Friday, February 20, 2009

Online News Consumption: Strengthening the Fourth Estate or Devaluing Serious Journalism?

Janeen Heath, Pulitzer Center

Michael Hirschorn of The Atlantic wrote in a recent article, "End Times": 

"If you're hearing few howls and seeing little rending of garments over the impending death of institutional, high-quality journalism, it's because the public at large has been  trained to undervalue journalists and journalism. The Internet has done much to encourage lazy news consumption, while virtually eradicating the meaningful distinctions among newspaper brands."

While many point blame at the decisions made by editors-in-chief to cut their staff and operations to stay afloat, eventually the finger blaming needs to point back to the source of the trend: that of consumer behavior. Did_you_knowConsumer demand is shifting more and more (12.1 percent growth in 2008, according to a new report by Nielsen Online for the Did_you_know2 Newspaper Association of America)  to the hyper-fragmented news and information populating the Internet at an exponential rate, abandoning traditional forms of news supply.

In the new digital media landscape it is a race to sustain operations, often by attracting advertising dollars, which puts the news quality at risk, for how does a supplier attract advertising dollars? By garnering high traffic numbers, or essentially, popularity?

Ann Derry, Editorial Director of Video and Television for The New York Times, said at a recent Google panel,  "Broadcasting the World: The New Ecosystem for News Online":

"Coming from a newspaper background, the advantage is you're not counting clicks, but you're actually looking at what the quality of the material is."

The reality of it is, unfortunately, that quality isn't necessarily providing the life support for most news producing outfits like it used to. With the advent of the Internet, people expect to get their news quick – and free.

News that is quick, and free, comes at a price – often paid for by low overhead, slashes in news quality, depth and diversity – and consumer trends are in part to blame for the demise of many well-respected and established news organizations.

But are we, as consumers, really prepared to sacrifice a strong fourth estate?

James Warren of wrote that information in itself is illuminating an otherwise dark world, and it's a service for which citizens must be willing to pay:

"The question is, how much light can you have if you aren't willing to pay to look into military hospitals in Washington, into those on Death Row in Illinois, into whether those wooden Thomas the Tank Engine toys made in China are safe, into the safety of school lunch programs, into whether people needlessly die on airplanes, or even just into whether there are obvious conflicts of interest on the local zoning board?"

While the big papers as watchdogs strengthened our democratic constitutional system, we're all wondering what is today's answer to sustaining serious journalism – in today's economic times, and with today's consumer consumption trends in mind.

Some suggest consumers should pay to sustain quality journalism. The British, after all, pay a tax to support their news services. But has this generation already gone too far in creating the expectation of free, quick news? Won't time-pressed consumers opt instead for quick information sources such as Wikipedia that offer a shallow, brief understanding at no cost?

Is today's online news landscape encouraging lazy news consumption?  Is this trend devaluing serious journalism? Will our democracy suffer as a result? And what can we all do about it, consumers or suppliers?

We'd love to hear your opinion. Click on the Comments tab below to share your thoughts.

Want to read more on the issue? See Pulitzer Center Director Jon Sawyer's speech, "Broken News: What Went Wrong, and How to Make it Right."

Also see "Where's the Profit?", a take on today's conversation and proposed remedies for the future of the journalism industry.

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