The Death of a Legacy: The Cost of Moving Forward, By Charlotte Hartshorne

In a society of evolving technology within a primarily digital era, the use of traditional mediums has become redundant in place of easier, faster and more accessible methods of ascertaining information. The decline in revenue and readership of print journalism has resulted in the rise of online journalism. This move has created contention over the quality of reportage now available, where anonymity, sensationalism and lower ethical standards are prolific within online mediums. Growth within the digital journalism industry indicates a future for journalism, but at what cost? This background report will analyse and compare the quality of online journalism in relation to ethics and the state of the industry.

Is the transition from print to online journalism negatively affecting quality?

Travel Writer and Content Strategist Deborah Dickson-Smith attributes her move from Magazine Publishing Director to Freelance Online Writer 5 years ago to an observation that “magazines [started] struggling to survive as they competed with online publications for readership and advertising dollars”[1]. As someone with experience in both print media and now online journalism, Dickson-Smith represents a sector that is now commonplace within the industry. This move has become typical within the journalism industry, with a substantial rise of employment in the online sector. Considering that “shrinkage of newsrooms [is creating] concern for the future of journalism”[2], as stated by the University of Wisconsin Centre for Journalism Ethics, how is the rise of online reporting affecting the state of industry and its growth, quality and revenue?

Part I: Growth

According to study conducted by the Pew Research Centre within the State of the News Media 2014, the rate of hiring within the online journalism industry has been “explosive”[3]. Within the last three years digital natives such as BuzzFeed have gone from six editorial employees to 170, Bleacher Report has increased from 0 to 50 and Vice Media operation has hired 48 more staff this year, with other media organisations looking to increase staff. This has also been reflected in the loss of newsroom employment within print media, as can be seen in Figure 1, designed on Microsoft Excel through information collected from the American Society of Newspaper Editors Newsroom Census[4]. The data set depicts the rise and decline of newsroom employment, as society reaches a primarily technological age. Figure 2 also represents this evolution, where data from the Pew Research Centres State of the News Media 2013[5], formulated on a Microsoft Word graph, depicts the decline of print readership and the rise of online consumption over the last decade, thus leading to the question of the quality of news. There has also been a conspicuous move of professional high-profile journalists to online news reporting, given that where print newsrooms continue to decline in staff the “digital native news universe … includes not only dozens of highly publicized national and international organizations, but also hundreds of smaller digital news entities”[6], a wealth of job opportunities. However this transition is not guaranteed to be successful as Dickson-Smith elaborates, “only this week Fairfax announced 70 more jobs would go as they have yet to find an online business model that works for them, and continue to lose money”[7].

Although this indicates an industry saturated by professional journalists, inferring a high quality work ethic, the online journalistic sphere is shared with “tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users”[8] and thus “requires guidelines that apply to amateur and professional whether they blog, Tweet, broadcast or write for newspaper” as the journalistic ethics for print media are no longer relevant. As Dickson-Smith said, “Newspaper journalists … suffer more now online because there are no subeditors to check their work”[9], whilst amateur writers do not utilise editing policies whatsoever. Without these ethics, it is indicative that quality is being negatively impacted as a direct result of journalists no longer having a set of policies in place to govern the way in which they work.

Part II: Quality

Dickson-Smith described the nature of online journalism as “sensationalist (Huffington Post, MamaMia, Daily Mail, NineMSN)”[10], considering the overwhelmingly different values and content between traditional and online journalism. “The culture of traditional journalism, with its values of accuracy, pre-publication verification, balance, impartiality, and gate-keeping, rubs up against the culture of online journalism which emphasizes immediacy, transparency, partiality, non-professional journalists and post-publication correction”[11], and thus adequately describes the shifting progression between accuracy and immediacy and the sensationalist nature of the digital product. As the online business model relies on advertising for revenue, easy trivialised reads attract a reader to peruse their website. However with factual and hard-hitting journalism now becoming redundant, what will the future of journalism look like?

The pressure of immediacy results in discrepancies “from misspelling words to making factual errors”[12], considering “newsrooms publish stories before they are adequately checked and verified as to the source of the story and reliability of alleged facts”[13]. Quality was monitored and utilised in print media to substantiate stories and thus journalism gained a reputable and impartial standing within the media. Journalism is now becoming sensationalised to earn enough revenue to remain viable within the competitive digital industry. With the evolution to online reporting, quality can be seen to decrease and thus the transition from print to online journalism is depicted as inherently negative.

