By Nancy K. Herther
Rich Gordon is a professor and director of digital innovation at Northwestern University’s Medill school, where he launched the graduate program in new media journalism and is the leader of the Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Specialization. He has spent most of his career exploring the areas where journalism and technology intersect, and has developed courses through which students have explored digital content and communities and developed new forms of storytelling that take advantage of the unique capabilities of various interactive media.
You will never convince Gordon that journalism is in decline. “I tell students that this is an incredibly exciting time to go into journalism. It’s seemingly less stable and predictable than a few decades ago, but as people like me (who entered the field in the 1980s) know, it turned out not to be stable and predictable even then. While the big companies that historically hired the largest numbers of journalists are shrinking, there are many new journalism and media organizations that are growing. And there are many more different kinds of jobs for journalists than there were in my day, when the journalists pretty much just created content.”
Sarah Cohen, Knight Chair in Data Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, came to the school after a 25-year journalism career, most recently leading a data journalism team at The New York Times that specialized in original reporting. She believes that “original reporting about matters that are important to residents will continue to exist in some form in the future.”
THE RISE OF NEW FORMS OF JOURNALISM
“For many of the previous 100 years the role of a journalist was to find information, shape it into an accurate story and transmit it as quickly as possible to a mass audience via a mass medium. Today, information is no longer scarce, breaking news is no longer the province of professional journalists, mass media are declining in influence and news is easily personalized,” Danica Mensing, Associate Dean for the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School of Journalism and Center for Advanced Media Studies, pointed out in a 2010 article in Journalism. “The challenge during a time of disruption is that what came before does not necessarily predict or lead to what comes next. The practices of today were created during a time when information was scarce and distribution was generally one way through channels that had monopolistic advantages that no longer exist. Students now need to develop a different set of skills to deal with information abundance, network distribution, intense competition and a communication process that is interactive, asynchronous and nearly free.”
Data journalism is not really very new at all,” Cohen points out. ‘It’s been around in one form or another for at least 30 years, and has evolved with the technology. Our school has had some form of required data journalism curriculum since 1994.’
In the book Tech Giants, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of Journalism, Jason Whittaker, Head of the School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln, reminds his readers that “I have been skeptical of the role of general artificial intelligence, but when faced with the huge amount of posts and content produced each day, gaining any sense of order is only possible via algorithms capable of processing information (however restricted) much faster than human minds. The myth of a singularity, that moment when computers become more intelligent than their creators, seems no more than fantasy at present, but potential developments in another area, that of self-driving automobiles, can demonstrate just how profoundly even mindless automation could change our world.” So, what of such intellectual areas as journalism?
In his 2019 article in Journalism, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the journal, Matt Carlson, Associate Professor, Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota notes that “every day journalists produce a wave of factual information concerning all sorts of matters from the politically important to the entertainingly trivial. Journalists risk their lives, they track down leads, they conduct their work under demands for increased output with dwindling resources and often precarious employment situations. Journalists break important stories that lead to policy changes, provide information that binds communities together, and brings us closer to events beyond our reach. They bring us information about the arts, popular culture, sports, and odd happenings. Why isn’t this enough?” Today, surely many journalists and ‘failing’ newspapers must be asking the same question.
the combination of journalism, computer science, and social research introduces a new paradigm to the news industry. challenges the foundation of journalistic principles and practices but the credibility and integrity of the news product must be maintained. According to IBM, 90% of the data that exists in the world today is only two years old. It is also estimated that there is now 2.5 quintillion bytes of data in the world, and is expected to rise to 35 zettabytes by 2020. Due in large part to social media, Twitter alone is estimated to generate 7 terabytes (TB) daily, and Facebook 10 TB. Businesses also generate huge stores of data each day. IBM’s authors believe that estimates have become oxymorons because the growth is too rampant.
DEALING WITH DATA, VISUALIZATION, AI & NEW FORMS OF SHARING
“Audiences have gotten more sophisticated and have higher expectations for data journalism projects,” Dana L. Chinn of The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism points out. “I expect to see far more partnerships among news organizations. Smaller news organizations with the local subject matter expertise and sources will team up more with news organizations with large data teams. The nonprofit news organizations such as ProPublica will continue to play a large role as the small and mid-sized news organizations continue to lose resources. As more journalists get basic numeracy and spreadsheet skills, I hope there will be fewer stories that rely solely on anecdotal reporting.”
Gordon sees changes, but positive changes happening in the field. “We’ve added classes in data analysis and visualization. At the Knight Lab (https://knightlab.), we have built a student community of people who come from a variety of majors and backgrounds who are interested in data, visualization and code.”
However, this is still an evolving area for academics and practicing journalists as well. “I know of no news organization, let alone an educational institution, that has a process for routinely archiving data and applications that use that data. I’m encouraged by the “show your work” movement that some of the best sites have endorsed (including ProPublica) and follow through on – making their raw data available and explaining their analysis in detail so it can be replicated by others. I’m encouraged by the development of new tools (such as Jupyter Notebooks), which have the potential to make it easier to share work with others.”
