Tag Archives: New Media

The struggle over values in the online news world

Week of December 21, 2009

The toughest challenges facing the news business may have more to do with values than finances.
There’s reason for optimism about its economic future. The appetite for fact-based reporting and topical commentary is keener than ever, and the number of people with the skill and desire to feed it is greater than ever. Demand is high, supply is high, the economic fundamentals are solid.
Even the business uncertainties causing so much heartache right now—how this new news industry will pay its bills—is solvable. It won’t be tidy and it won’t be tomorrow, but some layered blend will emerge of direct payment and subsidy via advertising, NPR-type fundraising, profit-making spinoffs, offline activities, and sweat equity from pro-am journalists working on the cheap.
News will survive. Whether it’ll be good and whether it’ll do good—that’s what the public should worry about.
Now, you hear a lot of wailing about the sunny age of journalistic excellence that is supposed to be rapidly setting. Some of that is the familiar, “the older we get, the better we were” nostalgia. True, the children of Watergate—and I was one—had their brave and brilliant moments, and as a result some things changed for the better.
But while post-‘60s media venerated Watergate, they didn’t really emulate it. The wide-angle view is less complimentary: a newspaper industry of chain-owned monopolies that flattered the powers-that-be, milked their advertisers dry and muscled the local competition into submission; conglomerate-run TV networks allowed to grossly under-serve the world’s most powerful democracy with 22 minutes of national news a day; unimaginably profitable local TV affiliates whose journalistic imagination was confined to shootings and car crashes; local radio that gave up news altogether.
By the end of the George W. Bush years, the country’s best journalism wasn’t in the news media, but in books.
So today’s Internet upstarts are right to be skeptical of the generation that’s now cleaning out its desk in newsrooms throughout the country. We didn’t always uphold core precepts of honest journalism against the pressures of market, ambition and expediency. There was arrogance, deference to authority, reliance on formula, and over time, a craven wish to avoid offending.
But there are disquieting signs that the new newsfolks—including the online operations of legacy media—are falling victim to new pressures. For all their repudiation of the old mistakes, they may be succumbing to new ones.

Practitioners congratulate themselves on the medium’s power, mindful that online scoops can indeed rattle the right cages, but they don’t want to accept the truth that this power includes the capacity to do harm.
Take the idea that it’s right to post information nobody’s really tried to verify. Post what you have, fix it as better information comes to light—that’s the new creed. The notion that some threshold of veracity needs to be met before you publish is some quaint relic, as one news blogger put it, “Journalism 101, not Journalism 2010.”
But falsehoods hurt people, and while corrections can mitigate that, they don’t undo it. Why should online news sites ignore the basic injunction to avoid doing unnecessary harm? Shouldn’t there be a good reason to go public with unverified information, some imminent peril, a tornado possibly heading your way?
How about posting damaging allegations without seeking a response from the people being defamed? Why doesn’t basic fairness still require giving the person a reasonable shot to be heard now, not later, when there is no assurance the denial will catch up to the accusation?
Online news has brought fresh concerns with such values as transparency and humility along with a vast new willingness to listen and allow others to speak. But in other respects, instead of righting the wrongs of the legacy news world, the 24/7 cycle risks deepening them and intensifying their potential to misinform and to harm. No, don’t blame the technology; there’s nothing about digital media that prohibits care, respectfulness, scrupulous handling of information, fairness—basic principles of journalistic professionalism.
The damage isn’t done by the new tools, but by the old villain of market calculation, the belief that haste pays, that racy and sensational disclosures drive traffic and now, if they’re incorrect or one-sided, actually increase interactivity. Getting it first trumps getting it right.
Funny, that’s something the corrupt old press barons believed too.
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A news business with a future after all

Week of Dec. 7, 2009

Because I don’t have enough misery in my life, I decided last week to see how much I could take of the two-day Federal Trade Commission symposium in Washington with the somber title, “How will journalism survive the Internet Age?” The media circuit offers a generous number of such open-casket affairs, but the turnout for this one looked stellar, so I settled down at my desktop and clicked in to the video feed, ready for the wailing to begin.
And it wasn’t like that at all. On the contrary, although the 70-some journalists, academics, analysts, financiers, flacks and entrepreneurs didn’t agree on much, they had in common a quality of thought and depth of commitment that couldn’t fail to impress.
Headliners included Rupert Murdoch, multinational news mogul; Arianna Huffington, online diva; Leonard Downie, ex-editorial chief of the Washington Post; Jeff Jarvis, prophet of entrepreneurial journalism; Paul Steiger, head of Pro Publica, the investigative reporting startup; Steven Brill, who’s about to launch an innovative payment system; Robert Picard, an eminent media economist, and Josh Marshall, whose Talking Points Memo is one of the rare online news sites that’s both solid and solvent.
To be sure, there was the familiar litany of woes that have pushed the legacy news industry down a steep slope toward financial ruin and civic obsolescence: its ravaged advertising base, reader melt, staff and coverage cutbacks, extravagant acquisitions that crippled profitable operations with debt, a ready availability of free online alternatives.
Still, there was recognition that the winds of change that are blowing their roofs off are, to a great degree, modernizing ones. Those cloudless days of bottomless profitability were the product of industrial privilege that nobody would applaud as socially optimal: Traditional newspapers and local TV network affiliates owed their larcenous profit margins—and their teeming newsrooms—to the monopolies and near-monopolies they wielded, and to the reality that their audiences, and their advertisers, were starved of choice.
Suddenly, thanks to the Internet and the explosion of digital technologies, barriers to entry have been leveled and distribution costs slashed to zero. Anyone with a laptop and a WiFi has instantaneous access to more information than the entire Washington Post newsroom back when Nixon was facing impeachment—and can reach a vastly larger audience too.
The upshot: As one speaker noted, all those enormous fixed costs (printing presses, delivery fleets, broadcast transmitters) that once kept rivals out of the water are now, for legacy news organizations, little more than an anchor around their neck.
So now what? Paradoxically, the person at the workshop with the greatest business success in the online world was also the one with the most conventional answers. That was Rupert Murdoch, chief of News Corp., whose Wall Street Journal online operation has more than a million paying subscribers. His solutions: Invest in journalism, then invest some more; charge readers what your content is worth; keep government at bay (that, a rebuke to calls for media-friendly changes in tax laws and antitrust rules.)
And move aggressively against those who help themselves to your content, the reviled news aggregators. By that he meant both the mammoth search engines like Google and Yahoo and the purpose-built news sites that post digests and steer readers to where the news originated, such as his papers. What the aggregators do, he says, is “theft.”
This is key. Contemporary thinking about the future of journalism divides fundamentally over the question of whether online news is, or can be, owned and sold. And I’ve come to conclude that although in some cases it can—when the information is unique, time-bound or especially valuable—the overall reality is that technology has kicked down the door of the proprietary model. News will be publicly available, either in original or derivative forms, even to a public that doesn’t pay for it.
As Arianna Huffington, whose Huffpost.com relies on unpaid contributors, put it, “Free content is not without problems. But it’s here to stay, and publishers need to come to terms with that…”
And that, it seemed clear, is where the fun starts in the new news industry—in coming up with allied informational offshoots that are worth top dollar (ask newsletter publishers); in building fresh sources of cross-subsidy by creating affiliated profit centers to replace ad revenues which, even with robust online growth, will never match the treasures of the lost kingdom; in collaborating with the emerging generation of journalism irregulars who hunger to carry on traditions of civic engagement through public reporting and commentary.
So it wasn’t quite the funeral I expected.
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The Kobe Bryant case: Nothing archaic about protecting victims

