Blogs alone do not suffice

“Journalism is dead. Long live the blog.”

 

Pundits hail the death of journalism, pointing to the declining newspaper revenues from print advertising, which more than halved in the US from $46.6bn in 2006 to $20.7bn in 2011 (according to Pew).  

 

To make this claim is to confound journalism and newspapers. Journalism is not dead. Newspapers are dead.

 

We all still consume news and op-eds, just increasingly through different media. So newspapers may be dying, but our appetite for content is not, as the volume of news we consume is not decreasing. Interestingly, newspapers are dying but much more slowly than many expected. They are unlikely to ever fully recover, but Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett’s recent acquisitions of newspapers such as the Washington Post testify to their belief in the current undervaluation of newspapers. They still have a runway of profitability, thanks to a loyal physical readership among people predominantly above 40 years old.

                                                                               

The problem is that despite our high consumption of news, the quality of this content is waning. The reason is, as Dean Starkman points out, we have an increasingly “network-driven system of journalism” in which content is not so much created as “assembled, shared”. Fewer long-form articles or in-depth documentaries are being funded. “Reporters are disempowered”, buckling under the pressure to publish more articles, with less choice over the subjects they cover. Investigative journalism is being ousted to make way for light entertainment.

 

Ironically, it is in part our fault as readers. News sites use web analytics tools to track the articles or videos that draw the most views, in order to decide what they should produce in higher quantities. Inevitably, as a population we prefer the junk food. Kim Kardashian tripping over a puppy draws more views, by a factor of more than ten, than tan article about the US fiscal cliff.

 

Yet I believe the decline of investigative journalism is not permanent. Rather, the journalistic system is in a state of flux. As Clay Shirky says, in revolutions “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place”. As more and more holes appear in hulls of newspapers, investigative journalists are being used as plugs, asked to publish banalities rather than thoroughly-researched stories. Or more unfortunate still, they get fired and so take up jobs in other industries. This shift arises because we have not yet found a new, sustainable model for journalism. Currently, “old institutions seem exhausted while new ones seem untrustworthy” (Shirky).

 

In time, though, new institutions will become trustworthy. Investigative journalists will be in high demand again, because “society needs journalism” (Shirky). We need journalism in order to expose corporate fraud, human rights violations, consumer abuse. Investigative journalism cannot just be about readers posting on twitter feeds. Breaking a story of government corruption can involve months, if not years, of research, interviews and even imbedding with a group. It is a full time job.

 

Is there a need for new institutions if many people avidly read blogs, seeing this netroots journalism as a vital source of opinion. Yet, as Salon Daous points out, the “netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom”. The ideas they propose need broader propagation and their facts need authentication. So blogs inform politicians, reporters and citizens, but rely on politicians and the press to be deemed reliable and actually be scalable. Daous claims this triangle of blogs, media and political is necessary to create widespread change.

 

What these media institutions will look like tomorrow is unclear, because they’ll be very different to those that persist today. Google and Amazon are well positioned to play a role, as they should be able to automate fact checking with algorithms that scan the web for corroborating evidence and they can integrate distribution onto Android and Kindle platforms. Startups like Circa and Zite have also started providing news highly tailored to consumption on mobiles and tablets, but it still more a question of improved curation than a reinvention of the model for investigative journalism. They select articles based on whether their algorithms predict that I will personally like them. Zite, for example, almost exclusively shows me articles focused on technology start-ups and foreign affairs.

 

In short, there will be new winners, but the tournament is only just starting.

Testing whether Wikipedia gets it right

I had a brief look at the Wikipedia article on  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brasenose_College,_Oxford, to see how accurate the crowd-sourced encyclopedia is.

In short, the facts tend to be correct, but there are sometimes glaring omissions of important content. I think this is the result of two phenomena. Firstly, the Wikipedia development process is piecemeal. This is good from the perspective that it sources different perspectives, but it means no contributor is responsible for ensuring the end product holistically covers the topic at hand. Secondly, as contributors, we are much more likely to correct errors that add new content if we notice some is missing. Errors stab us, forcing a reaction; omissions merely pinch us, and so are easier to brush off.

Comprehensiveness:

i) History: The article omits to detail the importance of the Jacobite influence on Brasenose College, particularly during the first half of the seventeenth century.

 

ii) Location and buildings: While the Wikipedia page provides a decent overview of the buildings used to teach students, it omits to note the existence of a second annex residence used to house graduate students. It would also be worth adding that the seventeenth century kitchen underwent a major renovation between 2010-12, which reconstructed the ceiling which was at risk of collapsing.

 

iii) Events: Every two years, the college hosts a major ball, with a budget of circa £50,000. In 2009, to mark the 500th anniversary since the founding of Brasenose, the college hosted a particularly large ball. It was the first college to secure the right to have exclusive use of Radcliffe Square for an evening, in order to allow attendees to watch a firework display, launched from the gardens of All Saints College. To mark the anniversary, Queen Elizabeth II visited the college.

Sourcing:

The Wikipedia article does well to make good use of Joseph Mordaunt Crook’s 2008 book, entitled ‘Brasenose: the biography of an Oxford College’, published shortly before the college’s quincentenary celebrations. Joseph Crook was appointed as the official Brasenose historian, having before been a professor of History at the College.