Journalism in the Digital Age

Since the 1800’s the distribution of news and information has undergone continuous change. With new technologies such as the printing press, and more recently, the internet, new voices can reach broader audiences at lower costs. In the modern age of the web, everyone from large media giants to local daily newspapers have felt the effects of declining advertising revenue and readership. This has required newspapers and journalists to adjust their production and distribution models and find new ways to keep their audiences engaged and informed. This paper will discuss the newspaper industry’s transition from print to digital media. It will explore how the internet has changed the way consumers receive their news and the way that news is reported. I will argue that these changes have affected how news is defined. Digital news can take many forms and come from a range of sources. This is why consumers must critically assess and make informed decisions about how and what they consume online.

Consumers are spending more time on the web than ever before. According to CBC, “Canadians are among the biggest online addicts in the world, visiting more sites and spending more time visiting websites via desktop computers than anyone else in the world.” As readers move their time and attention online, media organizations have followed suit by developing online formats to try new ways of producing revenue. Newspapers have introduced subscription models via digital reading APPs for mobile phones and tablets, and created paywalls to fund the content they distribute on their websites. However, this does not make up for the loss of newsstand sales and advertising revenue. As indicated in a report in The Globe and Mail: “Postmedia Network Inc., publisher of the National Post and nine other metropolitan dailies, is looking to cut $120-million from its operating budget as part of a three-year program. Sun Media has cut more than a thousand jobs over the last several years, while the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail have both looked to buyouts and outsourcing to reduce their costs.” The new landscape of online publishing and content distribution has disrupted traditional news organizations and print journalism.

Readers are pulling news media into the digital world because that is where they consume. This means that advertising firms and companies are also choosing to advertise online. This has resulted in a considerable loss of earnings for print newspapers, who according to Suzanne M. Kirchhoff, traditionally relied on ad revenues for 80% of their overall revenues. Companies are choosing to advertise online because it is cheaper and more dynamic. They can advertise through Facebook for as little as $10 (depending on how many people they are trying to reach), meanwhile, a half-page color advertisement in The Globe and Mail can cost over $8,000. On the web, companies are able to reach a much wider audience through targeted interactive content. Advertisers no longer need to buy premium print ad space; instead they can advertise online, at very low costs, from large companies like Facebook and Google. This has resulted in a very unequal balance in the internet advertising market share, as indicated in the graph below:

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(Winseck, 2015)

Today, the entire internet churns out content at a very high volume—and it’s all instantly available at any time. Print news companies are now competing with a very large number of online sources. Social media “tech giants,” such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Google are finding new ways to distribute news. As noted in Madelaine Drohan’s report, “It started in January when Snapchat, used by 100 million people to share photos and short videos, started Discover…Facebook, with its estimated 1.6 billion users, caused a splash when it launched Instant Articles for mobile devices.” Evidently, traditional print newspapers cannot compete with the web. The large decline in ad revenue, and the rise of competition have caused a significant drop in profit for traditional print newspapers and resulted in their regression, and transition to online publishing.

 

The Internet has changed the way people receive/consume/interact with news.

A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft determined that the average attention span of a person is eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000 (Egan, 2016). The growth of digital news publishing has affected consumers’ reading experiences. Consumers do not pick one website or digital news source to gather their information; they move around, find journalists they like, and quickly scroll through their options. Readers are finding and interacting with news in different ways than ever before.

The internet allows you to be anywhere in the world, access the website of a foreign country’s newspaper, and read about the local news. Martin Belam writes: “It used to be the case that if I wanted to read the Belfast Telegraph, I pretty much had to be in Belfast, and hand over some cash to the newspaper sellers and newsagents around the city. Now, of course, I can read the website for free from the comfort of my own home, whether that is in London, New York or New Delhi.” Outside of the traditional boundaries of press circulation, consumers can access information from across the world: “Against an almost exclusively national consumption of their traditional media, the leading European newspapers receive 22.9% of their online visits from abroad” (Peña-Fernández et al., 2015). Readers are able to connect with news outside their own community and obtain a broader view of world events.

In addition to having access to a worldwide scope of news sources, consumers are actively engaging with online content. As noted by Drohan, there is “growing clamour among online readers, viewers and listeners to be active participants in the creation of news rather than passive consumers of a product.” Consumers desire a dynamic interaction with the content they are reading: “‘News is not just a product anymore,’ says Mathew Ingram. ‘People are looking for a service and a relationship of some kind.’ (Drohan)” This engagement with news means that news stories can actively be challenged and ideas questioned. No longer do readers simply take a news story as fact and put down the paper; they are commenting, sharing, tweeting, and re-posting the information.

