Answering the Ultimate (Online News) Question

By: Steve Outing "What do you think the Internet's effect on journalism will be in the future?"

That broad-ranging question showed up in my mailbox this week, from a reporter seeking opinions for an article. I frequently get requests like that, many of them from students of new media. And while my Stop The Presses! columns seek to answer that question over time and through extended reporting of the interactive media scene, this request made me realize that I have not in a single column summed up an answer to that question.

So, if you'll pardon me for "killing two birds with one stone," I'll take this opportunity to explore how the Internet will affect journalism in the coming months and years.

Faster, faster, faster!

Newspapers and news magazines long had the luxury of leisurely deadlines. TV was the medium for instant headlines, and print publications had no effective way to compete with that -- instead offering more depth than TV, but forcing readers to wait for the presses to roll. Most newspapers don't own TV stations, and those that do don't tend to integrate the coverage of their respective media properties. But it's different with Web sites. For a newspaper or magazine, their sites typically are an integral part of their overall publishing operation. That means that print publishers now can compete directly with local TV stations on breaking stories by using their Web sites for fast-breaking news.

Of course, this means that print news organizations need to go through some substantial changes. Reporters and editors must adjust to a round-the-clock publishing cycle. For reporters, it means filing an immediate "bulletin" story for the Web site; updating that with new details as the day progresses; and writing a final wrap-up for the print edition. For editors, this means a greater workload. And for publishers, it means increasing demand for editorial staff to accommodate a round-the-clock publishing cycle.

News organizations today, and increasingly in the future, will be judged by how quickly their journalists can get a story to the public. Bragging rights in the information age for breaking a story are being measured in minutes, not days. That's not a pretty fact, but it's one that journalists must face.

Decline in quality, accuracy

The obvious effect of the trend above is a decay in the accuracy of news fed to the public. In the last year we've seen a few high-profile slips, where a "scoop" is published quickly to the Web in order to beat the competition to the punch, only to have it turn out to be wrong. Where in the "old media" world reporters throughout the day trade and try to nail down gossip, today's and tomorrow's supercharged media practitioners increasingly are tempted to run an item before adequately checking it out in order to be first. It's risky business, but occasionally you look good. As a result of the Internet and the competitive news environment it fosters, news consumers increasingly will see more errors of fact and just plain wrong stories.

Along with more errors come more corrections. On the one hand, the Internet as a news medium allows editors to quickly put up a revised story. If an erroneous report is replaced after an hour -- possible in a 24-hour publishing cycle -- then the majority of readers of the story will not see the innaccuracies. Yet those people who read the story in the first hour on a news Web site will have seen an erroneous story, and they are unlikely to come back to the site until the following day. Unless the article has been delivered via e-mail -- in which case the publisher can send out a correction by e-mail -- it's unlikely that a publisher will know who viewed the erroneous article in order to alert them to the wrong.

Taken one step further, what happens when only 10% of your Web site's users saw the erroneous story but 90% saw a correct version published later in the day? Unfortunately, some editors may be tempted to skip running a correction later in the day or the next day -- since so few people saw the erroneous story. The early reader visits the site the following day and sees nothing to indicate that what he read on the site yesterday is anything but accurate. Likewise, most editors won't want to run print-edition corrections for Web site stories that were only online a short while. The result: Some Web site readers will grow to distrust the accuracy of a site's reports.

Media horde grows

Everyone is familiar with the stereotypical media horde descending on celebrities and politicians, all yelling out questions. The proliferation of media in the last decade has made it so that high-profile news stories -- the O.J. Simpson trial or the unsolved murder of 6-year-old pageant star Jonbenet Ramsey -- attract literally hundreds of reporters. Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet! The Internet is attracting a new wave of journalists to be added to the already overflowing barrel.

This has both good and bad sides. The bad side is that the growing horde attracted to the biggest stories will worsen coverage overall. The more reporters covering a single story, the more some of those reporters will do to differentiate themselves from the crowd -- by running stories based on rumors that may turn out to be innaccurate. Again, the competitive pressure spawned by the Internet will impact accuracy of reporting -- and ultimately lessen the public's trust in what the media tells them.

