31.12.06

New Media? No Media.

I would first like to thank Time magazine for naming me - me! - person of the year. I mean, I only started this blog a few days ago and already I'm being recognized for it. Now that I've got that out of the way, however, I would like to systematically dismantle their arguments for giving me this prestigious honor. That's my plan for this blog, and I'm going to take it on step by step.

First, the media.

In this case, however, I'm not going to criticize the mainstream media - the MSM, as the "blogsphere" has coined it. I'm going to criticize new media, online media, whatever you want to call it.

As a student and practitioner of journalism, I have a serious problem with online media.

But first, a survey.

Fundamentally, I see three types of online media - old media companies publishing on the internet (e.g. the Globe and Mail, the New York Times), new media companies mimicking the old media content but not publishing printed editions (e.g. the Tyee, Slate) and bloggers.

Of these, there are more blogs than old media websites and more old media websites than online-only news organizations. It is hard to know how many blogs would fall into the category of "news," however.

It terms of readership, the old media companies are getting far more hits than the online-only organizations and more than any individual blog. If the internet was supposed to open people to more information, it seems this has not been the case. Newspapers are certainly able to include more information online than they are in their printed editions, but I doubt much of this information is perused by the majority of their readers.

Even online media optimists, like Jay Rosen at PressThink focus primarily on old media issues. A quick survey of his online posts reveals a focus on how old media has adapted to new technology and not how new technology has changed media. The exception to this is Rosen's announcement of NewAssignment.net, a collaborative journalism experience that seems to me to be an online version of Knight Ridder's citizen journalism attempts of the mid-1990s.

I certainly agree with the principals of citizen journalism and see it as a positive force in journalism, despite the complaints of those who see it as sacrificing objectivity. To attempt to achieve objectivity seems impossible to me and the goal of engaging citizens in their local communities seems more an attainable and honorable goal. NewAssignment.net has different goals. It's essentially an experiment in collaborative journalism in an online medium - one that I see as dated and destined to fail.

I don't want this post to be a total dismantling of NewAssignment.net, but I feel it is a topical characterization of what I believe to be a failure in online journalism.

But first, I want to get back to what's wrong with the second group of online media organizations - those that exist online but don't publish printed editions. These websites, like Slate, have a smaller audience than the old media websites, but are able to produce semi-independent content (Slate is owned by the Washington Post) without the expense of publishing a printed edition. These sites have found moderate success, especially Slate (mostly because of all the free advertising it is able to obtain on the Washington Post website), but others are still having a hard time generating revenue.

To get back to NewAssignment.net, one of the failings I see of this project is that it is going to rely on donations and outside investment for its funding, which isn't a problem to get started, but I saw nothing yet on the site as a long-term business plan to start making money through advertising.

Blogs, I think, are a total failure at providing news content to internet users, offering mostly narrow commentary rather than original reportage and relying on mainstream media attention to get their messages out. Reading a blog is akin to purchasing only a columnist in a printed newspaper or magazine - you are only getting part of the picture without much context. Linking helps, but to have all this commentary on one site would certainly improve online media quality.

Another problem I have with blogs as a viable alternative to the mainstream media is that most blogs are not written by professional writers and, plainly, suck. The democratic nature of the internet helps with this problem by naturally making the better blogs more popular and the emo-kid diaries less so. This is a good start, but I think we're stalled.

This gets back to my fundamental problem with NewAssignment.net. If its writers are trained professionals, NewAssignment.net will be no different than a site like Slate and if they are not, then the content may suffer. My frustration is that I don't see anything new in NewAssignment.net.

I glimmer of hope in online media is Digg. Digg is still in its infancy and despite being panned by Wired I think the idea is further to the future of online media than NewAssignment.net Digg allows users to post news stories and "digg" them up or down, a sort of communal filter of internet news content. There are three problems with Digg. The first is its design. It's a horrible site. Magazines sell as much for content as for image and the online medium is no different. The second problem is that despite having news categories, Digg is directed at a very general audience. This leads to celebrity news stories reaching higher priority than they need. The third problem is that it is managed by the general public, leading to the same problem.

Now, these last two problems would not be problems on their own. They are only problems in combination with one another.

I see two models of a future new media organization. The first is an audience-specific news portal managed by its users. For example, a website catering to the oil and gas industry could be user-managed to promote collaboration, promote products and services and share news stories of interest to its users. A sense of community would be immediately established and news stories from any number of sources could be discussed by the people directly affected by them.

Perhaps I should stop and make this clear - I do not believe there is any shortage of media available online. I simply think it is poorly organized and any advances in online media need to address this issue and not add to the glut of stories currently available online. But back to the second option.

A second option would be a general-audience news portal managed by professionals. Instead of hiring writers to produce more content, editors would manage a website dedicated to providing up-to-date news on a variety of issues. There are a few examples of sites like this already - Poe News and Google News - but these are not managed by media professionals with journalistic integrity in mind. A group of senior editors constantly viewing and analyzing internet news and opinion, purchasing these stories and reposting them in minutes could provide a centralized news portal that would provide better content than any single news site in the world. This site would include blogs, but because seasoned editors would be reading the content, they would make the judgment on whether the blog entry was worth republishing or whether it was worth leaving in the abyss that currently describes internet news.

That's all for now about the internet and media - there are several other topics I want to address on this site before I switch to issue-by-issue blogging. But first I have to admit that I am a bit of a hypocrite. I have criticized blogs fairly heavily so far - writing on a blog, no less. I do believe blogs serve a valuable purpose in furthering discourse and I wish them more success. I have blogged on this site's name sake (the old Shotgun Solution site has been taken down) and for the Canadian Society for a Responsible Press. But good bloggers will continue to live in obscurity without a change in internet habits and forward thinking that considers managing content as important as producing it.

1 comment:

Jay said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence and all the creative links to new and interesting stuff online.

Cheers and good luck on your new site.