In the digital age, online readers can visit several websites and choose the source they find most appropriate for the story they want to read. Independent digital media companies such as Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post offer an alternative way of discovering news and finding entertainment. As a news aggregator, the Huffington Post curates content, as well as uses algorithms to gather and group together similar stories. According to The Economist, The Huffington Post “has 4.2m unique monthly visitors—almost twice as many as the New York Post.” There are similar aggregators that are entirely automatic:

“The Wal-Marts of the news world are online portals like Yahoo! and Google News, which collect tens of thousands of stories…most consist simply of a headline, a sentence and a link to a newspaper or television website where the full story can be read. The aggregators make money by funnelling readers past advertisements, which may be tailored to their presumed interests. They are cheap to run: Google News does not even employ an editor” (The Economist).

Increasingly, traditional news sites are being accessed indirectly by readers: “less than half of visits (44.6%) access the websites of the online Europeans newspapers directly through their URL” (Peña-Fernández et al.).

What do these aggregator sites mean for traditional newspapers and for online readers? News aggregators act as a source of traffic to news sites. On the other hand, the practices of news aggregators raise ethical questions. Newspapers produce and publish the original content, while aggregator sites earn money through advertising around this second-hand content. Further, consumers may simply scan through headlines rather than clicking on an article to read the whole story. This means that the original news sites do not receive these readers at all, and lose out on potential profit. Megan Garber highlights the complex nature of these sites: “Achieving all this through an algorithm is, of course, approximately one thousand percent more complicated than it sounds. For one thing, there’s the tricky balance of temporality and authority. How do you deal, for example, with a piece of news analysis that is incredibly authoritative about a particular story without being, in the algorithmic sense, “fresh”? How do you balance personal relevance with universal? How do you determine what counts as a “news site” in the first place?” When sites such as Google News use algorithms to compile information, a computer refines the content. This presents the question as to whether or not what’s being highlighted is “quality” journalism. Aggregators remove the human element; something that many would argue is essential to a process as important as finding news.

 

The internet has changed the way that news is reported.

The internet has added numerous layers to the news reporting process. Journalists from traditional media organizations are no longer the monitors of news, and the number of independent journalists is growing: “there are individuals, sometimes called citizen journalists, who cover events from their own vantage point, with various degrees of objectivity, accuracy and skill. Their emergence has led to an as yet unresolved debate over who has the right to call themselves a journalist” (Drohan). One example of a website publishing content from citizen journalists is Groundviews, out of Sri Lanka. Groundviews publishes uncensored content by citizen journalists who are pushing the boundaries of traditional media. The rise of citizen journalism means that voices outside of conventional media can be heard. It also raises questions as to accuracy and neutrality. As a reader, how do you evaluate how much weight to give to an individual reporting outside of traditional news media? This is an important question, and one that will remain relevant as journalism continues to change.

The attribution to writers in online articles has also changed, and varies between websites. Interestingly, sites such as The Huffington Post often include an image of the writer, as well as their credentials in a prominent position on the page. In contrast, sites like The Guardian and The New York Times emphasize the content of the article and simply include a byline. For example, the front page of The Huffington Post Canada’s politics page looks like this:

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-1-37-29-pm

The variation in attribution highlights the unique differences of these sites. Perhaps sites like The Huffington Post feel the need to point out the credibility of their writers because it is not automatically implied; the website itself has not built a solid reputation as a news source. Perhaps readers are more concerned about who has written the article, and not where it’s been published. This grants independent journalists the freedom to build a loyal audience and publish across a variety of platforms. It means that large news corporations are no longer the sole authority on news topics.

The internet has changed the speed at which journalists must work to provide readers with information. Consumers expect immediate access to news. In an article in The Guardian, Belam discusses immediacy in digital publishing: “In years gone by, news of suicide bombers underground in the Russian capital would have meant producing a graphic for the following day’s paper – a lead time of several hours. Nowadays, Paddy Allen has to get an interactive map of the bombing locations finished, accurate, and published on the website as quickly as possible.” In order to remain competitive, journalists must present instant access to the latest stories. They must prepare information for right now, instead of tomorrow. Does this emphasis on instantaneous news mean that journalists are less likely to ensure the accuracy of their content? As a reader, immediate access to information has many benefits, but it may also have implications for the quality of content. According to Karlsson: “Immediacy means that provisory, incomplete and sometimes dubious news drafts are published.”

This also means that articles may be revised as new information arises, events progress, and facts unfold. Karlsson completed a study of several articles in The Guardian. In one example, two versions of an article were published two hours apart and consist of roughly 86% identical text. However, when you read the headline of each article, their messages are very different. The original version has been “complemented with other information that sets the new headline” and it has been framed differently. As journalists race to publish news online, in some cases, efficiency may be traded for accuracy, meaning that information is subject to change.

