Responsible Reporting Section 1 ‘News in Context’: Chapters I and II

My ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers is divided into three sections. The first, “News in Context”, is a state of the online news industry. The second, “The Five Journalisms”, examines five categories of news gathering most relevant to the age of context. The last, “What You Must Do”, applies concepts from the other two to present guidelines for responsible reporting.

In this second installment, I present two chapters from the first section. Opener “In Just Eight Years” is in part adapted from my June 2009 analysis “Iran and the Internet Democracy“, which is a provocative lens for looking back to look forward at the state of the news industry. 

As explained last week, the Responsible Reporting is being presented in serialized form before being released into the public domain. I still debate whether to update beforehand, which would include new chapters on data journalism and immersive journalism.

With that introduction…


I. In Just Eight Years

Welcome to the new era and how you will define it.

In less time than a child is born and reaches third grade, how, when, where, and from whom people get news has transformed. The landscape looks little like it did in mid-2000.

Before 2006, most of the tools commonly used today for sharing information didn’t exist or weren’t publicly available. Reddit and YouTube both opened for business in 2005, June and November, respectively. Condé Nast bought the social network and Google acquired the video-sharing service the following October. Facebook and Twitter put up digital shingles to the general public in oh-six. Eight years ago, there was no Tumblr (February 2007); Ustream (March 2007); iPhone (June 2007); App Store (July 2008); Dropbox (September 2008); Android (October 2008); Chrome browser (December 2008); iPad (April 2010); Instagram (October 2010); Google+ and Snapchat (September 2011); RebelMouse (June 2012); or Vine (January 2013), among many others.

In 2006, Gartner counted smartphones with personal digital assistants as a single device category. A year later, categorization changed among most analysts. During second quarter 2007, Gartner reported 270.9 million mobile handset sales. Fast forward to fourth quarter 2013: Smartphone sales reached 280.2 million units. For full year 2013, smartphone sales exceeded traditional “dumb” phones for the first time, capturing 53.6 percent market share. Gartner predicts that 2.2 billion cell phones and tablets will be sold in 2014.

Increased popularity of mobile devices—ranging from smartphones to smartwatches to wearable computers like Google Glass—and Internet apps and services going to devices used in cars, homes, and public places create new contexts for consuming news and other information. A revolution is underway.

The Internet Democracy
The first tangible signs of the new era suddenly appeared five years ago, as I explain in June 2009 analysis “Iran and the Internet Democracy”:

The Iranian protests are capturing the world’s attention in part because of fairly new tools that make it easy for most anyone to be a broadcaster, a real-time journalist…What happened on the streets of Tehran this week foreshadows dramatic changes, as citizens report the news in real time. The best reporting wasn’t from CNN or many news organizations but Flickr, Twitpic, Twitter, and YouTube.

Remember the context. The earliest of these tools was just three years old then—yet in infancy reached out to transform how people consume, and even create, news. Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism essentially agrees in a November 2012 report:

If you wanted to sum up the past decade of the news ecosystem in a single phrase, it might be this: Everybody suddenly got a lot more freedom. The newsmakers, the advertisers, the startups, and, especially, the people formerly known as the audience have all been given new freedom to communicate, narrowly and broadly, outside the old strictures of the broadcast and publishing models.

Hence my assertion that the “Internet democracy is killing newspapers and other news organizations” three years earlier. I observed control going from a small number of editors curating content to the masses becoming part of the process. In an October 2013 speech, Katharine Viner, Guardian deputy editor, concurs:

We are no longer the all-seeing all-knowing journalists, delivering words from on high for readers to take in, passively, save perhaps an occasional letter to the editor. Digital has wrecked those hierarchies almost overnight, creating a more leveled world, where responses can be instant, where some readers will almost certainly know more about a particular subject than the journalist, where the reader might be better placed to uncover a story.

She refers to hierarchies that I call “monopolies of power” four years earlier.

News Selfies
Changes in news consumption are dramatic, as people increasingly look to the social web first rather than static, editorially-curated content. According to a March 2014 Pew Research report:: 62 percent of U.S. Reddit users get news there—half of Facebook and Twitter users. However, when measuring actual number of Americans that works out to 3 percent, 30 percent, and 8 percent of the general population, respectively.

U.S. adults who get news from social networking sites and “often” from traditional outlets show just how much consumption has changed, according to Pew. For those watching cable TV, one-quarter get news there. But among this group, 35 percent also look to Google+—a service not yet three years old—and 34 percent to LinkedIn. Forty-seven percent of American adults get news from local TV, but the same group prefers Google+ more (48 percent), with YouTube and Facebook following not far behind (43 percent and 42 percent, respectively).

