Is the internet making journalism better or worse? Yes

For the past several days, The Economist has been hosting a debate between journalism professor Jay Rosen and digital skeptic and author Nicholas Carr, as part of an ongoing series about the future of media. The proposition tabled by the magazine was that the internet is making journalism better rather than worse, with Rosen arguing in favor of the proposition and Carr arguing against it. In the end, neither one wins — or both do — because with journalism (as with so many other things) the internet is simply an accelerator, amplifying both the good and the bad. Whether society as a whole is better off is still an open question.

In his arguments, Rosen admits that the internet has damaged the traditional media industry — by causing a collapse of the business model that has supported most print-based or traditional journalism — and at the same time has led to an explosion of questionable online content that pretends to be journalism. He says:

By unbundling the newspaper and making advertising cheaper and more efficient, the internet has led to a drastic drop in newsroom employment [and] the internet has increased the supply of rubbish in and around journalism: content farms, recycled PR (known as churnalism), stories that are cheap rewrites of other stories, lists and “charticles” with no purpose other than pushing up page views.

Despite that, however, the New York University journalism professor maintains that the internet is improving journalism, and he lists the reasons why, including:

  • It drives down the cost of getting journalism to the people who want it, and that has “opened the market up to more players, allowing more ideas to be tried.”
  • It has made location irrelevant, in the sense that media consumers can get journalism from virtually any source, thus “bringing vastly more of the product within easy reach.”
  • It gives new tools to anyone who wants them, such as search, online databases, the ease of making charts, Skype interviews and so on.
  • It alters the balance of power between users and journalists, “replacing a system in which a small number of gatekeepers employed by a heavily capitalised industry that tended towards monopoly held almost all the powers of the press.”

Journalism gets better when more people do it

In the end, Rosen says, journalism is “not like brain surgery or flying a 747, which are not improved by having more hands on deck.” The more people who are involved in it, the better it gets, he argues. Anyone who doesn’t think that journalism is better now just has to go to the New York Times website, he says, where when news happens they can “read about it right now rather than waiting until the next morning for the paper to land.” Ultimately, Rosen says the internet will improve journalism because it will have to become better in order to survive.

For his part, Carr argues that “what the facts show is that the internet boom has done great damage to the journalism profession.” He also goes through all the data about the loss of journalism jobs and declining revenue, and says that while the internet theoretically has the potential to improve journalism, there is no sign of that happening:

If we can agree that the internet, by altering the underlying economics of the news business, has thinned the ranks of professional journalists, then the next question is straightforward: has the net created other modes of reporting to fill the gap? The answer, alas, is equally straightforward: no.

Digital success stories “modest and fleeting”

While there have been “many noble attempts” to create new kinds of news-gathering organizations online, Carr says their successes have been “been modest and often fleeting [and] they have not come anywhere close to filling the gap left by the widespread loss of newspapers and reporters.”

Carr says he doesn’t believe that democratising media — what Om has called the democracy of distribution — necessarily improves journalism, and argues that Rosen “provides little in the way of facts to support his case.” The biggest problem, Carr says, is that despite all the experimentation, the industry has not found “a substitute for the cross-subsidies that allowed newspapers to use the profits from popular features to pay for broad, in-depth reporting.”

Web only a benefit for the “plugged-in elite”

While members of what Carr calls the “plugged-in elite” like Rosen may believe that the internet has improved journalism, this is because for web-savvy news junkies the “net is a crack house that dispenses its wares for free.” Beyond the elite, however, are the average citizenry who Carr argues are being starved of hard, objective reporting — something that he says contributes to a narrowing of opinions rather than a broadening of them (which sounds a lot like author Eli Pariser’s fears about a “filter bubble”).

So who is right? In many ways, both are. To me, the debate comes down to a battle of optimism vs. pessimism. Carr — who has written a book all about how the internet is changing our brains and making us more shallow — sees nothing but the decline of traditional journalism and a great chaos in its place. Rosen, however, sees the green shoots of new business models poking up through the ashes of the traditional industry.

In the end, McLuhan wins

It’s more than a little appropriate that The Economist debate is taking place as some followers celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of a giant in media theory, Marshall McLuhan — who, as author and fellow Canadian Doug Coupland points out, saw many of the shifts in the way we experience media coming. Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab also has an excellent overview of how McLuhan’s beliefs about how media functions in a digital age are effectively coming true thanks to the web.

As Paul Ford writes in a very perceptive piece at New York magazine, some of the fear about the decline of the traditional media industry stems from a fear of losing control over the machine he calls “The Epiphanator” — that giant engine that churns out happy and sad stories with tidy beginnings and satisfying conclusions. In its place we are seeing something much more like the stream of content that McLuhan tried to describe, in which everyone can publish and everyone can filter (or not), and stories simply rise and fall and live and die regardless of what a traditional media outlet thinks of them.

Is that a scary future or a bright one? It is both.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig, jphilipg and zert sonstige