“I don’t know why data journalism requires new forms of transparency,” Cohen notes. “I don’t believe that data has to be curated, maintained or shared most of the time. In fact, it would be an unnecessary publication of individuals’ information if we actually did this every time we got a public records dataset.”
“Many government jurisdictions have established open data portals that have made many datasets easily available,” USC’s Chinn reports. “These datasets were previously only available through FOIA and public records requests. Journalists were one of the few groups of people who had the resources and the expertise to not only get the datasets but also to clean them and do the reporting needed to put the datasets into context.”
However,” Chinn reminds readers, “the datasets in the open data portals are essentially data dumps, and many essential datasets are missing, incomplete and outdated. Journalists are now needed more than ever not just for traditional data journalism but also to hold governments accountable for proactively releasing complete and relevant datasets to the greater public. And most news organizations make their vetted and synthesized datasets available for use by the public.”
“Some news organizations try to make some data public and reproducible in some form, but the repository issue is not a big discussion that I know of,” Chinn concludes. “People use what they have available. The Big Local News program is the only place I know of, in concert with Columbia’s Workbench project, that is specifically trying to do this. In general, I have not found either libraries or universities particularly interested in becoming an archive site. (In fact, we had Rudy Guiliani’s entire mayoral papers electronically at the NYT, and we could find no institution that would even consider accepting them as a donation.)” As information professionals, we can only hope that libraries and repositories change their attitudes on this!
What does the future hold? “More data, more visualization – and more transparency,” Gordon believes. “But also more data analysis and visualizations generated through AI, which will raise new issues in terms of accuracy and verification.”
Chinn sees a bright future as well. “Audiences have gotten more sophisticated and have higher expectations for data journalism projects. I expect to see far more partnerships among news organizations. Smaller news organizations with the local subject matter expertise and sources will team up more with news organizations with large data teams. The nonprofit news organizations such as ProPublica will continue to play a large role as the small and mid-sized news organizations continue to lose resources. As more journalists get basic numeracy and spreadsheet skills, I hope there will be fewer stories that rely solely on anecdotal reporting.”
NEW ROLES & POSSIBILITIES
“The Guardian, founded as the Manchester Guardian in 1821, has been held by a philanthropic trust since 1936, which somewhat insulates it from market forces, just as Jeff Bezos’s ownership now does something similar for the Post,” Harvard’s Jill Lepore writes in New Yorker. “By investing in digital-readership research from the time [Alan] Rusbridger took charge, in 1995, the Guardian became, for a while, the online market leader in the U.K. By 2006, two-thirds of its digital readers were outside the U.K. In 2007, the Guardian undertook what Rusbridger calls ‘the Great Integration,’ pulling its Web and print parts together into a single news organization, with the same editorial management. It also developed a theory about the relationship between print and digital, deciding, in 2011, to be a ‘digital-first organization’ and to ‘make print a slower, more reflective read which would not aspire to cover the entire waterfront in news’.”
Still, Lepore reports, the paper continues to have issues. “As of 2018, it was in the black, partly by relying on philanthropy, especially in the U.S. ‘Reader revenue,’ in the form of donations marked not as subscriptions but as voluntary ‘memberships,’ is expected to overtake advertising revenue before long. Raising money from people who care about journalism has allowed the Guardian to keep the Web site free.” These innovative efforts are to be applauded; however, the problem is more serious than any one paper can address.
EXPLORING A NONPROFIT OPTION
A recent Northeastern University and Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy study, Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media addresses the “intense concern that a crisis in civic culture, tied to a loss of news capacity, is unfolding, one requiring a mass mobilization of organizational resources and professional expertise that remain in short supply. It has fallen to a select few foundations and their grantees to make the public case that a hollowed-out newspaper industry requires a better resourced, and more robust news nonprofit sector.”
The increasing news desert leaving too many without “a trusted local source of news that could explain, contextualize, and vet conflicting claims and interpretations. Absent quality local sources of news to rely on, it became that much easier for news consumers to turn to their ideologically preferred outlet, whether a cable news network, a talk radio show, an online site, or a fake news story circulated by way of their social media feeds.”
The major “reason for optimism” seen in this study is the potential for “partnering with experienced foundations” noting that “many nonprofit media organizations”that are “decades-old” from public broadcasting to magazines such as Consumer Reports and Harpers. By “the mid-2000s, as newspapers faced a deepening financial crisis, that dozens of digital news nonprofits emerged. In 2000, at the start of the Internet era, total print advertising revenue for commercial newspapers was $67 billion. Fourteen years later, inflation adjusted print and digital advertising revenue at newspapers had plummeted to $20 billion, meaning newspapers were generating less from advertising in 2014 than they did in 1950, adjusting for inflation.”
