AmericanOpinion

At a swipe of the finger

The death of the old media business model has led to the birth of several paradigms for journalism: all carry risks and rewards

By Melanie Jayne

Old-style American journalism is gasping for its final breath. Rebellions are being captured through the lens of a smartphone camera. Current affairs are condensed into bite-sized packages of 140 characters or less. Disasters unfold on our computer screens through real-time updates. The United States is a pivotal player in ushering in the era of electronic journalism, where news will be created and disseminated strictly through digital technologies. However, when considering the definition of journalism, a fundamental distinction must be made between the manner in which news is produced and how it is circulated.

But while an enormous shift in the production of news is inevitable, can the same be said for the actual practice of journalism? Traditionally, the ethics of reporting have been imbued with assumptions of fairness, accuracy, and objectivity. Will the move away from broadsheet news to digital distribution represent the death of objectivity? There are several potential models for the future of journalism in America, in which the media’s creators and its audience play integral roles.

Niche market news

The technological age has resulted in a saturation of information. A surplus of news outlets appease the agendas and perspectives of every organisation and individual imaginable. Conservative? You have Fox News. Liberal? MSNBC is for you. Gay and lesbian? There’s The Advocate. African American? Ebony might be a publication of choice. What we can expect in the upcoming decades is the ongoing personalisation of news by catering to specific groups. News that caters to your interests. News that supports your views. No longer will audiences be told what news is. That decision will be up to readers and viewers.

Journalism will not have to be predominantly white, middle-class and heterosexual (unless you want it to be). Digital platforms have offered the opportunity for oppressed voices, both small and large in number, a financially feasible avenue for broadcasting their stories. The steady rise in niche market publications have, and will continue to play, an important role in filling the palpable gaps that exist in contemporary mainstream news. The perception that newsworthy stories should primarily concern the activities of political and economic elites is well past its expiry date.

The personalisation of journalism, however, could have a two-pronged effect. Firstly, the more positive aspect would be the democratisation of the media by granting minority groups the chance to distribute and popularise their own content. Although direct-to-you news could shrink our perspectives on the world, a single outlet monopolising an individual’s consumption of news has a dangerously limiting effect insofar as it funnels every world event through a slanted viewpoint.

While the transition from broadsheet news to digital distribution does not inherently signal the death of objectivity, it could be an inevitable outcome. The popularity of Fox News, an infamously partisan news station despite its tagline of “fair and balanced”, stems from the fact that audiences prefer to have their existing worldviews reaffirmed by media institutions, not challenged. Personalised media will continue to be one of the most successful models of news because so long as it appeals to a reasonable number of people, it is guaranteed success, no matter how niche the market.

Digital reincarnation

Dialogue about the future of journalism is unnecessarily bleak. The collapse of old media models in no way implies the death of reporting. Journalism will continue to flourish as it always has, but in formats different to what consumers are accustomed to. The physical newspaper has been an essential staple of the industry since its inception, and is likely to survive for several more years, but journalism’s total transition to the digital sphere is unavoidable. If you’re reading this from a tablet or computer screen, the future of journalism is staring right at you.

The most probable scenario for journalism in the US is one where traditional mediums die, but old messages thrive. Reporters will aspire to retain the old values of impartiality and independence that have shaped the industry since its inception, but yellow journalism and partisan news always has, and always will, play a role in the media. What is more difficult to predict is how much, if at all, the style and detail of news reporting will evolve in the change to online. The internet’s appeal lies in brevity: 30-second packages and one-sentence story synopses, wherein there is a great risk of density being sacrificed in favour of brevity.

With a shift in the medium in which journalism is published comes a foreseeable redefinition of what it means to be a journalist. The broadsheet newspaper strictly controlled professional reporters, but the internet is a playground for the amateur journalist. Already, the line between the working and citizen journalist is becoming blurred, with the average civilian being granted considerable access to similar tools used by trained reporters. The citizen journalist who reports “for the people” is by no means a new phenomenon in the US, but it now has the potential to be legitimised by advances made in technology.

What the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement proved more than anything is the utmost importance of the citizen to capture moments that news organisations miss. When a protestor’s video of Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying Kaylee Dedrick was posted online, it sparked a viral sensation. The footage did not become news, it was the news. The incident, and many more like it, epitomise what we can expect for online news. A tweet could be the tipping point of a revolution. A blog post could inspire radical political and cultural change. A YouTube video could enlighten millions around the world.

Global news village

In a technological utopia, the digital revolution would have a predominantly positive impact on the landscape of journalism. What could be created, to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s term, is a global news village, where digital interconnectivity can overcome the barriers of time and space. Through the power of the internet and satellite and cable television news, the technological globalisation of news would propel foreign cultures together in closer virtual and cultural proximity. So much for the tyranny of distance, as historian Geoffrey Blainey once described Australia’s cultural predicament.

The development of digital technologies, however, assumes equilibrium between the US and other nations. A formidable obstacle that could prevent this scenario from occurring is the Americanisation of news. The US controls a majority of the world’s most influential media corporations, including Viacom, CBS Corporation, Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner, and Comcast, lessening the opportunity to hybridise the news with international perspectives. The digital wave has not impacted upon the developing world the way it has the US, and without the economic, technological, or political means to disseminate news unique to their culture, the news of the world will continue to be governed by American perspectives.

For the global news village to become a reality, it would require a rapid reinvention of what is considered newsworthy. Digital platforms can attempt to bring the US closer to other nations, but ultimately can only achieve so much. Technology is only a means to an end and it remains difficult to predict the extent to which it will be able to alter the ideological underpinnings of the journalism industry. Currently, proximity is one of the most important values that decide what events and issues receive mass press coverage, particularly in the US. The term is not exclusively defined geographically, but also through social and cultural bonds to other nations. Before technology can bring nations closer together, certain mental blockades must be overcome.

The digital face of journalism remains the only thing certain about its future. The ideological ramifications for the escalating technological wave prove slightly more difficult to predict. The remarkable truth about electronic media is its potential to act as both a liberating and oppressive force for the citizens of the US and worldwide consumers of its news. Audiences will play a vital role in shaping the impact of the digital age of journalism.

News publications thrive as a result of our readership, and so long as there is an audience for partisan news, personalised news, global news, and Americanised news, those categories of journalism will be published in abundance. Despite the media hierarchy set in place by the major US media corporations, we nonetheless retain the ability to choose whether to narrow or expand our perception of the world given the vast plurality of news sources now available. The future of journalism could very well rest at a swipe of the finger. 


Melanie Jayne was the winner of the 2013 James Fallows Essay Prize.