Digital news publishing also raises important questions about ethics. The vastness of the internet provides reporters and journalists with readily available information about individuals. Belam notes that, “Whenever a young person is in the news, Facebook or other similar social networks are usually a ready source of images. No longer does the news desk have to wait for a family to choose a cherished photo to hand over. A journalist can now lift photographs straight from social networking sites.” Privacy issues are at the forefront of the digital world, and they certainly impact news reporting.

The web has tested the endurance of news companies and forced industry leaders to creatively adapt and innovate. With all of these changes happening in news publishing, how do traditional news organizations continue to bolster development and move forward in a valuable, successful way? As technologies grow and change, news organizations must continue to do so as well. Mathew Ingram discusses how The Guardian is exploring alternatives to paywalls and digital-subscription models by offering a membership-based program, where content is available to paying members that isn’t available to non-paying readers. The Guardian views this membership plan as a ‘reverse-paywall:’ “Instead of penalizing your most frequent customers by having them run into a credit-card wall, you reward them with extra benefits (Ingram).” In order for traditional news companies to thrive in the digital age, they must maintain strong relationships with their readers.

 

Conclusions

David Marsh of The Guardian asks very important questions about journalism in today’s world: “If I tweet from a major news event – the Arab spring, say – is that journalism? If I start my own political blog, does that make me a journalist? If I’m a teacher, say, but contribute stories to a newspaper, does that make me a “citizen journalist”? Does it make any difference whether people are paid, or not, for such work? Should bloggers, tweeters and “citizen journalists” be held to, and judged by, the same standards as people working in more traditional journalistic roles?” Having unlimited access to instant news via the internet keeps us well informed and socially aware. Digital journalism also raises many questions. It makes it difficult to define news. With a plethora of new options for receiving news, are people replacing traditional formats with ones that are less culturally significant? Have we been conditioned as digital consumers to desire instant entertainment over well-researched, evidence-based news? Has social media diluted the core of news and diverted our attention away from informative sources? These are questions that are important for consumers to consider as they interact with and search for news online.

It is possible that with unlimited access to news via tablets and mobile devices, consumers are spending more time reading news than ever before. A younger population is now consuming digital news on a regular basis. With these positives, also come negatives: social network conglomerates have a stronghold on media, quality reporting is declining, and on various platforms it can be difficult to distinguish between gossip and news. As consumers in the digital age, it is important to recognize that while technology and the internet continue to play an increasingly important role in our lives, we are in control of what we read and how we gather information. We must take responsibility for the way in which we engage with online content. There are ways we can counter a growing inclination to consume sharable, fleeting, surface-level information. Firstly, as consumers, we need to look at the value of what we’re reading and think deeply about how we’re engaging with media. Secondly, as publishers/journalists/writers we need to recognize that the audience should come first; circulating content that does not simply aim to capture engagement, but is enlightening and stimulates analytical thinking, is more important than it’s ever been.

 

Works Cited

Belam, Martin. “Journalism in the digital age: trends, tools and technologies.” The Guardian. 14 April 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/help/insideguardian/2010/apr/14/journalism-trends-tools-technologies.

CBC News. “Desktop internet use by Canadians highest in world, comScore says.” 27 March 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/desktop-internet-use-by-canadians-highest-in-world-comscore-says-1.3012666.

Drohan, Madelaine. Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?” Canada’s Public Policy Forum. 2016, http://www.ppforum.ca/sites/default/files/PM%20Fellow_March_11_EN_1.pdf.

Egan, Timothy. “The Eight-Second Attention Span.” The New York Times. 22 Jan. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html?_r=0.

Garber, Megan. “Google News at 10: How the Algorithm Won Over the News Industry.” The Atlantic. 20 Sept. 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/09/google-news-at-10-how-the-algorithm-won-over-the-news-industry/262641/.

“Huffington Post Canada Politics, Front Page” 6 November 2016. Author’s screenshot.

Ingram, Mathew. “The Guardian, Paywalls, and the Death of Print Newspapers.” Fortune. 17 February 2016, http://fortune.com/2016/02/17/guardian-paywall/.

Karlsson, Michael. “The immediacy of online news, the visibility of journalistic processes and a restructuring of journalistic authority.” Journalism. April 2011 12: 279-295, https://www.academia.edu/561238/The_immediacy_of_online_news_the_visibility_of_journalistic_processes_and_a_restructuring_of_journalistic_authority

Kirchhoff, Suzanne, M. “The U.S. Newspaper Industry in Transition.” Congressional Research Service. 9 Sept. 2010, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40700.pdf.

Ladurantaye, Steve. “Newspaper revenue to drop by 20 percent by 2017, report predicts.” The Globe and Mail. 5 June 2013, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/newspaper-revenue-to-drop-20-per-cent-by-2017-report-predicts/article12357351/.

Marsh, David. “Digital age rewrites the role of journalism.” The Guardian. 16 October 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainability/sustainability-report-2012-people-nuj.