Even university-based publications – Columbia Journalism Review and UC Berkeley’s Daily Californian – have provided key information to both their campuses and local communities. U.S. foundation funding for university-based journalism initiatives, 2010-2015, totaled nearly $36 million. The report doesn’t provide a road-map, finding that “although there are some success stories, neither the digital news nonprofit sector, nor any other form of commercial media have yet been able to meaningfully fill the gaps in coverage created by the collapse of the newspaper industry.” Today, individual foundations choose to support individual efforts, creating bias; leading one to assume that some type of umbrella group that could work to equalize opportunities across the board. Important food for thought, but no immediate solution to the dilemma we face.
THE ESSENTIAL ROLE OF PRESS FREEDOM
Freedom of the press is deeply ingrained in our Constitution, playing a vital role in maintaining an informing citizenry and acting as the pillar in democracy by monitoring the actions of government at all levels. Today the very support and popularity of the press – 43% of Americans – say the media supports democracy “very poorly” or “poorly,” a Knight Foundation/Gallup report noted. Except, the report found that both Democrats (71%) and Republications (76%) were even more distrustful of internet-based sources of information from blogs and other sites.
The huge social media and web search companies of the internet era have exacerbated the problems of especially the print presses. In January, Facebook announced that it will invest more than $300 million over the next three years to help support local news organizations globally, promising to help smaller news organizations “grow and thrive.” No further details are given, however, it is hoped it will be channeled through some type of independent third party source.
Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, purchased the venerable Washington Post in 2013. The New York Times reporting earlier this year that “the paper has flourished under Mr. Bezos’ ownership. Since he bought the newspaper in 2013 for $250 million, The Post has added over 200 people to its newsroom, which now numbers 900 journalists, and won plaudits and awards for its coverage of, among other subjects, the Trump administration. The paper has more than 1.5 million digital subscribers, and the business has been profitable for the past three years.”
However, any direct control by these internet giants wouldn’t serve the cause or our nation well. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black stated in Mills v. Alabama: “The Constitution specifically selected the press, which includes not only newspapers, books, and magazines, but also humble leaflets and circulars, to play an important role in the discussion of public affairs. Thus the press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve.” Surely the same holds for exposing similar actions by the private sector.
A FEW REMAINING ISSUES
The move beyond paper has created challenges all of their own. How do we handle versioning of stories – something that will be more critical as articles and stories are added too, changed, corrected or edited over time. How can we capture the various versions over time in order to allow for future research? Archiving of our local and national papers is something that hasn’t been addressed at all. How can we maintain the historical and cultural records of our country, getting them out of moldy basements and file cabinets?
How can journalists and all types of collaborators/creators be adequately credited and compensated for their contributions? How can we structure news payment systems based on use/access rather than by ‘container’ (paper copy pricing) or subscription? Last year I published an article on the potential for blockchain technology to allow for the ‘building blocks’ of news coverage to be linked, shared and compensated fairly. Technology itself may help find answers to these issues.
As a pillar of democracy, the free press has recently been ignored or vilified by the executive branch of government, starved by greedy hedge funds and other corporate moves and, perhaps worse, has lost its central position in the minds of our populace. “In the current societal context characterized by strong concerns about fake news and disinformation and decreasing trust in news organizations, we need more academic inquiry of how the increasing use of online tools and social media information by journalists impacts on the credibility of news articles, news organizations and journalism as an institution,” Sarah Van Leuven and colleagues report in a recent article in Digital Journalism.
“The use of reliable sources is one of the most important aspects of the journalistic news production process,” the article continues. “Since the 1950s, researchers have gradually unraveled the different mechanisms determining the outcome of this process including the development of sourcing routines by individual journalists and newsrooms as well as the importance of source activities, such as press releases and press conferences.”
Stanford’s James T. Hamilton in his latest book, Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism (Harvard U Press, 2016), provides clear evidence of the incredible value of investigative journalism to society. In a Columbia Journalism Review commentary, they praise this book as “probably the most detailed, comprehensive study ever published of how US investigative reporting has evolved since Watergate.” This followup to his equally essential 2004 All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information Into News, provides a clear, comprehensive economic defense of our fourth estate. “There is no market mechanism that transforms impacts such as the value of lives saved by accountability journalism into equivalent subscription or advertising revenue. Yet assessing the impact of journalism is an important task in these days of cash-strapped newsrooms. While accountability reporting can cost media outlets thousands of dollars, it generates millions in net benefits to society by changing public policy.”
It is hard to believe that we will be able to address most of these issues in today’s very politicized environment; however, there is always hope for the future. “Reporting the news in an open society is an enterprise laced with conflict” the editors of the New York Times wrote in a recent editorial. “As the founders believed from their own experience, a well-informed public is best equipped to root out corruption and, over the long haul, promote liberty and justice….Attacks on the press are particularly threatening to journalists in nations with a less secure rule of law and to smaller publications in the United States, already buffeted by the industry’s economic crisis. And yet the journalists at those papers continue to do the hard work of asking questions and telling the stories that you otherwise wouldn’t hear.”
The NYT editors said it better than I can: “If you haven’t already, please subscribe to your local papers. Praise them when you think they’ve done a good job and criticize them when you think they could do better. We’re all in this together.”
Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. [email protected]