Randoom a Michael Friis production

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30 August 2009 @ 5pm

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Journalism

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Knight Foundation Scholarship Essay

(This summer I applied for the “Coders Wanted” Knight Foundation Scholarship at the Medill School of Journalism. In case anyone’s interested, I’m uploading the essays I wrote for my application.)

Question: How do journalism and technology relate to one another in the digital age?

Technology relates to journalism in two different ways: It is a topic of coverage (“science journalism”) and a driver of change. The subject of science and tech journalism is an interesting one, but this essay will focus on technology as an enabler and driver of change in the practice of journalism.

Ever since the invention of movable type, technological progress has gradually deceased the amount of money and time required to distribute information. The advent of digital technology has lowered the cost to (almost) zero and made distribution instantaneous. As Chris Anderson argues in his recent book “FREE”, this final drop to zero marks a discontinuity and it has some profound implications.

The speed and ease of digital publishing now makes it possible for everyone to write news reports, shoot photos and record video of news events — endeavours that used to be the exclusive privilege of journalists and photographers. The Internet has also greatly increased the scope for reader feedback and debate on stories created by traditional journalists. Taken together, this has led to an interesting integration of newsgathering where professional and so-called “citizen” journalists collaborate and compete to dig up, investigate and publish news.

An extreme example of this are The Guardian’s (a British newspaper) recent attempts at making sense of UK parliament members’ expense claims. The expense records were released under a freedom of information request as more than 2 million scanned documents. To investigate these, the newspaper enlisted its readers (and the Internet at large) to wade through the documents, sift out the interesting claims, determine amounts and exactly what items were claimed.

The Internet has led to the development of a range of interesting platforms, similar to the one mentioned, where journalism-related activities are taking place even outside of the confines of traditional media organizations. The author, for example, has created a web site called Folkets Ting (“People’s Parliament”) which — in the tradition of sites like OpenCongress (US) and The Public Whip (UK) — makes legislation, votes and debates from the Danish parliament available for public scrutiny and debate. It used to be the responsibility of journalists to keep elected politicians to account, but tools like these enable interested citizens to join in. It is the author’s hope that such sites will increase the scope of debate beyond the, often narrow, attention span of traditional media and lead to a greater breadth of opinion being voiced (even if the result is also likely to be lot messier).

Unfortunately, digital technology and the Internet has also seriously undermined the business model of many traditional media companies. The decline of newspapers is a particular worry, partly because theirs has been such a rapid fall (several renowned American newspapers have already shut down and more are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy), partly because they seem to play an outsize role in digging up and investigating agenda-setting stories that other types of media then pick up.

The traditional newspaper business model was based on the fact that printing technology was expensive and building a subscriber-base required time and large investments. After these had been secured however, the newspaper could make a mint on classifieds and other ads and the revenue then subsidized newsroom activities. The Internet rudely killed off this model because there is now nothing stopping sites like Craigslist and eBay from just publishing classifieds (and auctions) to large audiences and not donate the proceeds to deserving journalists.

Publishers have variously called on readers, governments and Google to do something, “do something” usually meaning “give us more money” in some shape or form. News has become a commodity that readers in most cases are unwilling to pay for. A large decline in journalism may represent a failure of the market warranting government intervention, but it is a path fraught with danger. Demanding money be redestributed from a successful part of the value chain looks like zero-sum thinking and reveals an unwillingness to reconsider ones own business. It is the opinion of this aspiring journalist (and of Chris Anderson) that the old business model, or something like it, is unlikely to return.

What, then, of journalism? Some forms (business coverage most prominently) are prospering in spite of the Internet. Other forms may shrink somewhat or find themselves augmented or supplanted by enthusiastic citizen journalists using technology and global connectivity to their advantage. An area such as public oversight of politicians and institutions could expand greatly if good tools for improving transparency and reporting are developed.

The author believes that journalism in the digital is more exciting than ever. To be sure, there are challenges to overcome, but the advantages are many: Journalists can reach wider audiences, both faster and cheaper and they can involve, solicit feedback from and collaborate with more people than at any time before. The author can’t wait to develop the platforms and systems that will form the foundations of new kinds of digital journalism, and hopes, with the help of the Knight Foundation, to get a chance to do so at Medill.


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