Guest post by Pete Wootton, Account Director
There is an interesting quote from Arthur Brisbane, the newly appointed public editor/ombudsman for The New York Times, in yesterday’s paper around how journalistic standards are/are not being redefined by the medium and pace of digital publishing.
I think that journalists and editors are struggling with establishing standards for digital news. Are those standards different from content in print? And if they’re different, how do we justify that they’re different? I expect that is a problem that will be with us for a while.
Assume that Brisbane’s quote is an implicit statement of what the NYT is trying (successfully, for now) to maintain — methodical, measured journalistic process and output. One can also infer that the statement is a swipe at organizations (like wire services) that regularly shoot first, and update later, or worse, publishers who feel that getting a story as little as half-right is still good enough to run it, all in the name of winning the page view — not accuracy — battle.
Yes, some outlets are optimized to deliver first and fast, and they serve a place in the spectrum of how people consume information. But some — like the NYT — still care about the analysis and context and trends. Others aim to provide more of the opinion (e.g. The Economist). And others are about aggregating views from across the spectrum (e.g Huffington Post). This later part is where the journalistic standards really comes into play.
The pressure on journalistic standards is not due to the medium which the story is delivered, per se; for print-turned-online publishers, it is “justified” of course by the declining nature of the legacy business model. Commercial media outlets and reporters are left with a few viable options to maintain their ability to produce high-quality journalism. Media organizations who chose breadth and depth will need to focus on being revenue-generating organization that focus on scale and pooling news-gathering resources, or otherwise diversifying their revenue streams with other services and/or original content. Those who will fit that mold (like the NYT) will be far/few between. More prevalent will be ultra-specialized/highly localized blogs and small, independent news organizations with far less dependency on aggressively growing scale and revenue.
Alternative models for commercial (and non-profit) news outlets and organizations have been covered extensively. Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson wrote an epic report published in The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) last October that lays out several compelling, well-researched options. NPR’s Vivian Schiller has regularly discussed how innovation in content gathering/delivery can help to maintain preservation of journalistic standards, most recently at the D8 Conference. And The Atlantic just published a piece last month by James Fallows which reports that the art of journalism is alive and well in the digital medium, and claims of its’ demise are grossly overstated.
One can easily draw a correlation between the decline in revenue, and subsequent decline in ability to adhere to journalistic standards in more traditional media organizations. Making an effort to maintain standards — like the NYT is doing — should continue to be a critical focus, until the business model issue becomes more clear, it will be difficult for most to adhere to.
Over on my Facebook page I’ve been playing host to a weekend-long debate, which has evolved into a discussion worthy of it’s own blog post.
The question: Are we dumbing down as a culture? And if so, what role does media play?
Cited: 3 dueling op-eds
- Does the Internet Make You Dumber? WSJ, Nicholas Carr quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca: “to be everywhere is to be nowhere,” arguing that the hyperlinked structure of the internet contributes to a persistent state of distraction which, research indicates, hampers deep thought and, along with it, retention of information and absorption of knowledge.
- Mind Over Mass Media, NYT, Stephen Pinker argues that new forms of media have always caused panics (the printing press, newspapers, television, paperbacks), but such panics fail reality check. The oft-bemoaned perception that we are dumbing down as a culture is not supported by evidence to the contrary, such as the modern output of scientific innovation.
- Does the Internet Make You Smarter? WSJ, Clay Shirky references historical disruptions in culture fueled by new media evolutions (the Protestant Reformation, fueled by print) to illustrate the pattern of initial break-down of cultural/intellectual norms followed by an explosion of new creative outputs which raised societies to a new level.
The debate sub-streams
- To what extent does media contribute to the dumbing down of a culture? Or does it? Or is it the symptom of a dumbed down culture? Evidence to support the “dumbing down” hypothesis is seen in the insipidness of so-called “Reality TV,” the political and cultural extremes cultivated by and reinforced by news agendas (FOX) and the 24-hour news cycle, and the persistent distraction we suffer from as a result of our hyperlinked, short-form internet and social media behaviors. Does media fuel this, or is it merely a mirror reflecting the culture as it is? Or is it a distorted mirror, reflecting culture at the edges?
- Why are there so few culturally and politically meaningful comedians compared to two to three decades ago? Who are the Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor of today? (John Stewart and Stephen Colbert of course…) Is this evidence of a cultural dumbing down? Or is it evidence simply of the business-minded Hollywood machine which has optimized to produce pulp for the masses rather than the edges?
- And what about the role of education and critical thinking? One could argue that all three of the op-ed author’s arguments about the impact of the internet and social media on us as a culture are accurate — the internet, like all media, is simply an amplifier — widening the gap by which the dumb are becoming dumber, the smart, smarter. But isn’t it really an issue of critical thinking abilities and the willingness to apply them? Is this skill being taught more or less than a generation or two ago? (remember McCarthyism?) Does classical education or internet-enabled knowledge assimilation contribute more or less to one’s ability to absorb and [critically] process knowledge?
The meta: the medium is the message
Interestingly, the discussion is in many respects an example of “the medium is the message” at play:
- Living room —> Web —> Facebook. The conversation originated in my living room as a wine-sotted debate between my husband and our neighbor, crossed over onto social media when I opened my laptop to hunt down the NYT op-ed as my contribution to the debate, then posted on Facebook.
- Internet-facilitated connection of culturally and geographically dispersed nodes. Once on Facebook, the discussion then drew in an individual from my hometown (whom I hadn’t spoken to in 20-years, aside from him friending me on Facebook), my husband (sitting across the room from me debating with me on Facebook from his iPhone), a martial arts buddy from across the country and a couple work colleagues from opposite coasts.
- Facebook’s alienation of “professional creators” via sketchy privacy and copyright policies. Meanwhile my neighbor exited the debate completely once he walked across the street and went home because, as a professional photographer, he wants nothing to do with Facebook and its questionable privacy and copyright issues.
So what do you think? Are we dumbing down as a culture? And does the internet and social media play a role?
Posted on January 7, 2010 by Jon Silk — Comments Off
We’ve been battling the elements in the WE Studio D London office to make sure we stay productive, creative and online during a bitter cold snap (well, by our standards) and the associated travel chaos.
No image we’ve seen in the blanket news coverage so far has quite summed up the situation as well as this amazing shot by the NASA / GSFC Rapid Response team — currently rocketing around the web.