Peña-Fernández, Simon; Lazkano-Arrillaga, Inaki; García-González, Daniel. “European Newspapers’ Digital Transition: New Products and New Audiences.” Media Education Research Journal. 16 July 2015.

“Tossed by a gale.” The Economist. 14 May 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/13642689.

Winseck, Dwayne. “Media and Internet Concentration in Canada Report, 1984-2014,” Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, (Carleton University, November 2015), http://www.cmcrp.org/media-and-internet-concentration-1984-2013/.

3 Replies to “Journalism in the Digital Age”

  1. I would like to thank the author for the discourse provided on the present state of journalism, and its attention toward the quality, accuracy, and depth of reporting in the digital age.

    In particular, I was drawn to the author’s discussion of citizen journalism and the weight we as readers ascribe to the bylines behind published content. The discussion of Huffington Post’s inclusion of writers’ credentials and photos made me realize how little time I spend reading into the background of the writers on the sites I read weekly, and how much weight I’ve taken to giving citizen journalists and users who share live updates of events on sites like Reddit. From the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 to the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, I continually seek out current coverage on related subreddits and Twitter feeds hours or even days before I read more traditionally published articles on the BBC’s website or in print newspapers. I also find myself more readily accepting the details offered in the former despite knowing virtually nothing about the users in question.

    With that said, my acceptance of these posts hinges a lot on the aggregation of news by sites like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and even national news outlets like Global Television and CTV in recent years. As the author duly notes, these sites pull original published content from newspapers (as well as from Reddit and Twitter posts, citing user uploaded videos, photos, and commentary). As the author also explains, these aggregators profit from the ad revenue attached to their content, while the original creators do not see a return on this second-hand content. As the author mentions, more than 60% of advertising revenue is going to Google and Facebook, who are not creating the journalistic content being consumed.

    Could the aggregator effect be remedied by shifting how the 24 hour news cycle is executed in-house? Perhaps a better balance of in-house vs. freelancers could be achieved to enable more original content to be produced? Is there even an incentive to do so, considering how much time is saved by aggregating vs. creating content from scratch, and how operating budgets are being cut?

    I was also struck by the ethical questions the author raised regarding the usage of photos of young people in the news. Countless stories involving teenaged victims of cyberbullying, for example, make continual rounds online, most of which feature photos of the victims initially posted to social media. Traditional publication bans exist to protect the integrity and identity of individuals under 18, and I commend the author for questioning the ethical impacts and privacy issues that stem from the urgency to deliver fresh, attractive content to readers all hours of the day.

    I would have liked to see more specific examples and elaboration of other citizen journalism sites like Groundviews, and greater investigation of other ethical issues facing journalism in the digital age. These two facets of the essay intrigued me most, and I would be greatly interested in reading further discussion of these areas.

    A most relevant essay as more of our opinions and political leanings are influenced by the journalistic content we consume online every day! I also enjoyed learning about Canada’s top ranking for time spent online. Thank you, Dana!

    1. Hi Tara,

      Thank you for your reply!

      In light of recent events, I’ve been thinking even more about the journalistic process and how we receive news-related information.

      Since the web provides such a vast space to explore content, we can decide to read news that caters to our likes/beliefs/interests. We can choose to hear from voices that discuss topics we enjoy and that align with our own values. Further, the sites we visit (ex: Facebook) also cater the information we see to our own preferences. This means that we see a lot of the same content daily, that has been picked for us based on what we like to read/watch.
      I believe the following quote from Madelaine Drohan illustrates the issues with this:
      “A related challenge is that news fragmentation shrinks the pool of common knowledge and could increase partisanship. If you confine your news consumption to sites that favour one party, while I pick sites backing a rival group, not only will our shared knowledge decline but our political views are likely to become more entrenched. We no longer live in an era when everyone watched the nightly news on a limited number of channels or subscribed to their hometown newspaper. The idea of having a primary news source has become obsolete. That has unfortunate consequences, beyond the merely the commercial ones for the media organizations. “There is an iron core of information we need to be an informed society,” says Bill Fox, who adds that social media has fragmented that core and even traditional media organizations are no longer doing a good job providing it” (Drohan).

      If we are always accessing content that caters to our specific beliefs and ideas, we are not using the web to help us broaden our scope of knowledge. In order to access diverse views and stay informed outside of our regular interests, I believe it is important to consciously seek out content from various avenues and authorities.

  2. This essay attempts to tackle an increasingly important question about how journalism and news are changing. It is an ambitious essay, and the author tackles many different aspects. While the essay is ambitious, and does span a broad set of changes and implications, it is at time disjoint and hard to follow. Paragraphs sometimes switch topic in the middle, and often there is no connection between one paragraph and the next. This disjointness distracts from what are often good examples, quotes, and sources that serve to illustrate the author’s point that journalism has been radically transformed.

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