Newspaper journalism has faced a digital tsunami

The internet and social media are cool, but the right-side/wrong-side journalism it has created are a curse

When I showed up at The Western Producer in November 1994 I was handed a Macintosh laptop and shown how the company email system worked.

That was pretty cool. Instead of being shackled to a boxy desktop computer, I could take my sleek laptop wherever I was reporting from, plug into a phone line and send stories straight to the newsroom. I had never even heard of email before. It seemed like stuff out of a William Gibson novel.

And after working for a year from the Regina bureau, where I sent in all my stories by email, I moved into a position in the Saskatoon newsroom and discovered something else I’d never seen before, sitting just a few feet from my desk on a computer screen: the internet. It was a stunning window into the world.

(This is the third in a series looking back on the quarter-century I’ve worked at The Western Producer and covered farming and agriculture.)

Since then the digital revolution has been violent, dramatic and exciting. Email at first worked mostly internally, amongst reporters and editors, but slowly outside organizations, governments and farmers began becoming accessible by email. Landline phone-servitude declined. Mobile phones – for us at first a big clunky one in a box in the company Jeep – added another accelerant to the shrinking-world fire, making reporters and real people much easier to contact. Websites became the first go-to for information for most of us. The Western Producer was quick to embrace the internet and soon we had a worldwide following of people interested in Canadian agriculture.

Social media added to the maelstrom of connectivity, radically speeding-up the interaction of people from anywhere who wanted to talk about a topic. Reporters and readers, journalists and sources, and opinionators and the opined-about suddenly came into constant contact. Not only could stories be shared, but conversations could be started and research conducted through Blackberries (remember those?), iPhones and tablets.

Most of that sounds good, but the tsunami of changes has left a lot of wreckage, and its receding surge is still washing out the foundations of a lot of both journalism and public civility. The internet revolution has half-destroyed the business model of mainstream media, allowing companies like Google and Facebook to scoop much of the advertising money connected to media content without paying for the privilege of being able to offer that content – much of it free – to the world. That has led to relentless ad sale declines and subscription numbers plummeting as people go online to read the same stuff, but the advertising money doesn’t follow. Up to half the newspaper reporter positions in the U.S. have disappeared, and Canada doesn’t seem any different. The public wants the content, it’s reading it, but the money flow has been diverted. That’s created a thinner and weaker media. Why pay for content when you get a steady stream of free stuff through Facebook and Twitter? Most media haven’t yet figured out a way to get enough money from online viewing and social media shares to make up for the decline in printed-version ad sales and subscription sales.

At the same time the social media revolution has created oceans of bad information, misinformation, propaganda and unsupported opinion about many issues. This has become the main “news” source for many people. That is perhaps the most negative impact on mainstream media. Not only are people confusing professionally-produced journalism with dodgy and dubious pseudo-news, but media outlets have increasingly begun abandoning longstanding principles in a desperate attempt to retain readers, listeners and viewers. (These days it’s also clickers and tappers they’re trying to retain.) As mainstream media outlets have steadily lost broad swaths of the public, some have responded by aggressively gratifying and pandering to those who they see as their core and committed followers. Instead of the general approach of scrupulously laying out issues in an even-handed manner so that the reader/listener/viewer could come up with their own informed opinion, much of the media has slid into what I think of as “right-side/wrong-side” reporting and commentary. No longer is the media organization’s commitment to providing a fair representation of complex issues, but instead – it seems to me – many strive to prove to core followers that they are on the “right” side by championing their issues, and confronting and denouncing those on the “wrong” side of the issue. It’s an audience-engagement trap. This is so prevalent in the mainstream media it’s beginning to seem normal, but even just 10 or 15 years ago those doing this would have been seen as aberrations to the general attempts at fairness and balance most journalists and media organizations embraced.

You can see it in the selection of issues each media source selects to focus upon and avoid. Looking at right-wing and left-wing media has always provided skewed views of the “reality” of our societies, but in the past decade more and more relatively balanced publications and broadcasters have slid off centre and fallen into outlook and opinion ghettoes that simply reinforce the prejudices and biases of their followers and seem to desperately avoid challenging. reader/viewer/listerner preconceptions. (There are still some very good, even-handed media organizations out there. The Globe and Mail, for instance, not only hosts a range of contrasting opinions on most of what it covers, but also executes its reporting role with admirable balance.)

When I came out of Journalism school in 1991, challenging comfortable assumptions was seen as a key obligation of professional journalism. No doubt many of the journalists today who have fallen into the right-side/wrong-side trap, some of whom never worked in the previous professional culture, think they’re actually doing the same thing. But when you never truly challenge your followers’ preconceptions and treat opposing views as “wrong,” you’re not providing a valuable civic service. You’re just feeding a self-righteous echo chamber that creates an alternative reality that makes it virtually impossible to address issues in a constructive way.

This post might have seemed to have become a litany of complaints and whines, but it does actually have some salve in its tail.

Mainstream media has faced a particular challenge with the onslaught of the internet and social media, but the situation and outlook of specialized media seems much more optimistic. (I didn’t see The Western Producer as “specialized media” when farmers were a significant slice of the Canadian population, but even in places like Saskatchewan farmers have become a very small part of the overall population, so I now see the WP as having become part of the specialized media.) Readership of focused business and industry publications is still good in many areas, including agriculture. There might be fewer farmers today, but about the same percentage subscribe to farm publications. I’m sure it’s the same in other businesses and industries. There just aren’t a lot of places you can get quality news, information and commentary about specialized parts of our society and economy, so I’m guessing that readers will probably stick with specialized publications long after they’ve let mainstream subscriptions lapse.

And because readers are sticking with these sorts of publications, they generally haven’t had to drop even-handedness and cater to the comfortable assumptions and prejudices of their core followers in desperate attempts to hang on to them. Farming is too serious a business to push most farmers to want farm media that comfort rather than inform. The information is still too valuable.

In my 25 years here so far I’ve enjoyed the digital revolution. Heck, when I started it was considered a big deal that WP reporters had to both report and take photographs, with most urban reporters never having to handle a camera. Now we report, shoot photos, Tweet, post to Facebook, write digital-first stories, take video and host podcasts. I do all those things. Even if the business model of the mainstream media is broken, it’s cool to be a journalist these days. It’s more pleasant to be a reporter in specialized media because of everything I’ve said above, but for anybody practicing journalism these days, it’s an exciting time.

I have no clue where the digital revolution will lead us in coming decades, or what other revolutions will also pop out of nowhere and sweep the media along, but I’m looking forward to being a front-row witness.

 

 

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