Does the "no such thing as a free lunch" rule apply to the news? If so, Americans should expect to go on something of a journalism diet in the near future.
These days there are a lot of predictions floating around regarding what's ahead for the news industry. As journalism schools everywhere scramble to accommodate the various new forms of media that increasingly dispense information to the masses, these institutions are simultaneously experiencing a widespread erosion of the fundamentals they've taught for decades.
According to a recent report by The New York Times — a report that, ironically, hints at a possible future inability of organizations like itself to conduct such reports — research shows that newspaper circulation figures in the U.S. are presently diminishing at a faster rate than had been expected even by the industry's most pessimistic. However, also included in the report are statistics indicating that news readership is not actually down. In fact, readership is up, but is occurring via different forums than the traditional newspaper subscription.
So where are people getting their news from?
The Internet — as it has done with a number of industries — is revolutionizing journalism. Between the news industries being forced to publish online and the explosion of blogs as well as other amateur sources of information (a category that arguably includes even Internet behemoths such as Google, whose news service seemingly attempts to be as all-encompassing as everything else it does without ever actually doing its own legwork), one can easily satisfy a need to stay current.
It would seem obvious that, if there are more people reading the news, regardless of the media in which they're reading it, this implies a more informed populace/electorate, which cannot possibly be considered a bad thing.
But there is no clear consensus as to whether the benefits of journalism's recent, drastic changes — namely a wider proliferation of information, however shallow, as well as a larger incorporation of the general public in shaping the news — outweigh said changes' drawbacks. These include decreasing the negative effect financial backing has on news organizations' investigative abilities, declining professionalism in news coverage and a noticeably expanded presence of politics in reporting, to name a few.
Presently, the transformation taking place in journalism seems harmless, because recently developed "news" forums — whose objectives are usually comprised of presenting information found in other sources, namely traditional news sources, with an added, partisan twist — have not yet destroyed the pillars of real journalism. However, if people come to rely entirely on the millions of blogs that simply copy, paste and politicize articles from established sources like The New York Times, what will happen when these established sources are no longer able to sustain themselves?
In some ways, the new inclusiveness of the news industry can be considered nothing more than a positive advancement toward the goal of having an engaged populace, but the detriment such a movement could bring to the quality of information dispensed is a true and imminent danger.
Regardless of how many outlets are readily syndicating the news, how can such a journalistic system continue to apply the scrutiny critical to establishing a truly informed public when the well of serious, in-depth reporting — a well drawn on by the blogging community — is drying up?
Certainly, the fact that journalism as a hobby has expanded in recent years is a reason for optimism. Civic discourse has experienced something of a revival because of the ease with which information can be exchanged through technology. At the same time, however, these recent changes can only be considered positive if a light continues to shine into the dark and shady crevices that are the underhandedness of governmental, corporate and individual actions.
This light will be switched off soon if nobody is able to pay the electric bill.
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.