The state of the art of news

My response to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s study that found most original reporting in Baltimore still comes from major media:

No shit.

We need a study to determine this? Well, maybe we do. I think it is worthwhile to have a baseline to compare where news goes in years to come. When I argued the need for an audit of news today with a Google News creator, he wondered why today’s news should be the starting point. My response: Only because that is where the conversation is, as in: “What are we going to lose?” So fine, let’s measure the value of what exists today and look at the resources that go into producing it (including the waste on repetition and commodification). So fine.

But I think the study also brings some dangers.

First, predictably, it only fuels the defensive passion of old media nya-nyaing the news, witness the NY Times: “But the study offered support for the argument often made by the traditional media that, so far, most of what digital news outlets offer is repetition and commentary, not new information.”

Second, it defines news as news has been defined. We should be rethinking our definition of what is news — for many people, it’s not stories about juvenile justice, one of Pew’s subjects — and how it should be covered — not necessarily in articles — and how it is spread — that is the role of blogs and twitter — and not be stuck in old measurements.

Third, it sets up a strawman and then lights the match: Do blogs give us most of our news? No, they don’t. Well, then, they must be worthless, eh? We’ll be lost without big, old media, won’t we? Just what we need. (Though to the study’s immense credit, it also notes how much of local news is repetitive and does not include original reporting.) “This study does suggest that if newspapers were to disappear, what would be left to aggregate?” Tom Rosenstiel, director of the PEJ, told the AP. There’s the strawman: Without papers, we’ll be without news. No, we at CUNY believe the market will deliver it more efficiently and perhaps — perhaps — more effectively. It may not be news as those papers defined it.

We must keep mind that we are at the dawn, the very dawn of the new news ecosystem. There is no scalable business model in place — though, in our studies at the New Business Models for News Project at CUNY, we see them on the horizon and we see new companies starting to build it. When the Associated Press called me about this study on Friday, I said I knew of four dozen reporters in New Jersey who have left their jobs at newspapers and are dying to continue reporting in entrepreneurial startups and are waiting for the kind of help we envisioned in our project. Companies such as Impremedia and The New York Times are just beginning to consider their relationships with the ecosystem.

We are also just beginning to see experimentation with the form of news, moving past the articles the study measures. News is becoming more of a process than a product; it is being disseminated in new ways thanks to search and social and algorithmic links. News is changing.

So I’m fine to look at the PEJ as a historical artifact, a touchpoint for future discussion. But, for God’s sake, don’t consider it a write-off of that future.

  • Melissa Breau

    Hi Jeff,

    Just one point to add – News and traditional media companies are limited by their obligation to publish the facts. Often, that means they simply report the problem. Blogs and online media can analyze, and, in many cases, propose various possible solutions to those problems.

    • But no need for either to be limited by either definition, eh?

  • Jeff – As much as I respect PEW, (a B2B news service that was featured in your News Innovator series) has 31,000 subscribers in the Baltimore market alone … yet isn’t mentioned in this study. It’s a clear example of bypassing a successful new media outlet for the enrichment of legacy publications (i.e., we’re not tied to a print product).

    Since we’re B2B, the only story that really applies to us is The Senator Theater auction. We covered this story well … and linked off to stories in The Baltimore Sun and The Daily Record when they covered it, which I think they did well, too. PEW faults the local media market for running stories that offered speculation over who might buy the Theater in which nobody correctly predicted what actually transpired. But I offer this from one of our stories:

    On April 15, 4th District Councilman Bill Henry said that he did not believe there would be any other bidders for The Senator, as any bidder would have had to be willing pay whatever they bid at the City’s auction plus the $950,000 bank note. Henry also said a foreclosure auction was required to wipe out the hundreds of thousands of dollars of other debt tied to the property that can only be wiped out by foreclosure.

    I didn’t see this covered anywhere else. Clearly, PEW didn’t either.

    • We said in our New Business Models for News study at CUNY that b-to-b, ethnic media, volunteerism, and government transparency will all add to the new ecosystem of news. I had a long conversation with a B-to-B guy Friday about just that: new links, new information, new opportunities.

  • Gordon

    The Bivings Report seemed to indicate that the Baltimore Sun is leading the charge in what may be a gradual transition over to the Internet.

    The old media may not be giving much support to this effort, but since they still have financial resources (even though it is declining) and some smart, young reporters that understand the platform, perhaps they stand a good chance of making the transition over time.

  • Marko

    I beleive it is much more accurate to call them the alleged media or the so-called media.

    They are nothing more than agenda driven hacks.

  • Robert Levine

    >>>We need a study to determine this? Well, maybe we do.

    You sure seem to. Every time I’ve defended the old media, you’re full of fire about all the great reporting being done by blogs. Yes, all 4% of it.

    This 4% consists of some really interesting work. But are we ready to sacrifice the other 96% on the chance – and remember, kids, it’s only a chance! – that a business model will emerge that will reward serious journalists along with the conflicted consultants, ego-bloggers and vulture capitalists feasting on the corpse of the old model?

    I’m sure the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy will emerge with its own study that declares blogs vital to the future of our country. Then again, look who the co-chair is . . .

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  • I disagree with your second point, that the study defines news as it has been defined. While many may not think of reports about juvenile justice as their news, but one can easily see how just as many would see that as news, as would be the case for any number of subjects. No matter what subjects you pick or what criteria you use to pick them, you’d run into the same problem.

    As for the second part of that point — that the PEJ study measured the coverage in “old” ways, in terms of articles — that’s just flat out wrong. The study provided detailed accounts and tallies about how each story was reported, not only via traditional means, such as articles in print and online, but also via Twitter and links to and from other sites. It even included nontraditional news sources like the police department’s own Twitter feed.

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  • Jeff, your passion is getting ahead of your logic. ALL content analysis studies are just snapshots of the present. Their value is in pointing out trends so that the people who actually do the journalism can make mid-course corrections. It was this type of study that reminded us that our front pages and newscasts were overly filled with white males.

    What I enjoyed about this study was that it separated the technology from the journalism. It wasn’t about the Internet — it noted clearly that most of the newspapers also had Web sites. It was about the impact of organizations with large numbers of news gatherers vs. those with just a few. And it reminded us to pay more attention to fresh, rather than rehashed, news in whatever product we distribute.

    As the news ecosystem evolves, all information outlets must take these points into consideration. At some point it may not take more bodies to produce real news. But somewhere in the system the original story must be found and reported before it can be rehashed.

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