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Journalism and the Internet: So Many, Many, Many Words

· September 28, 2015

Books, essays and endless longform think-pieces have been written about journalism and the internet, but that’s no reason not to throw one more in. You can’t say nobody saw it coming: “Some feel that the Internet is overloading the ability of people to absorb and deal with information,” wrote Vint Cerf in 2006, when BuzzFeed was a twinkle in Jonah Peretti’s eye. “We will find ways to find our ways through the blogs, just as we have in the other media.”

Blogs were just the start of it. Now, we live in a 24/7 world of reaction GIFs, vlogging and listicles. It’s a huge upheaval: but so were the printing press, newspapers, radio and television, and without them, we wouldn’t have journalism as we know it. Barriers to entry have virtually disappeared: anyone with a device and an internet connection can share their information, views — or a #belfie — with the world. Which is certainly an interesting place to be.

It’s impossible to overstate how much things have changed in the last ten years, and the internet was already around when I started (although the first newsroom I ever worked in also had a functioning Telex machine, “just in case”). One of the most interesting bits of my job was hopping on the train and going to cover Belgian companies’ press conferences. Fine, they could release their results via email, but if the CEO wanted to take questions the most high-tech system available was a static-filled conference call.

Now, you can webcast his or her speech while showing the Powerpoint in the screen corner, take questions via chat, and the journalist’s role has changed from being “here’s some numbers” to “here’s what these numbers mean”. While I miss trundling through Flanders to get the scoop on Q3 widget sales, the job is more interesting now, but harder. It’s not a good or a bad thing, just different.

Likewise, the internet has no limit on space, hence the rise of incredibly long long-form stories. I like colour, I really do, but you need one “as I watched the sun set over the village, xyz stared in to the distance and told me her story,” not seventeen. #justsaying

It’s also made it easier to do seven things at once. In the olden days, you’d get your Nokia 3310 and your notepad and head off, maybe taking a laptop and an RJ45 cable if you knew there’d be internet. Now, you take a smartphone and you can file a story, tape the audio for a podcast, and film and edit a video. Can you do all these seven things as well as you did one? It’s a valid question. You can also talk to your editor, and even, if you’re so inclined, tweet some teasers.

That brings us on to social media. What’s interesting now is that the articles we click on tend not only to come from “navigating” to a “homepage” and “clicking” on a “hyperlink” but also swiping things that pop up in Facebook and Twitter feeds — meaning those platforms, and our friends, have a role in what writing we see. You can choose to see all the world’s media in its dizzying diversity, or just read articles that agree with your worldview, which brings us on to Twitter, which can be everything from an erudite literary salon to a bar-room brawl in terms of atmosphere.

The 140-character social media service is a double-edged sword for journalists: Report on something based on it, and you’re a lazy hack who gets all their news off the internet. Ignore it, and you’re sitting in your ivory (paper) tower not listening to real people. But this is the thing about all social media — as Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, points out.

“On the one hand, journalists can reach far greater audiences immediately than was the case in the past,” she writes. “On the other hand, journalists and publishers have very little control now over how information reaches the world and there is limited transparency.” She also points out that the free press is “now controlled by companies whose primary interests are not necessarily rooted in strengthening public discourse and democracy.” The extent to which they have been so historically is arguable. *wink emoji*

Moreover, on social media, anyone can say what they want. Think back to 2011 and superinjunctions, when Twitter was full of people naming celebrities who didn’t want to be named. Now, the number of libel cases based on social media is up 300%, according to reports, as social media users realize that they too are legally responsible for what they write.  Media law doesn’t necessarily need to be updated for the internet, just its enforcement adjusted to reflect the modern world. Still, most journalists get some form of libel training, but your average social media user doesn’t.

Good, quality journalism does cost money, and many media companies still have to figure out how to make money out of all the amazing writing there is around right now. There are various approaches, from paywalls to ad sales to buying a membership of your favourite outlet, and/or running around panicking. But just as libel laws are catching up with new platforms, news outlets and publishers are gradually coming up with effective, fair ways for people to pay. More worrying is the squeeze at the other end, of not paying the people who do it.

I’m personally more concerned about unpaid interns gradually, unintentionally, turning it into a closed shop for the independently wealthy than that the internet per se. It’s not unlike the argument for paying politicians: if you don’t, you won’t get the best, or people who care, just those who can afford it. *Serious face* Speaking truth to power is too important to be done as a hobby.

Let’s also mention the ease of accessing information elsewhere — which is essential. As a student, “I thought working in other countries as a journalist would be impossible, because honestly, Estonian newspapers would never have enough money to support so many foreign correspondents in different countries,” says my Baltic colleague Liis Kängsepp. “Guess what, the Internet has changed this…listen to the Monocle 24 or BBC World Service to understand how many strange and wonderful accents are being broadcast today.”

Earlier this year, everyone had a good panic about the hand-wringing introduction to this report about millennials not wanting to pay for news. But scroll down, and it says 40% of millennials pay for at least one digital subscription (and if you count sponging off someone else, 53% do). That’s not a disaster, it’s just different from how it was before. That’s why you need to read all the way to the end — and for that to happen, someone has to write all the way to the end as well.

Ultimately, the internet means there are more media outlets serving more audiences with more information than ever before. Journalists can use data, maps, images and sources from around the world to dive deeper, and tell stories better. You can know what readers think in real time, something unimaginable 20 years ago. At the same time there are challenges: how to make sure people get paid, are accountable, and making legal frameworks keep up with the technology. But over 150 years after Mr. Reuter flew his first pigeon, it’s a fascinating time to be doing this job.

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