Thoughts on 2008 “State of the News Media” report

by on March 17, 2008 · 2 comments

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has released its latest “State of the News Media” (SOTNM) report. As a journalism junkie and a student of information history, I always look forward to these reports, especially because they are jam-packed full of very useful information and statistics about the health of various media sectors, something I have spent a lot of time discussing here in my ongoing “Media Metrics” series of essays.

This year’s SOTNM report contains some conclusions that are sure to provoke controversy and criticism. I thought I would just mention the one conclusion that is sure to be the most controversial. Namely, the report concludes (this is from the Executive Summary):

The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists. [p. 1]
The prospects for user-created content, once thought possibly central to the next era of journalism, for now appear more limited, even among “citizen” sites and blogs. News people report the most promising parts of citizen input currently are new ideas, sources, comments and to some extent pictures and video. But citizens posting news content has proved less valuable, with too little that is new or verifiable. … The array of citizen-produced news and blog sites is reaching a meaningful level. But a study of citizen media contained in this report finds most of these sites do not let outsiders do more than comment on the site’s own material, the same as most traditional news sites. Few allow the posting of news, information, community events or even letters to the editors. And blog sites are even more restricted. In short, rather than rejecting the “gatekeeper” role of traditional journalism, for now citizen journalists and bloggers appear for now to be recreating it in other places. [p. 3]

I suppose my fundamental problem with this conclusion is that it is simply too early to be making sweeping conclusions about the impact of user-generated media and Web 2.0 reporting on the overall health of the news media.

Certainly, the rise of user-generated media and Web 2.0 reporting has challenged traditional media operators and operations. No doubt about that. In fact, the report also notes that:

more and more it appears that the biggest problem facing traditional media has less to do with where people get information than how to pay for it — the emerging reality that advertising isn’t migrating online with the consumer. The crisis in journalism, in other words, may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising.

Hard to deny that reality, especially after you take a close look at how these changes are impacting some of the oldest media sectors, such as newspapers and radio broadcasting. But the health of traditional media sectors is not synonymous with the health of all news media. And things are still very much in a state of flux regarding traditional media and their baby steps into the new media waters. Some traditional media operators have wholeheartedly embraced new media / Web 2.0 methods; others have been very late to the show. But it is an ongoing experiment. “Professional media” can and will survive, but not without some serious transitional bumps and bruises.

The report speaks of “the decoupling of news and advertising” as perhaps the most serious threat to traditional news media operations. Indeed, it is a threat–see this essay for the details–but it is also an opportunity; a chance to deploy new business models and connect with the audience in new, and better, ways. Some operators will not survive the ongoing creative destruction we are witnessing. But others will endure and be stronger for it because they already know how to do one thing very well–gather and report facts. It’s just a matter of monetizing that process in new ways and capturing enough of the fragmented audience share to prosper.

But the era of “mass” audiences is almost certainly dead, and we need to come to grips with that. Indeed, the “de-massification” of mass media will likely go down as the overarching theme of this epoch of information history. Never again will a handful of media elites be able to dominate the news agenda and aggregate eyes and ears as they did in the past. That is a challenge to some of the respected giants of the old media order, but they can survive and remain major players in today’s media cornucopia.

And there is no reason that “citizen journalism” can’t be an important part of that that new media mosaic going forward. The SOTNM report is being somewhat shortsighted when it makes that claims such as “The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists.”

First, many bloggers today are “elites,” but that misses the important point is: More citizens than ever before are now engaged in an ongoing conversation. Much of that conversation is simple editorializing. But a respectable amount of that conversation is original reporting. Not necessarily original reporting on par with what The New York Times pumps out on a daily basis, but much of it represents a new and distinct form of “informational inputs” that were simply not available to us in the past. That’s a good thing. We can have both.

Second, it will always be the case that some “elite” bloggers dominate more than others. Power laws–or the old “80/20” Pareto principle“–are prevalent in all forms of media, with some voices capturing far more attention than others. That’s even the case for blogging, as Clay Shirky taught us long ago. (Also see this essay by Tim Lee).

There are several reasons that power laws always exist in all media contexts. We used to think it was because the economics of media are quite different than most other industries. Namely, they have public good qualities; high fixed (production costs), but lower distribution costs. But the primary reason why power laws are probably more prevent in media industries than other sectors of the economy is because the creation and consumption of news and popular culture is a truly social phenomenon. Think of it as the economics of popular choice and the sociology of fashion and fads. People (and consumers) react to what others are reading or watching. Word-of-mouth counts. Bandwagon effects exist. First-mover advantages are significant. And so on.

But just because some “elites” rise to the top of the ranks in the blogosphere or the world of citizen journalism, it does not mean the entire enterprise is hopelessly inegalitarian. The fact is, amazing new opportunities exist for millions more people to contribute their talents to the enterprise of gathering and reporting information. Not all of them will have as a big of soapbox as the folks on the top, but they can have a soapbox and the soapbox can grow bigger with hard work. That’s important and we shouldn’t forget it.

Finally, I’d like to the think that a lot of the blogs and websites that rise to the top get there because of merit–even when I disagree with their philosophical disposition. Of course, there are plenty of sites that rise to the top for other reasons. You have to take the good with the bad and just appreciate that you have more of everything–including varied news sources–in a world of media abundance. I made this point in my 2-part review of Andrew Keen’s anti-Web 2.0 book, “The Cult of the Amateur”:

What Keen doesn’t seem willing to tolerate is that when everyone has a voice, a lot more silly things are going to be said and heard. Back in the days before we all had our own soapboxes (websites, blogs, social networks, YouTube posts, etc.) we all had opinions, but we had few ways to get those opinions out. Now that the Internet has become the great leveler and given everyone the ability to be a one-person newspaper or broadcaster to the world, the dream of a more fully empowered citizenry is slowly becoming a reality. The upside is that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard. But the downside is that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard! That is, with the good comes some bad. There are wonderful contributions to culture and human communications being made by average Joes and Janes across the globe because of the Web. But let’s face it, there’s a lot of crap out there too. Cutting through the cultural clutter can been a real challenge, and even with the best search tools in the world at your disposal, it can still be difficult to find that diamond in the rough.

But aren’t we better off as a society because of the opportunities now at our disposal? Isn’t an age of media and cultural abundance—warts and all—still preferable to the age of scarcity which preceded it?

We are better off, and so too is the news media. I say, let the grand experiment continue, and let’s see what the “State of the News Media 2018” report has to say about all this in another 10 years. I remain optimistic for a simple reason: People demand great journalism; we’ve grown to expect it. And where there is demand, supply will follow. It’s just a matter of experimenting with enough business models to find the optimal balance.

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