Note: This article originally appeared on the media blog Lippmann Would Roll.
by Matthew L. Schafer
On Wednesday, Len Downie, Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and former executive editor of the Washington Post, spoke about what he and others have called the “new news” of the 21st century. Downie’s speech was part of the James Cameron Memorial Lecture, a lecture honoring the former British journalist.
Downie, who is no stranger to journalism, spoke to the rise of news collaborations, as well as consolidation in a rather favorable light. Citing the crisis of the journalism business model, Downie highlighted university and traditional news media partnerships, public media collaborations, and for-profit local television partnerships.
“A growing number of American television stations also are sharing local news reporting. At more than 200 stations around the country – from Los Angeles and Kansas City to Philadelphia and Miami – their local newscasts are produced by other stations in the same cities,” Downie said.
After Downie spent much of the speech surveying the current media landscape, he then cited online news aggregators like The Huffington Post and Digg.com for hurting traditional journalism. Downie called these popular 21st century inventions that pool news, as well as gather news, “parasites.”
“Though they purport to be a new form of journalism, these aggregators are primarily parasites living off journalism produced by others,” Downie said. “They attract audiences by aggregating journalism about special interests and opinions reflecting a predictable point of view on the left or the right of the political spectrum, along with titillating gossip and sex.”
Downie went on to characterize social news and the blogosphere as a “chaotic universe” of mimicry, arguing that what citizens need more than ever is credible news. Here, Downie reinforces a long held assumption-the paradox of journalism in the Internet age: The larger the quantities of information and news the citizenry can access, the less quality information and news the citizen can access. Indeed, journalists who uncovered corruption and malfeasence have left (or been forced out of) the workplace in droves over the past several years after news rooms financially hemorrhaged in the mid 2000s, while pundits who have only uncovered their own opinions have multiplied.
“While the Internet has made it possible for almost anyone with a digital device to become a journalist if they want to be, it has also made it more difficult for professional journalists to make a living by methodically reporting the news – just as the Internet has made it more difficult for news media companies to stay in business,” Downie said.
Downie, however, misses the point by oversimplifying the cause of journalism’s decline and focusing the remainder of his speech on funding sources to sustain journalism, as opposed to critically examining other factors to fall, in hopes of finding the key to its resurrection. Indeed, there is no need to continue to fund journalism if the return is fewer journalists reaching smaller audiences. Instead, journalism need to completely reevaluate note how it gathers news (which it does exceedingly well), but how it presents the news it gathers (which the blogosphere does exceedingly well).
What journalism needs now, is not to curse “new news,” but rather reevaluate its old news traditions. (It is important to note that this is not to say that some have not been attending to this already.) Instead, the Post’s Downie is playing the roll of the–now cliché–ignorant traditional media mindset.
Downie’s traditional journalism, while better funded than the “new news,” refuses to innovate at any grand level–only to wonder why their audience is melting away. Logically, where there is a gap, someone will fill it. In this case, that somebody is Digg, Politico, Huffington Post, The Drudge Report, and Reddit among others.
“I hate copy-pinching as much as Downie does,” Jack Shafer of Slate wrote in his critique of Downie. “But rather than bellyaching from the high moral ground about the aggregators, why doesn’t Downie suggest media companies compete against them? They’re bigger. They’re smarter. They’re more experienced.”
Here, Shafer hints at an all-too-much-ignored tension between new media, which suffers fewer constraints, and traditional media, which is instinctually bound to its traditional norms. What traditional media should do (and what the Seattle Times, as well as the New York Times, are currently doing) is harness the unique characteristics of the “new news” that make it so attractive to viewers.
“It is no secret that blogs are not tied to the same code of conduct that their traditional counterparts are,” Lippmann Would Roll stated in July. “That fact gives blogs, in general, greater latitude to play with a story’s focus, angle, tone, and sources or lack thereof. While this may not be kosher with the majority of the traditional media, it indeed serves an important purpose. …Although some blogs can be toxic in both their rhetoric and lack of validity, on the whole blogs provide an important context to stories that traditional journalism cannot. Sometimes stories may merit all caps headlines and red font, and that’s exactly what bloggers are good at.”
This is where Downie’s argument suffers. He argues for credible “accountability journalism,” while misunderstanding that blogs and new media outlets are perceived accountable to those who ascribe to them. The least accountable are the traditional media he argues so fervently for. This is reflected in public opinion polls that illustrate the public’s contempt for the credibility of the traditional media.
It seems that traditional media have two choices. They can try to battle aggregators and bloggers with the same content, style, and presentation or they can do what they’re good at and produce quality contextual enterprise journalism. Until they pick one direction, the last thing they should do is complain about those doing it right.