Are we living in a golden age for journalism? That depends on how you define gold

Are we living in a new “golden age for journalism?” In the past few days, two prominent new-media players have tried to make the case that we are: first Henry Blodget, co-founder and CEO of Business Insider, made a comment to that effect on the CNN news program Reliable Sources — and then Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington used exactly the same phrase several days later, in an essay about Jeff Bezos acquiring the Washington Post.
To give credit where it is due, the Huffington Post founder has been arguing that we are in a golden age for some time — since at least 2009, in fact, when she spoke at Ithaca College and said: “the fact that newspapers are dying doesn’t mean that there’s no place for journalists.” In her latest post, she said “despite all the dire news about the state of the newspaper industry, we are in something of a golden age of journalism for news consumers. There’s no shortage of great journalism being done, and there’s no shortage of people hungering for it.”

More tools, more reach, more accuracy

Blodget, meanwhile, argues that we are living a golden age because news consumers have a greater supply of content to choose from, and journalists have far more tools and resources available with which to ply their trade. According to the Business Insider CEO, in a post expanding on his CNN appearance:
Journalists have more reach: Because “on the Internet, everything is a click away. What’s more, on the Internet, all stories can be stored permanently and viewed from anywhere, anytime. Compare that to the world of 20 years ago.”
There are no space/time constraints: Thanks to the web, “if the best story length for a reader is just a link to another web site, today’s journalists can publish a link. If the best story for the reader is a book-length investigative article, the journalist can write one of those.”
There is more accuracy: Despite the errors in social media, “all information can be instantly and publicly challenged, debated, debunked, and sometimes even corrected by the source publication faster than ever. And the subjects of journalism can respond to stories directly.”
It’s easier to become a journalist: All you need is “a laptop, a cellphone (camera), a blog, and a few social media accounts. Once you demonstrate that you are good at unearthing facts, sharing images, and telling stories readers like, you’ll be off to the races.”

A golden age for content but not journalism?

old newspapers
One of the most common responses to Blodget is that while it may be a golden age for Business Insider-style slideshows and over-aggregation of other people’s journalism, it isn’t a golden age for traditional in-depth investigative journalism — and in particular it isn’t a golden age for local reporting as newspapers continue to shrink. And even the claim that it’s a golden age for Business Insider-style journalism is questionable, some critics of Blodget say, since BI itself still hasn’t figured out how to actually make money.
The same criticisms were made earlier this year about a piece that Matt Yglesias wrote at Slate, in which he argued that these are the “glory days” of journalism — a claim later echoed by former GOOD magazine editor Ann Friedman in a post at the Columbia Journalism Review, both of which listed many of the same benefits that Blodget mentioned in his essay. Among those who disagreed with Yglesias, perhaps the most vociferous was media writer Bob Garfield in a piece he wrote for The Guardian, in which he said these were the “media end times” and compared news consumers to looters:

“All of that fantastic content Yglesias was gushing about is paid for by venture capitalists making bad bets, established media companies digging into their savings accounts to pay the bills, displaced workers earning peanuts, amateurs, semi-pros, volunteers and monks.”

So is it the best of times or the worst of times for journalism? As I tried to argue in an earlier post, it is both. If you focus on the business side of the traditional media or the journalism industry, you see carnage everywhere — layoffs and closures and newspapers shutting down the presses or firing all of their photographers, etc. How could anyone say that this is a golden age for journalism when the engines of that journalism are sputtering and dying?

Journalism is more than a business

Citizen journalism
If you look at journalism and the media more broadly, however, it becomes just as obvious that Friedman is right, and by extension so are Blodget and Huffington — and it’s no accident that this view comes from two people who founded non-traditional media entities. If you look around, there are new media entities everywhere, from The Atavist and Epic and Syria Deeply to BuzzFeed and yes, even the Huffington Post — and everything in between. How could that not be a sign of a golden age?
As journalism professor Jay Rosen notes in a recent post, the Fourth Estate is no longer solely a collection of people who work for specific news outlets, but a feeling or a way of behaving — an attitude or perspective. As I and others have argued repeatedly, journalism is no longer something you are but something you do — and whether we like it or not, anyone can and will do it. For all of its flaws (and they are many) this is a fundamentally optimistic state of affairs for those who love journalism.
How are we going to pay for all of this? I’m not sure anyone really knows, and if you meet someone who claims they have the answer, you should probably run in the other direction. As Jack Shafer is the latest to point out in a post for Reuters, hard news has arguably never made money in the history of modern media — since it was always subsidized by other things like car ads and gardening columns and movie reviews — and it’s possible that it never will.
So if you are focused on the business of journalism, things look increasingly gloomy, if not downright funereal at times. But if you are interested in the actual practice of journalism in all of its forms, and even some new ones that we could never have imagined even a few decades ago, then calling this a “golden age” doesn’t seem like such a stretch at all.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Oleksiy Mark and Flickr users Shironeko Euro and Petteri Sulonen