Respected journalist James Fallows (right) could be excused for scolding new media entities like Gawker for trivializing the news and playing to its audience’s most base instincts. He could also be forgiven for mourning the emergence of “truthiness” as a substitute for fact in an Internet-driven culture that has become more concerned with immediacy that accuracy. Yet Fallows does neither of these things in a thoughtful and well-sourced 8,000-word piece in this month’s Atlantic entitled Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media.

In fact, Fallows drops in on Gawker founder Nick Denton and spends time learning to appreciate a scene in which reporters compete to repost the most salacious and bizarre stories about celebrities and the weirdness around us. Their progress is tracked by big-screen TVs that display real-time traffic to the company’s properties, which include Gizmodo, Jezebel, Lifehacker, Deadspin, Gawker and others. Writers do almost no primary sourcing, but mainly dig around the Web for nuggets posted by others. They’re rewarded based upon the number of first-time visitors they attract.

Denton is unapologetic about his model, which has turned the art of story selection and headline writing into an analytical science. He’s giving people what they want, and if you have a problem with that, go elsewhere.

Which kind of sums up Fallows’ conclusions about the state of new media. Upon considering input from experts ranging from Tom Brokaw to Jeff Jarvis, his conclusions are basically that the world is what it is and we will have to figure this stuff out. On the one hand, we’re giving up the luxury of knowing that the news reaches us has been vetted  by professional journalists. On the other, we are getting a whole lot more information than we used to get. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have to figure out how to do less of the bad stuff and more of the good stuff.

The piece bristles with great quotes. “Everything is documented, and little of it is edited. Editing is one of the great inventions of civilization,” says Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard and the author of the recent The Whites of Their Eyes.

Artificial intelligence pioneer Jaron Lanier, author of Digital Maoism, adds, “We have created a technology that has wonderful potential, but that enormously increases our ability to lie to ourselves and forget it is a lie. We are going to need to develop new conventions and formalities to cut through the lies.”

Fallows resists the urge to pass judgment on what is right and wrong about new media. He sees some merit to Gawker’s lowbrow model, praises Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for inventing a new approach to journalism and even gives Fox News a pass for at least being honest about what it is.

He also dips into historical analogy to make a case that the media world has never been very stable. For example, Time and Newsweek were Depression-era experiments that were given little hope of success in their early days. National Public Radio didn’t exist during the Johnson administration. Television trivialized news, but it also gives us great shared experiences like the Apollo moon landing. All of these institutions were ridiculed in their early days because they broke with the way information had traditionally been delivered.

We are breaking the mold again, Fallows sums up, and very little can be done about it. So let’s look for virtue in new models and try to minimize our losses.

“I am biased in favor of almost any new project, since it might prove to be the next New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, NPR, or Wired that helps us understand our world,” he concludes. “Perhaps we have finally exhausted the viable possibilities for a journalism that offers a useful and accurate perspective.”

Miscellany

Alan Mutter asks “Will classified advertising come back?” The short answer: No. The people who used to buy real estate, automotive and recruitment advertising have found new and more-efficient channels and simply moved on, Mutter says. He has some interesting stats about newspaper classifieds:

  • Recruitment advertising is down 85% since 2005
  • Real estate advertising is off 76% in the same period
  • Automotive is down 73%

Not only has that business permanently migrated elsewhere, the Newsosaur writes, but the one bright spot in the newspaper classified picture – legal advertising – is likely to shrivel as the economy improves and foreclosure and bankruptcy notices disappear. You can’t win for losing.


Matt WaiteMatt Waite (left), who was the primary developer behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact fact-checking application at the St. Petersburg Times, comments on the reluctance of news organizations to embrace meaningful change with extraordinary clarity.

The daily newspaper is the result of a finely tuned process in which each component must perform exactly as expected or else there’s hell to pay, Waite says. This process has been developed over the course of the last 150 years and is embedded into every aspect of the newspaper culture. Whatever you do, don’t mess with the production system.

This is why newspaper websites continue to be little more than digital versions of their print products. Process is so important that publishers can’t imagine doing things any other way. Waite notes that while innovative applications have emerged at many newspapers, they all exist on separate servers outside of the production system. These ideas won’t go mainstream – and news organizations won’t change what they do – until technologies like map mashups, real-time updates and crowdsourced fact-checking are integrated into the content management system. That will happen slowly, if it happens at all, he writes on Nieman Journalism Lab. A culture that is so hidebound by process is not one that sparks innovation.


Perhaps Mozilla can provide an answer. The organization that created the Firefox browser, among other things, has partnered with Knight Foundation on a fellowship program that will deliver 15 technologists to major newspapers to develop “new, adaptive tools for the future.” The idea is that these fellows won’t be simply hired hands, but will bring innovative ideas based upon open source concepts like sharing and assimilation of other applications. They will spend the next three years working with some major newspapers on projects that will be available to anyone.

 

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This entry was posted on Friday, March 11th, 2011 at 9:03 am and is filed under Advertising, BusinessModel, Classifieds, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers, OnlineMedia, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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