Dancing On The Newspaper’s Grave

by on March 30, 2008 · 2 comments

Over at Ars, I beg to differ with Eric Alterman’s concerns that Web-based journalism will be somehow inferior to the 20th-century variety:

Looking at the broader media world, it’s true that the majority of high-quality journalism still happens in traditional mainstream media outlets. It would surprising if this were not the case, since they still control a majority of eyeballs and advertising dollars. But the idea that the web is, or is likely to become, a journalistic wasteland doesn’t make a lot of sense. As the reader attention—and with it, advertising dollars—shift to the web, web-based publications (along with those mainstream publications that successfully navigate the transition to the web) will have the resources to recruit the best journalists to work for them. High-quality reporting draws eyeballs, and eyeballs generate advertising revenue, so talented writers will continue to be in demand regardless of the medium.

One of the big challenges that mainstream media outlets will face is that their size and bureaucracy makes it difficult for them to experiment with new news gathering techniques. As we’ve seen here at Ars, one of the big advantages of web-based publishing is that it’s possible to draw on contributions from a broader range of professional writers, bloggers, and amateurs with subject matter expertise. Large, monolithic news organizations, which rely on full-time employees for the bulk of their writing, may have difficulty exploiting this model. If a natural disaster occurs, for example, a news organization that flies a professional reporter to the scene of the tragedy will likely get scooped by a news organization that has an existing network of freelancers in the area who can cover the story without leaving their home towns. What those writers lose in writing skills they are likely to make up in timeliness and depth of local knowledge.

One other criticism Alterman makes that seems off base to me is that at one point he faults the web-based publications like the Huffington Post for failing to be “full service” media outlets–lacking a sports section, say, or book reviews. But this is actually a strength, not a weakness, of the web model. I’m not at all interested in the sports section of my local paper, and if I took the paper that section would have been nothing but landfill. More to the point, there’s no particular reason to think the same hierarchical organization that brings you your technology or political news is also the best qualified to deliver you book reviews or sports news.

Anyone who’s upset that the Huffington Post doesn’t have a sports section should learn to use an RSS reader and subscribe to any of the hundreds of excellent
sports blogs and news sites out on the web, just as anyone who wants more technology news than the Huffington Post has to offer can subscribe to Ars or the Technology Liberation Front. The “one stop shopping” model of 20th-century media was a reflection of the limitations of 20th-century communications technologies. It wasn’t, in and of itself, anything to celebrate or emulate.

I originally found the link to the New Yorker via Yglesias, who made some additional good points on the subject, especially that the 20th century American model of “objectivity,” in which reporters pretend not to have opinions about the subjects they’re covering, is far from universal and not necessarily superior to the more adversarial model that prevailed in the 19th century and still prevails in parts of Europe.

  • http://www.kboreilly.com/ Kevin B. O’Reilly

    I agree there is more than enough room for a plethora of approaches to news reporting. To the extent that there is a market for more “viewpoint journalism,” I don’t have a big problem with it. One major constraint that faces most news gathering operations, however, is their lack of expertise. They know how to present news and information in a compelling, intelligible way. They understand what their audience cares about.

    They are good at getting their hands on the experts, and at explaining complex subjects in terms consumers can understand. But very few reporters and editors actually have any training or expertise in, say, economics, urban planning, or foreign policy. People who cover the police department don’t really know how a police department should be run. Aiming for objectivity, if nothing else, acts as useful constraint on otherwise unqualified offerings.

  • http://www.kboreilly.com/ Kevin B. O’Reilly

    I agree there is more than enough room for a plethora of approaches to news reporting. To the extent that there is a market for more “viewpoint journalism,” I don’t have a big problem with it. One major constraint that faces most news gathering operations, however, is their lack of expertise. They know how to present news and information in a compelling, intelligible way. They understand what their audience cares about.

    They are good at getting their hands on the experts, and at explaining complex subjects in terms consumers can understand. But very few reporters and editors actually have any training or expertise in, say, economics, urban planning, or foreign policy. People who cover the police department don’t really know how a police department should be run. Aiming for objectivity, if nothing else, acts as useful constraint on otherwise unqualified offerings.

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