The Net Effect on Journalism (Part 2)

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By: Steve Outing In my last column, I began to address the question, "What effect will the Internet have on journalism?" In light of recent events involving President Clinton's sex and legal troubles, now is an opportune time to address that question. The Internet's effect on how journalism is practiced is being demonstrated before our eyes. It's not necessarily a pretty picture.

Dumb and dumber

It's painful as a long-time journalist to suggest this, but I think that the Internet will play a role in the deterioration of quality and ethics of media in general. This echoes back to some points I made in my last column, that the speed with which the Internet makes news dissemination possible (as evidenced by the release and worldwide redistribution of the Kenneth Starr presidential sex report last week) and the increasingly competitive news atmosphere it creates will force traditional media to react instantly -- and thus without thought -- in order to "keep up."

The release of the Starr report demonstrates this point. When the U.S. House of Representatives voted to release the special prosecutor's report and post it on its Web site, media organizations committed to making copies of it available to their audiences immediately on their Web sites -- before having a chance to read over the material and gauge its fitness for publication. Everyone knew in advance that the report would contain sexual revelations, but not until it was public would we know whether it contained material so sexually explicit that it might be unsuitable for younger readers. The media, and especially the Internet news media, were in effect forced into marching lockstep and immediately publishing the report, no matter how profane it might be, and no matter how one-sided its content.

Imagine a future scenario, now that this precedent has been set. In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, a grand jury has been convened to try to solve the nearly 2-year-old murder of child beauty queen Jonbenet Ramsey. This case gets nearly as much media attention as the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, so when that grand jury finishes its work, you can bet that there will be attempts to make its report available to the public. Don't be surprised if someone leaks it and posts it to the Internet. Mostly probably, media sites will do as they did with the Starr report and copies will be posted across the Web and excerpted in every newspaper and broadcast.

The problem will come if the grand jury implicates the parents (a strong likelihood), and the public reads a one-sided account by a grand jury that points the finger at the Ramseys. So much for John and Patsy Ramsey's chances for a fair trial.

I have little doubt about how this will play out. Will media organizations take the moral high ground and not publish or link to a leaked Jonbenet grand jury report? One would hope so, but I won't hold my breath. U.S. media organizations might resist because of legal considerations, but overseas media won't be bound by such constraints as the illegality of publishing secret grand jury reports. Indeed, under such a scenario U.S. news sites might well link to European news sites carrying the report.

On Monday's Nightline, ABC's nightly news feature program, host Ted Koppel closed with a thoughtful comment about the media's role in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the larger issues surrounding the speed at which technology allows the media -- indeed, compels the media -- to disseminate information. The Internet (and TV) allow us to publish "at the speed of light," Koppel commented, "but the trouble is, our minds can't think that fast." Sadly, I think we can expect increasing instances where journalists publish first and think later.

Journalism sea change

"Traditionally, the journalism profession has stood between the news and the people. Now, under a new model, it stands on the side, and comments from there, with a slight delay. Frankly, I prefer the latter approach."

That astute comment on the effect of the Internet as demonstrated by the Starr report comes from Scott Finer, a participant in the Online-News Internet discussion list (which I operate). His last sentence typifies the view of many news consumers, who distrust the media's traditional role of being a filter or gatekeeper between original news source material and the public. How much more preferrable, the argument goes, for the public to have unfettered access to original sources like the Starr report; they'll look to the news media for analysis if they feel like it.

That view has a couple sides to it. It's dangerous if the media en masse get used by special-interest groups who on volatile issues have an agenda to ply, and play the system by fooling media organizations into carrying their one-sided information. The argument can be made that the Republican majority in Congress did this by voting to release the Starr report to the House Web site, knowing that media worldwide would redistribute the report with nary a second thought. (To be fair, it wasn't just the Republicans; a number of Democrats also voted to release the report to the public.)

It's not hard to imagine other instances where the subjects of news will in the future run around the media to tell their story, using the Internet to get their message across and influence public opinion. To be sure, with most issues it still will take the power of the media to make an issue visible. But with mega-news stories like Clinton-Lewinsky and Jonbenet Ramsey, the parties involved will with the Internet have a powerful tool for influencing public opinion sans the media or by using an unwitting media to their advantage to spread their point of view.

On the other hand, there is validity to the argument that consumers should have the right to view the news firsthand, unemcumbered by the news media's filtering mechanisms, if that's what the consumer wants. What this means for journalism, I think, is that tomorrow's journalists will operate in a world where they are not the only game in town. As Finer suggests, journalists will often be analyzing and assessing source material at the same time as is the public. This might require a subtly different kind of reporting, where the journalist does more synthesizing and analysis of sensational documents that much of the population has already seen firsthand. This doesn't lessen the need for traditional media reporting in instances like the release of the Starr report; rather, it changes the tone of the reporting because many readers are going to the media for explanation and commentary, not to get the news per se.

Economic considerations

One last area that I have not touched on in these last two columns is the economic impact of the Internet on traditional media. We all know the trends: classified advertising will increasingly migrate to the Web, decreasing newspapers' dominant revenue source; new digital competitors (including newspapers' own Web sites, as well as new entrants into the news game such as the Web search engine/directory companies and even Microsoft) will over time chip away at print readership; online community guides lessen the need for newspaper entertainment sections; etc. The traditional newsroom -- especially those of newspapers -- will come under increasing financial pressure as the masses go online. News publishers will have trouble maintaining editorial quality as print revenues flatten out or ever so slowly decline.

Of course, the smart media company diversifies, taking advantage of the Internet to publish to multiple media and thus generate multiple revenue streams. The big question is if revenue growth from new media -- which is proving to be notoriously difficult to achieve -- will make up for the eventual declines experienced by the "old" media. I suspect it will, though the transition will be unpleasant for many in the journalism business. The concept of becoming a "database" publishing company instead of a newspaper publishing company won't be easy for everyone.

The principal effects of this will be felt by the individuals who man our journalistic enterprises. It is the individual journalist who must adjust to life with the Internet. Round the clock deadlines (everyone's now a wire service reporter); increased workload due to the multiple publishing platforms that must be written for; constant electronic interaction with readers; the acquisition of new skills to support multimedia publishing (i.e., audio and video reporting); more interaction with the business or advertising side of the media enterprise, which brings new ethical issues to the surface; etc.

Do you agree?

This and my previous column obviously present my opinions on this topic, grounded in covering the online journalism profession for the last three years in this column. While I expect that most of you will agree that the Internet is having and will have a profound effect on the practice of journalism, I certainly don't expect everyone who reads my views will agree. I invite your opinion and will publish other views. Send me e-mail at steve@planetarynews.com.

Steve

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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 at:steve@planetarynews.com

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

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