, amateur journalists, so-called citizen journalists, are seeking to wrest control of news reporting from the professionals.

More and more traditional news outlets are incorporating citizen journalists as volunteer reporters and many — sometimes with the assistance of professionals — are running several Internet news sites.

The Knight Citizen News Network — supported by the journalism-oriented nonprofit Knight Foundation — offers training for citizen journalists and for those in traditional media who want to use to work of amateurs. It has identified about 800 citizen news media in the United States.

"They remain far from a substitute for legacy media," the PEJ report concluded, saying that the citizen sites' content tends to have less breadth, depth, quantity and quality than traditional media. Compared to mainstream news sites, the citizen sites tend not to be as timely, usually updated less than daily.

But average citizens are shaping the news in other ways, too, the report says. They're using search engines, such as Google, and aggregators, such as Google News, to locate stories of interest — often the work of professional journalists — and then sharing them via e-mail and social networking sites.

In addition, they're recommending news reports to others at sites designed for that purpose — Digg, Reddit and Topix, for example. They also recommend news items through Twitter, another social networking site that allows users to post messages of no more than 140 characters. Twitter has distinguished itself as a vehicle for on-site citizen reporting of fast-breaking news events, such as the recent Iran election protests and the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November.

Most major traditional news media now incorporate links to news-sharing sites in stories and Web pages as a way to broaden reach. Some outlets also have accounts with social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and post links back to the stories on their own Web sites, as Miller-McCune.com does. During the 2008 campaign, YouTube provided a forum for sharing television news reports, campaign-produced videos and citizens' own products.

"By compiling, sharing and customizing the news they consume, people in a sense are becoming not only their own editors, but also critical agents in the trajectory of a news story," the PEJ report says.

In spite of the growth of citizen journalism, it still has few practitioners that produce original content. According to a Pew Center survey, just 4 percent of Americans have ever posted their own original news items, and just 7 percent have commented on news stories. Fifteen percent have signed up for e-mailed news alerts, nearly half have e-mailed a news story to a friend, and more than half use search engines to find news.

Traditional media (print, TV and radio) have reduced their reporting, staffs and product as a result of a huge downturn in advertising combined with a troubled economy. Internet advertising, particularly on the news sites, is nowhere near even old newspaper levels (or current levels, for that matter). As a result, a growing number of professional journalists, either by choice or by circumstance, are creating their own online news sites to fill some of the gaps.

These sites' missions range from covering local news to covering a niche topic with national or global scope. Some are nonprofits supported by philanthropy (such as Miller-McCune.com), some have fingers crossed that income can break even with expenses and eventually become profit-making businesses.

"Few if any are profitable or even self-sustaining," the report says. "For now, our sense is that they represent something complementary to the traditional news media. Yet something new is going on here that could grow beyond that."

Some notable examples:

MinnPost.com covers public affairs, arts, business and sports in Minnesota.

Arizonaguardian.com covers state government and politics for an audience willing to pay for a subscription.

Kaiser Health News Service, funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation covers health policy, publishes a Web site and makes its news available for free to other media.

GlobalPost.com retains a network of foreign correspondents on a part-time basis and publishes the work of freelancers.

ProPublica.org is a nonprofit investigative reporting organization that is supported by philanthropy. It makes its news available online and to other media for free, and conducts some investigations in partnership with other news organizations.

Politico.com, founded in 2007 with the goal of turning a profit, became a major source for national political news during the 2008 campaign and is now focusing on covering the federal government and national politics.

Despite the traditional media's current financial and competitive difficulties, the report says, major news organizations that made their reputations in newspapers or television remain the dominant source for news on the Internet (such as CNN and the New York Times). Seven of the 10 most popular online news sites in 2008 were operated by some of those traditional media companies. Aggregators, such as The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post and various blogs, do little or no original reporting, instead linking to and commenting on traditional media's reports.

Newspapers, magazines, and radio and television news organizations are beefing up their online operations, and a 2007-08 survey by the University of Georgia's Cox Center for International Communication found a majority of newly hired journalists said their jobs included reporting for the Web.

Journalists who work online are optimistic about the economic future of Internet news organizations, according to a survey sponsored by PEJ and the Online News Association, but they are concerned that journalistic standards are eroding online. They are worried especially that emphasis on speed is leading to careless reporting and a decline in accuracy.

Those survey results mesh with the report's authors' concern that round-the-clock cable news is pressuring journalists to make "minute-by-minute" judgments.

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