What’s the balance between information and entertainment? The old news adage was, “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that shock value and sensationalism would yield higher ratings and higher revenues. Has that changed? Or in the YouTube world, do dancing cats and tiara-wearing toddlers trump the information we need to know?
It’s not exactly breaking news that technology is drastically reshaping the way journalism is conducted around the world. This centuries-old industry is facing some serious questions. The traditional models of news organizations aren’t merely under threat – they’re disappearing.
Clay Shirky, who writes extensively on Internet technology’s effects on society, puts it succinctly. “The newspaper model is going away, and there is no obvious single replacement for it,” he says.
Northeastern University professor and Wired Magazine editor Jeff Howe says, “The fact that the newspaper can no longer make enough money to sustain a newsroom because they’ve lost their monopoly on advertising, well that’s a big problem.”
Web strategist Jesse Hirsh points out that, “Journalism – news – will always exist. The question is, ‘under what format?’” It’s not a question easily answered, and there are still many others to be asked.
As the Internet changes the information ecosystem, how is the role of the news changing? On one hand, we see major publications shutting their doors as their revenue models cease to make sense in the changing digital economy. On the other hand, we see a whole new wave of information-sharing on the Internet, and a democratization of content. Bloggers and citizen journalists finding audiences for their voices.
After a 35-year career with CBC News, journalist Tony Burman took over as head of Al Jazeera English, and witnessed the power of social media and mobile technologies in capturing news, as “citizen journalists” led the coverage of the Arab Spring of 2011.
However, he’s also wary of how consumers are using these new media platforms. “One of the advantages of social media is that you’re able, proactively, to seek out and to experience other perspectives. I think that there is a fear that people aren’t doing that. That they’re essentially discovering what their comfort zone is on a particular issue, or a particular perspective, and then settling down and communicating or interacting solely with that.”
Hirsh agrees. “The problem with social media, the problem with digital media, is that it’s subjective. Not only can we choose which stories we want, but in fact that choice is often made for us.”
As users receive increasingly targeted information, everywhere from Google searches to Facebook feeds, they become separated from differing viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural filter bubbles. Even though we have access to more information than ever, inside the filter bubble we’re in an echo chamber of our own thoughts and opinions, separated from the vast wealth of knowledge that should be just a click away.
“We literally have an insular culture, where everyone we talk to, everything we read, reinforces our worldview rather than challenge it,” says Hirsh. “Nobody goes online to find somebody who disagrees with them. No one goes online to find someone who’s going to shatter their worldview. So what it means is that not only are we less informed, but we’re no longer part of society, we’re part of our tribe. We’re part of the group of people who think like us, dress like us, act like us.”
Shirky believes that phenomenon poses a serious risk to the efficacy of the democratic process, because if consumers, citizens, are able to select what information, what narratives they want to read, then “a whole society loses the ability for the voters to be made aware of something they would not otherwise care about.” Newspapers used to provide information in a top-down manner, selecting the stories that editors determined were important. Now they have to be increasingly responsive to their audience, who either demand distraction from important matters or mere confirmation of their existing belief systems.
“We talk about the fragmented media universe, when what we should be talking about is a fragmented society,” says Hirsh. “Because we no longer have the room for major debates, for the greater good, for the idea that we can govern as a society, rather than just fight amongst tribes.”
In a networked global village, how are we getting the information that’s critical to our lives and communities? What is the new news? And who are the new newsmakers?