While a distinguished veteran reporter voiced concern about the erosion of traditional journalism values in the Internet age, two prominent new media thinkers said the Web provides more and richer information than conventional news outlets.
Their comments — amid much discussion of whether and how “truth” emerges from the welter of Internet information — came during this past weekend’s conference marking the 25th anniversary of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Sinking platform, rising truth
Marvin Kalb, the Center’s founding director and award-winning CBS News and NBC News correspondent, wondered how you connect new technology with core journalism values. Now, he said, he feels as if he’s standing on the news platform watching emerging technologies speed by.
Ito, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who helped finance Twitter and Flickr, sees more young people “diving into data themselves” to determine their own truth. By evaluating all sources, he said they get a much broader view than they would from a single newspaper article.
He said journalism schools and other arbiters of news standards “don’t have a monopoly on values. It’s easier to teach technical people to become journalists” than vice versa. “We need people who know data and programming in newsrooms. Journalists have to learn statistics as well as computers, just as they need to know how to type.”
Ito said the newsroom of the future will reach out to experts — not traditional sources. He said that by consulting experts, he learned more about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in a day than from all the media.
Ito’s Internet version of the truth: “If one million people attack it and it survives.”
New York Times media columnist David Carr acknowledged that “You can find your own ‘truth’ on the Web.” And he illustrated social networking’s “real time impulse” and value by example of a tweet by an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death.
But as Web audiences make their own news “assembly kits” into “verticals of (special) interest, ” he worries that there’ll be little “civic conversation.” He likes” codification” — the newspaper front page message that “Here are the six or seven most important stories in the world today.”
Danah Boyd, Microsoft Research senior researcher, said, “There’s not one set of facts.” For example, she cited Wikipedia’s entry on the American Revolution as offering alternative versions of received wisdom.
Boyd said the Web “stitches together knowledge. Put it up and (then) fix it if you need to” is the new philosophy because “a story is never finished.”
She and other speakers decried increasing international efforts to identify and restrict Internet communicators.
Boyd noted the federal government’s secret court order to Google and Sonic.net to turn over data from e-mail accounts of a WikiLeaks volunteer. “In investigative reporting we’re always short of whistle-blowers,” Carr said.
“This is a dangerous moment for free speech,” said Clay Shirky, a New York University professor and expert on the Internet’s effects on society. “We don’t know how things will work out” as democracies such as Italy propose curbs on multi-national media.
Seeing no clear distinction between traditional and new media, he said “any legitimate rationale for going after WikiLeaks is a rationale for going after The New York Times.” So he said established media outlets must defend the “lowliest blogger” from government prosecution.
Building brands, revenue
While advertising erosion triggers still further newsroom cuts, two editors said their elite audiences draw significant ad revenues.
New York Magazine editor Adam Moss said columnist Frank Rich is a “brand” whose readers are people who control advertising dollars. So Rich’s move from The New York Times to his magazine drew ads like “The Book of Mormon” and MSNBC – offerings that would appeal to Rich fans.
He said his printed magazine is fact-checked as rigorously as the Atlantic but that there’s “zero editing” of its online postings. But he and other conference speakers said online readers quickly spot and challenge false information.
Politico executive editor and co-founder Jim VandeHei also said he’s getting more advertising dollars — from issue advocacy groups who want to reach his influential audience.
“I’m a total optimist about journalism in the middle of a great upheaval,” he said. “There’s a very bright future for content for niche sites.”
To boost revenues, Politico has launched subscription-based products providing exclusive information in areas like technology and health care. As others compete with Politico, he said, “We have to be in a constant state of reinvention. We have to completely evolve with readers’ needs.”
Though “We definitely obsess about speed,” VandeHei said that had nothing to do with a Politico reporter’s plagiarism.
To the remark that his enterprise might have hurt traditional media, the former Washington Post White House correspondent responded, “Politico didn’t contribute to the demise of newspapers. Newspapers contributed to the demise of newspapers by being shockingly slow to adapt to new technology and by giving away their content for free.” Read more