But there's a good side to this, as well, and that is the proliferation of journalists covering niche areas that for space reasons are not accommodated in traditional media. A good example is the New York Times, which for its Web site has hired a reporter to cover the "cyberspace and culture" beat, another to cover Washington, D.C., from the perspective of how government impacts the cyberspace community, and another who covers the digital entertainment scene -- none of which shows up in the Times print edition. More and more journalists operating on the Internet will cover increasingly narrow topic areas, serving as combination experts in their field and journalists. Many of these "journalists" will come from the industries or fields they cover, providing greater insight for their readers than any generally trained journalist could hope to offer.

More coverage of unseen issues

Related to the item above, issues and news events that tend to be ignored by mainstream media will find a public airing in the alternative and smaller media outlets operating in cyberspace. Newspaper professionals are familiar with the phenomenon of issues that are played up by the "alternative press" being practically ignored by major newspapers and TV stations. To be sure, small Web sites that report on unpopular issues will likewise be ignored, even if what they're reporting has legitimacy. But just as assuredly, some small Web publishers will make a splash with exposes of issues not yet in the mainstream press. Just as happened with Matt Drudge after he was first to alert the public to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, other small Web publishers will find the issues they uncover flow to the mainstream media. Over and over again in the coming years, we will see tiny, unknown online "news organizations" rise from obscurity to create brand names as well known as -- or moreso than -- is Drudge's today.

Journalist meets reader

Reporters and editors have always been contacted by readers, but sending a letter or picking the phone and reaching a journalist isn't as easy as firing off a comment via e-mail. And increasingly, Internet users are contacting those journalists who publish their e-mail addresses. As I've written about in this column, it's really nothing to fear; most journalists who publish the addresses report not being overwhelmed, and benefitting from feedback on their work and an increasing number of tips.

This is another one of those "you ain't seen nothin' yet" trends, for as Internet use grows in the coming years, more of the public will avail themselves of e-mail to communicate with journalists. Why? Because it's so easy. To be sure, journalists will have to adapt to this new reality of working in the media business -- that readers can and will talk back. Increasingly, journalists will be expected by their employers to answer all legitimate e-mail messages; likewise, they will be expected to participate in online discussion forums and live online chats with readers. They will, in short, be expected to interact with their public. The interactive nature of the Internet is changing the definition of the duties that a journalist must perform.

Community publishing will steer coverage

Increasingly, local publishers will incorporate "community publishing" components to their Web sites, which allow community groups and individuals to self-publish on the Web under the publisher's aegis. This will serve a couple purposes, both of which will impact journalism in the future.

First, community groups' self-publishing areas on news sites will offer the consumer news that is not covered in traditional media. Most local newspapers, of course, don't have the resources or news hole to cover the activities of every club or organization in town. To be sure, "news" from community organizations is one-sided coverage and it might be difficult to define some of it as "news," yet this is the only way that many community groups will spread news about what they're doing beyond their own newsletters. My local newspaper doesn't cover the activities of my daughter's elementary school, for example, but a teacher-parent group might use community publishing tools to disseminate news from the school via the Web. As a consumer, that's a great service that my newspaper can't provide me in its current form.

"Community publishing" components of a news site will be kept at an arm's length from the "real" news reporting conducted by a news organization, so that there is no confusion in Web users' minds about whether the information is objective (from the news organization's reporters) or not (news from the community organization itself). Nevertheless, community publishing will influence what gets covered by the professional reporters, as writers and editors monitor the community publishing content produced by community organizations that fall within their "beats." Government reporters, for instance, will monitor the self-publishing areas produced by agencies and boards that they might not normally have time to cover. The public will benefit as reporters learn about the activities and begin to write about the activities of obscure agencies, boards and organizations.

There's more

I could go on and on, but that's enough for one column. In a future column, I will finish out this line of thought.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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