Tag Archives: journalism

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Weekly listserv journal – blogging vs. journalism

As part of a class project I’ve been reading the Online-News mailing list and responding to some of the issues and discussion brought up there.

One of the topics that comes up a lot here is blogging versus journalism.  Someone brought up an interesting project where a reporter was doing live coverage of a trial with in a blog-like way.  A big part of this is how so many relatively inexpensive portable computers, PDAs, etc. are around.  A number of posters noted that it seems like the bloggers are not the ones starting the debate, and that they seem to be a pretty inclusive group.  Others pointed out that blogging is a buzzword and not yet proven; news on the internet is only about 10 years old so its hardly a mature medium.

The Internet, the Marketplace of Ideas, and the Public Sphere

This thesis paper was originally written for a journalism course at Ohio Wesleyan University in 2001.

Introduction

Discussions about the Internet are dominated by colorful and often ill-defined metaphors.  One is expected to surf the information superhighway over to the infobahn, on the way to the digital town hall in the global village to peruse the marketplace of ideas.  This last metaphor, the market where ideas are offered, considered and either accepted or rejected like so much fruit, is more than just a colorful image.  Media and cultural studies often examine the marketplace of ideas theory and the public sphere when examining how mass media work in a democracy.  The Internet seems a natural place to look for both.

Often discussions about the marketplace of ideas and the public sphere are confined the question to whether or not they are worthwhile goals- many critics see them as impossible or rife with flaws.  The marketplace of ideas notion of traditional mass media seems out of sync with reality.  High entry costs into the mass media, central ownership by large corporations, the popular media’s tendency to marginalize radical and little-known ideas, etc., all act as barriers to a free flow of ideas.

The Internet, however, could theoretically create or function as a public forum.  Every media consumer can become a media producer on the Internet, and in some ways (newsgroups and mailing lists, for example) the line between consumers and producers of media are blurred.  Unlike other media, the cost of making a web site viewed by millions is not necessarily larger than a web site viewed by only a handful.  Communication is instantaneous and choice is not limited to what is provided by a few large companies.  Radical groups in every subject from terrorism to literary theory are able to publish as easily as mainstream political parties.

But is the Internet the true public forum, or even a real marketplace of ideas?  A quick look at Internet usage statistics shows relatively few large producers dominating traffic.  According to Nielsen/Netratings, for example, AOL Time Warner recorded 65,954,683 unique visitors in March, out of an estimated 101,965,365

active Internet users that month.1 With well over one billion web sites on the web to visit and the average user only visiting 10 unique sites a month, most of the traffic is going to a limited number of places-just as most readership goes to a limited number of magazines, newspapers, television stations, etc.

But why are web sites with less money and fewer corporate ties having a harder time getting viewers?  What barriers have arisen to make it hard to get a large audience, and why has the Internet followed the lead of central corporate ownership like the rest of the mass media?  How is the Internet like a public forum and how is it not?

Thesis

The Internet does not function as a de facto public sphere or marketplace of ideas but it does have enormous potential.  Barriers such as the Digital Divide and website funding problems keep the Internet from being a completely free forum while most users most of the time seem to have no interest in entering the public sphere at all.  A few notable examples, however, prove that the Internet has the power to allow public communication, debate, and opinion formation to flourish when users take advantage of it.

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Online media versus traditional print media

A response to Mass Media and Society (James Curran and Michael Gurevitch), Chapter 13

In “Dead Trees to Live Wires,” Colin Sparks argues that the rise of online media poses commercial challenges to traditional print media.  Sparks does not say that print is dead or dying, or that publishing print material online is some kind of bonanza.  Instead he says there are four ways in which the internet has changed business for the news.

The first change is in terms of competition.  Newspapers historically do not have to compete with broadcast and magazine news because other media do not balance timeliness with depth the way daily papers do.  Online, however, everyone is publishing 24 hours a day, so the local paper now has to directly compete with the local ABC affiliate and whoever else.  Also, the net gets rid of geographical boundaries to competition and lowers the price of entry into publishing.  Second, it allows advertisers to potentially bypass newspapers and talk directly to consumers and allows people looking for in depth news to go straight to the sources.  Third, this will lead to division between large national/international news sites and small locally-concentrated news sites, with the local sites becoming much more involved in their communities.  Finally, newspapers may respond to these pressures by breaking down the barriers between news/editorial and advertising in order to compete.

Sparks is right on, although he fails to consider a few key facets in how online news is going to develop.  One is the cooperation of different media in online ventures.  Few newspaper sites now compete with all the local network sites-most have one or two networks affiliated with them and many run joint news sites.  This may have something to do with the concentration of ownership of different media even within the same city or it may just provide a competitive edge to both parties in a partnership.  Another conflict he doesn’t touch on enough is the struggle between journalists and business people within online departments.  Some papers have given it over to the business people, some have kept them separate, and others have let them duke it out.  At Naples, we barely had contact with the business side of our department except to talk about new technologies coming in.  All our people were journalists and the content and editorial decisions reflected that.  Still, I’ve talked to people at other publications who feel controlled either by advertising interests or crap handed down from the corporate office.  It seems, though, that individual editors and reporters can often make a big difference in how online news is produced and the corporate centralizing, advertising-based trend seems to be balanced by readers being more interested in real local news.