Change and the Survival of Good Journalism

Few industries have gone through the radical change that we have seen ripple, cascade, and now crash through traditional Journalism and its Newspapermedia outlets. Papers are folding, the internet is exploding, and of us are trying to sort out what all the changes mean and how they affect our world.

Stepping into this arena was Stephen Ward, a Journalism Ethics Professor from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Prof. Ward led a spirited and insightful discussion on the trends and consequences of the changing media landscape. The clear points from this discussion were that a new model for Journalism is emerging, no one is sure of what the final form will be, and, in the end, the form and new rules may be less important than the substance that results. Ethics and fulfilling expectations may be the most important factors in the new model.

The Journalism model is moving to a new place. Declining ad revenue has started a cycle of cost cutting that is reducing the quality of local papers, which reduces appeal and circulation, leading to lower ad revenues, starting the cycle over again. There are few logical arguments for the cycle stopping and the trends reversing.

Online NewsAt the same time, more and more content is finding its way online. Everyone with a laptop can be a field journalist, with few constraints on content, quality, or quantity. In addition, anyone else may comment on that content through the instant interactivity the Web provides. Finally, the ease and low cost of access enables large quantities of data to be available online. Readers can go to the raw data and draw their own assumptions. The events around the recent arrest and indictment of Illinois’ Governor demonstrated this phenomenon, as thousands of people chose to read the court documents and press releases for themselves, rather than relying on a journalistic distillation.

 These changes are causing hybrid news delivery models to emerge. Some are one-dimensional, such as the on-line editions of traditional news outlets. Some follow more interactive formats such as blogs or areas for on-line discussions. The most interesting are creating layered newsrooms, both on-line and in print, featuring professional reporters working alongside citizen reporters. The layered approach increases coverage and delivers the varied perspectives found on the internet, and bolstering those efforts with the traditional journalism elements used by the professionals.

No one knows what the final model(s) will look like. It could follow a traditional framework, where the strengths of professional reporters are leveraged across various platforms. It could move to the other end of the spectrum and become a bit like the Wild West, where speed and opportunity are critical and the ability to avoid the crossfire becomes a valuable skill. The new model could also move to a “pay-for-play” system, where consumers pay for the stories they want. It could also follow a more “regulated” path: regulated with site certifications or more informally through click traffic.

All of these approaches have their strengths and shortcomings, but the ongoing ethics and guideline governing the content may be more important than the final form – or final content. It’s very clear that we are entering a new age in the way we will get our news. All of us will make individual decisions and those collective decisions will shape the paths news takes in the future.

Our providers will need to make decisions about their standards and the transparency they provide. Will it be necessary to be objective, or just label content as opinion? Will all the facts need to be double-checked, or will speed rule the day? Which qualities will gain the largest followings and how will that affect the economics of the new system? We will all play a role in how this evolves.

Stay tuned!!


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