Journalism in the Digital Age: Good, Bad, and Ugly

It feels like the Wild West of journalism.

The internet changed the game, then social media changed the game even more, and now we’ve got internet and social media attached to our hands.

The most basic observation I can make is that information delivery is getting unbundled.

We used to receive news in a collected package — say, a newspaper. Or a magazine.

The reputation of the bundle sold subscriptions. Sports Illustrated for sporting news and human interest sports stories. SLAM Magazine for hoops and hoops culture. Newsweek for a weekly political summary. The Economist for business-minded political summary. Daily newspapers for whatever style fits your fancy: the local paper or the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

I used to love reading Rick Reilly, whose column held a physical space on the back page of Sports Illustrated. Every week, when the magazine arrived, I would first turn to the back to see what Rick Reilly had to say, before leafing through the other sports stories.

Now, an individual piece becomes it’s own commodity. Each story needs to sell itself via social media. An editor knows what sells by what clicks. On your social media page, you will see links from all corners of the web.

Half of all Americans get news on social media “often” or “sometimes.” Although Trump caused a boost in digital newspaper subscriptions last year, total circulation has gone down every year for the last 28 years. Newspaper advertisement revenue has plummeted over the last ten years.

Reducing the power of the gatekeeper can be a good thing. News can arrive directly from people who experience and share what they see. A variety of analysis happens immediately. You can “follow” people who are subjects of news, hear straight from the horse’s mouth.

The obvious flip side is the loss of perspective and reflection.

Last month, Arizona Senator John McCain gave a speech about how the Senate should return to “regular order” with both parties working together to make laws. The speech followed a procedural vote to continue debate of a bill to repeal Obamacare — a bill that had been crafted in secret by a small group of Republicans. Social media exploded with howls of hypocrisy. Arguments and counter-arguments. Articles posted all over the web. How could McCain give such a holier-than-thou speech after voting in favor of a sneaky, partisan healthcare bill?!?!!  

24 hours later, when it came time to voting on the actual bill, McCain dramatically cast the deciding No vote, killing the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare.

Internet clamor did a 180. McCain was a hero.

We could have all saved some emotional energy by waiting to see how things played out.

Because of the increased circulation of news through social media, Facebook is often scrutinized for its role in shaping public perception.

Mark Zuckerberg portrays himself as the liberator of minds thanks to his saving grace, online sharing. He thinks Facebook is positively influencing civil discourse and democracy. Any problem can be solved by more openness, more sharing.

But what about made up stories and conspiracy theories? Don’t those spread like wildfire on Facebook? Isn’t that a bad thing?

Zuckerberg to the rescue. A few months ago he launched the Facebook Journalism Project, to “establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry.” Facebook is going to partner with credible news outlets, and send warning alerts for fake news, and fund journalism programs, and …

BREAKING NEWS: “Fake Russian Facebook Accounts Bought $100,000 in Political Ads.

Whoops. That was awkward.

It gets worse. According to Politico, The Facebook Journalism Project is undermining it’s own efforts to curb fake news by refusing to share internal data with the partners enlisted to help detect and reduce dissemination of false information.

Maybe Facebook doesn’t improve civil discourse, after all.

Can you blame them, though? Is improving civil discourse their responsibility? How can you possibly regulate the quality of information shared on a ginormous social bulletin board?

Despite the fracturing and chaos on the web, news bundles still matter.

My favorite sportswriter of the digital age is Bill Simmons, who wrote a column for ESPN, and then started Grantland (within the ESPN website), which packaged sports and cultural pieces.

Two years ago Simmons started The Ringer, his own media company.

The Ringer is not just a bundle of themed content, but a bundle of multimedia options. Writing, podcasts, and video.

I don’t read The Ringer very often, but if something important happens in sports, like the recent “Kyrie Irving traded the Boston Celtics” story, I will go to their site because I trust and respect their analysis.

Bill Simmons’ vision is to sell the identity of the site, sell the writers, shape the brand. Draw the audience through solid reputation. Fund the operation through advertising partnerships.

Even though each story is pitched on social media by the writers, the operation feels like old media.

Who the heck knows how this all develops.

The moral of the story for me, as an educator, is that a super important skill of the modern era is the ability to find good information and reject crappy information.

As the old saying goes, “Don’t believe everything some random dude posts on Facebook.”

Author: Billy

Teacher and blogger.

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