Digital Realities: The Deconstruction Or Reconstruction Of Journalism?

The reconstruction of the news media in a digital interactive world is starting to look more like the destruction of journalism; the death of intellectual substance for the masses in an age of snippets.

The steady barrage of sizable news layoffs and the noticeable curtailment of investigative and in-depth reporting (most notably at newspapers) is akin to ripping out the industry's editorial heart and soul. The Capital Times and other newspapers converting from print to an all-electronic format are the lucky ones, although online economic models are amorphous. The unprecedented collapse of newspapers and hardcore traditional journalism--which are intertwined on so many levels--seems a heavy breath away. Some of it is the newspaper industry's own fault; it will stand as a painful lesson to other traditional news media too slow to embrace change: Transform or die.

The serious rupture is the same for newspapers as magazines, television and other news media. It is a race to generate revenues from new digital outlets fast enough to offset dramatic losses of advertising and subscription dollars. Usually, the answer will be dashing costly and ineffective legacy production and distribution to embrace an electronic platform.



However, the debate and angst over an imploding business pales in comparison to the potentially more serious loss of intellectual capital. Serious journalism demands more than a sensational headline or a handful of easily digestible text. We are losing a dedication to and demand for accurate, substantive contextual reporting and informed analysis that is integral to an enlightened proletariat. The stakes are too high, the issues too complicated, and the events and relationships too crucial to settle for less.

The digital interactive electronic wonderland, sadly, breeds short attention spans and impatience, a blatant disregard for comprehending disparate facts, the expectation of instant solutions and easy answers. It resigns us to the dangerous lack of context necessary for substantive thinking.

The concept of compensating journalists primarily by the page views they generate (as Reed Business Information has contemplated) exacerbates the growing mentality that anyone with a blog is the same as a studied purveyor of double-checked facts and knowledgeable perspective. A blogger may well be. But the Web's everyman writers are as likely to be something altogether different: single-minded egoists.

The Internet is the ultimate democratic platform that affords everyone a megaphone and makes everyone a potential vigilante journalist, and by default, their own gatekeeper. At the same time, it has the power to savagely wound--if not destroy--a populist regard and connection with more challenging, informed intellectual thought inconsistent with online standards for brevity, simplicity and egocentricity. At their best, true journalistic endeavors can challenge the self-centered consumer to look outside their social map, their Facebook friends, their bookmarks and their RSS feeds. Yet the number of professional journalists is dwindling. Media industry layoffs are nearly 60% of 2007 and already topping 8,000 this year.

Satisfying our need to know with a few paragraphs of pithy opinion, a laundry list of headlines and an endless aggregation of Web links has become the accepted norm. Abbreviated news entrees are wrapped in eye candy, the epitome of which may be Tina Brown's use of designer Number 17 to package her unnamed news aggregation service. The models for electronic newspapers must reach beyond The Huffington Post and its Drudge Report nemesis (each worth millions) to more sites dedicated to fact-based, studied contextual reporting and informed analysis--wrapped in enough bells and whistles to make it a comfortable cyber creature.

Newspapers, magazines and some television have been the historical canvas for original, accurate, in-depth reporting. That charge is often lost online, when breaking or exclusive news lasts all of 60 seconds. Because of the conditioning and expectations already bred into the digital consumer, it will be a struggle--perhaps even impossible--to effectively deliver this quality of journalism online. The one rule that doesn't change in the digital world: If it can't pay its own way, it can't stay. Solutions for reconciling the two are not easy.

There is growing concern and uneasiness that the collapse of a few newspapers and the popularity of a new breed of online "news" means the death of substantive journalism. A University of Maryland-American Newspaper Guild survey is indicative: Over half the news professionals reported their readership/audience had shrunk more than 60% in the past five years. More than three-quarters of respondents conceded that making money and attracting readers was more important than credibility and accuracy. The most important message of departing Los Angeles Times Editor James O'Shea's memo to the troops was commitment to preserving the tenets of principled journalism in transformation--not defeat.

The challenges are formidable: How to reinvent the economics and presentation of news without further damaging commitment to credibility, deeper knowledge, informed perspective? How do we keep contextual news and views, which informs and maintains a hopefully literate electorate, from imploding? How do we devise ways to pay for a high standard of enterprising news and insights in a world of free chatter? How do we save the best of what the Fourth Estate can and must continue to be?

Ideas on how that can be achieved as well as a suggested template for change will be offered in part two of this column on Monday, May 12.

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