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.


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