Part III: Revenue

Online journalism has a multi-faceted revenue picture. As the Pew Research Centre elaborates, “many of the native digital news organisations are small, non-profit and young, and nearly 30% have come into existence since 2010”[14]. In a case study constructed in March 2012, based on primary data provided by newspapers and interviews with newspaper companies, it was found that “the effort to replace losses in print ad revenue with new digital revenue was taking longer and proving more difficult than executives wanted … where for every $1 newspapers were gaining in digital ad revenue, they were losing $7 in print advertising”[15]. The journalism industry is largely supported by advertising and audience revenues from print and television.

Revenue from online journalistic ventures are now emerging, in the form of investments, venture capital and philanthropy which bring with them different approaches to journalism. These online investments do not represent a change in the business model as of yet, although they indicate it will be profitable in the future, thus the majority of revenue is coming from the no longer viable print industry (and television). “News in the US generates roughly $63 billion in annual revenue”[16], according to Pew Research analysis, whilst advertising accounts for two-thirds of this income. This model is not feasible, with print advertising in a sharp decline and the steady migration of audiences from the television medium to online sources. Despite the growth of digital advertising it does not compensate for the decline in other legacy advertising.  The next largest source of income is audience revenue, yet growth in this area does not indicate a larger consumer market, but that additional revenue is being utilised by a shrinking customer base.

Quality within the online journalism industry is declining, with organisations looking to produce as much profit as possible within a short deadline. This has led to the sensationalism of news within the media. An example of this can be found on the Courier Mail’s website, with headlines such as “My Kitchen Rules judge Pete Evans loves going barefoot but is it clueless to be shoeless?”[17], “Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi: ‘I did every Jersey Shore interview drunk’”[18] and “Insider reveals the exorbitant cost of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s wedding”[19]. Although sporadically interspersed with news articles, this once professional magazine has fallen prey to the trivialisation of news within digital media in an attempt to gain higher readership. Dickson-Smith believes “people will realise at some point that they still need to pay for quality and that all they will get for free is celebrity gossip cut and paste from one publication to the next with a call to action that reads: ‘…and you won’t believe what happens next!’”[20]. It can be seen that quality within the journalism industry has significantly declined following the transition into online media, but will this improve through the use of ethical guidelines and a need to create sustainable revenue?

 

[1] Interview between Charlotte Hartshorne and Deborah Dickson-Smith, (Accessed 16 May 2014)

[2] http://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/resources/digital-media-ethics/ (Accessed 16 May 2014)

[3] http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/the-growth-in-digital-reporting/ (Accessed 16 May 2014)

[4] http://asne.org/content.asp?admin=Y&contentid=121 (Accessed 22 May 2014), Figure 1. Formulated on Microsoft Excel

[5]  http://stateofthemedia.org/2013/digital-as-mobile-grows-rapidly-the-pressures-on-news-intensify/digital-by-the-numbers/ (Accessed 17 May 2014), Figure 2. Formulated on Microsoft Word

[6] Refer to Footnote 3 (Accessed 17 May 2014)

[7] Refer to Footnote 1 (Accessed 16 May 2014)

[8] Refer to Footnote 2 (Accessed 17 May 2014)

[9] Refer to Footnote 1 (Accessed 16 May 2014)

[10] Refer to Footnote 1 (Accessed 16 May 2014)

[11] Refer to Footnote 2 (Accessed 18 May 2014)

[12] Refer to Footnote 2 (Accessed 19 May 2014)

[13] Refer to Footnote 2 (Accessed 19 May 2014)

[14] Refer to Footnote 3 (Accessed 19 May 2014)

[15] http://www.journalism.org/2013/02/11/newspapers-turning-ideas-dollars/ (Accessed 21 May 2014)

[16] http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/the-revenue-picture-for-american-journalism-and-how-it-is-changing/ (Accessed 21 May 2014)

[17] http://www.couriermail.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/my-kitchen-rules-judge-pete-evans-loves-going-barefoot-but-is-it-clueless-to-be-shoeless/story-fnihod53-1226852855218  (Accessed 21 May 2014)

[18] http://www.couriermail.com.au/entertainment/celebrity/nicole-snooki-polizzi-i-did-every-jersey-shore-interview-drunk/story-fnihm6nt-1226927750239 (Accessed 21 May 2014)

[19] http://www.couriermail.com.au/entertainment/celebrity/insider-reveals-the-exorbitant-cost-of-kim-kardashian-and-kanye-wests-wedding/story-fnihm6nt-1226927109643 (Accessed 21 May 2014)

[20] Refer to Footnote 1 (Accessed 16 May 2014)Image

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