September 8, 2003

The arrest of pro basketball star Kobe Bryant on a charge of sexual assault has revived a wrenching controversy within the news media: whether to publish the names of alleged rape victims.

Rarely have U.S. media done that. The most notable recent instance was in 1991, when NBC News identified and The New York Times profiled the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her outside the Kennedy mansion in Palm Beach. (Smith was acquitted.)

Now the traditional restraint is under unusual pressure. Bryant’s celebrity has combined with the explosion of web sites to bring his 19-year-old accuser intense scrutiny and draw hordes of jock-lovers off their La-Zy-Boys to fulminate online about her motives and sexual back-story.

Respected voices too are wondering whether the taboo has outlived its time. They argue that the Internet has made it ineffective, and that secrecy does little but strengthen the archaic stigma that rape victims have something to be ashamed of, as Geneva Overholser, who led the Des Moines Register to a Pulitzer for a series on a raped woman’s recovery, argued on the influential Poynter Institute website.

“It’s time to liberate rape victims from any residual societal embarrassment by treating them as we treat the adult victims of every other crime,” wrote David Shaw, media critic with The Los Angeles Times.

Plus, Shaw reasoned, fairness compels that if the accused is named so should the accuser.

But they’re wrong. And pressure from overheated Internet sites makes it even more important that legitimate news media do what’s right.

First, understand that media routinely withhold news. Even among the tiny fraction of newsworthy occurrences that the media choose to cover are many that they report only gingerly. They try not to cause needless pain or exploit the vulnerable. They don’t show corpses much. Children’s names are often held back.

Reformers argue that a rape victim has no more reason for shame than somebody who’s robbed. She should denounce her assailant proudly and publicly, and submit to whatever publicity — and scrutiny — might follow.

But the rape stigma doesn’t arise from some presumption that the woman must have been “asking for it.” Withholding her name isn’t to keep her from being suspected of smoldering promiscuity.

It’s because she has been degraded and humiliated, in the most invasive and detestable way, and nobody wants such degradation made public.

Would a man who was beaten, held down and raped want his name published? Would we tell him to stand up and be counted, in the name of social progress?

Then there’s the argument that publishing only the suspect’s name is unfair. In a legal sense, that notion of equivalence is bogus, and radically miscasts the nature of a sexual assault charge. This isn’t a private dispute. It’s a criminal case, not a lawsuit.

It represents what’s supposed to be the considered conclusion of police and prosecutorial agents that a serious offense against the community has likely taken place. The victim’s accusation is a big factor, but only one. Technically, she’s a witness. There may be others, along with corroborating evidence in the form of semen and wounds. What if she was left comatose and can’t testify? Do we name her anyway?

Besides, does fairness require the media generally to hang the names of witnesses in criminal cases before the public?

Testifying against someone accused of a violent crime is already an act of heroism. Victim advocates say that even now only a tiny fraction of sexual assaults are reported. Imagine if media scrutiny was one of the rewards of stepping forward to denounce your assailant.

The scariest element of Overholser’s argument involves the shift of informational power toward the Internet, which renders the embargo by established media futile. “Newspapers are not — as they once were — the gatekeepers of such information,” she writes. “The culture has changed. Details about the Kobe Bryant accuser are being bandied about by shock jocks and on the Net netherworld.”

She is, of course, right: The media cannot control information as they once could. Bryant’s accuser is widely known to the small Colorado town where she lives and to the huge Kobe fan base.

But what is known is still different from what is public. That’s part of the vital distinction between gossip and news. An Internet site can post facts, but it can’t legitimate them as an appropriate part of a community’s knowledge of itself. That’s why it didn’t matter that images of the Wall Street Journal reporter’s beheading and of Princess Diana’s gruesome wounds body were available online.

The power to coarsen and cheapen the public discourse remains in the hands of the news media. That job requires judgment, and the media will continue to command respect to the degree that they understand the need for compassion and restraint.