What I observed five years ago is truer today [quote]:

  • New tools let individuals self broadcast; they are the commentators or reporters.
  • An increasing number of Internet-connected, audiovisual-capable cell phones let .anyone, anywhere be a broadcaster.
  • These tools foster social interaction and commentary around news events. The people, not editors, choose what matters.
  • The people flood the Internet with content, much of it now outside news monopolies’ control.
  • The amount of content means that there is more online ad space than there is advertising.
  • Supply and demand: Massive amounts of content decrease value for which advertising sells

Three years later, Tow Center shares similar sentiments:

We are living through a shock of inclusion, where the former audience is becoming increasingly intertwined with all aspects of news, as sources who can go public on their own, as groups that can both create and comb through data in ways the professionals can’t, as disseminators and syndicators and users of the news.

This shock of inclusion is coming from the outside in, driven not by the professionals formerly in charge, but by the former audience. It is also being driven by new news entrepreneurs, the men and women who want to build new kinds of sites and services that assume, rather than ignore, the free time and talents of the public.

II. The Aggregator Dilemma

Ah, yes, the entrepreneurs. As these technologies came to market, the first major wave of new media startups pushed along with them: Huffington Post (May 2005); TechCrunch (June 2005); BuzzFeed (November 2006); Silicon Alley Insider (May 2007), becoming Business Insider (February 2009); ProPublica (October 2007); Newsy (October 2008); and The Verge (November 2011), among others.

New media outlets, many of them blogs, are aggressive and disruptive. Some operations adapt social media tools faster than, say, online newspapers and better make readers participants in the news gathering and storytelling process. Meanwhile, ethical debates dog some blogs, such as reporting on companies with which there are business relationships.

Aggregators recap news for free that outlets like the New York Times pay to produce. As measure of popular perceptions, Nasim Pedrad, portraying Arianna Huffington on “Saturday Night Live” remarks: “The New York Times has great coverage for this…and you can read all of it on the Huffington Post—because we copied it and pasted it”.

Aggregators seek high click volume, which can generate more advertising and improve page rates. Rather than produce original content, they typically leech from organizations that do. Synopsis posts keep many readers from going to the original story. When the content costs money to view—from, say, Wall Street Journal—free, aggregated recap is an easy choice for many readers.

Brian Morrissey, Digiday editor-in-chief, uses term “aggregation economy”. He laments:

The way to get ahead in digital publishing is to engage in all manner of shenanigans…The online publishing game is all about volume right now. It’s not about quality and originality. When volume is your organizing principle, you take shortcuts. Ripping off others’ work is simply the norm now. It is absolutely effective, and it is absolutely depressing.

I say that aggregation is plagiarism.

Search Engine Obsession
Aggregation is a by-product of Search Engine Optimization, or as I call it, obsession—media outlets using various visible and hidden tactics to boost rankings on Google Search and News. In June 2009 I stated four problems with media operations obsessing over SEO [quote]:

  • These news organizations generate more content that looks much the same as other news organization content, diminishing its reader and advertising value.
    They add even more content to the clutter, increasing the amount of online ad space for which there isn’t enough advertising to fill.
  • They further diminish the advertising value of their content and that of other organizations. There’s more supply than demand.
  • SEO is a fundamentally flawed approach. The choice readers use social communities and RSS to get news. Headlines should cater to these readers not search engines.

Five years later, little has changed but intensity. Aggregators and search engine obsessors drive the content overload, but so do average social network sharers using tools like Facebook and Twitter. The cycle is vicious. Blogs and news sites generate more content as they seek greater pageviews, better search placement, and stronger ad revenues, in process diminishing ads’ value and increasing need for even more clickable content.

“I don’t know anyone in the ad-supported web business who isn’t engaged in a relentless, demoralizing, no-exit operation to realign costs with falling per-user revenues, or who isn’t manically inflating traffic to compensate for ever-lower per-user value”, Michael Wolff, former AdWeek editor, explains in an analysis for MIT Technology Review.

Frédéric Filloux, writing in early January 2014 for the Guardian’s Monday Note, observes: “There is nothing [in] sight to correct the huge imbalance between the supply of digital advertising space and advertisers’ demand. Digital media continue to produce millions of new URLs per day that banners simply can’t match. As long as no one is willing to reduce the supply-side, the imbalance is likely to last”.