The Replicating Nature of ‘News’ in Cyberspace
First, let’s face a couple of hard facts. There are fewer people reporting genuine, long form hard news stories today than anytime in the past 25 years. Yet, though less hard news is now being reported, the replication of what is written is now increasing more than ever before.
The strange effect of constantly repeating what we’ve already heard over, and over, and over—under different headlines from different publications—seemingly goes on forever.
A good example is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright-Barack Obama story. We’ve been hearing about it for weeks, but what’s new? Very little, I’m afraid. Robotic headline grabbers pick up the story from endless sources and slice and dice it multiple ways. It’s the same original story, just multiplied, with different takes and meanings from different Web sites.
Add to that the numerous columnists and bloggers, like myself. We pick up stories and magnify them even further by adding our own take, which gives the illusion of more reporting. What we get, however, is just more opinion.
Now, what gets very strange is that the mainstream media then picks up on the blogs and columnists and report what they say. In fact, the 2008 PRWeek/PR Newswire Media survey of 1,231 journalists found that nearly 73 percent sometimes or always use blogs in their research.
It’s easy to see why we read the same thing so many times on the Web!
What we get are interminable “newsletters” that cherrypick what has been written by others. Every publication today seems to push out multiple free newsletters on every subject they cover. They use these to sell advertising so they too can be on the Web. Most of it is, of course, little more than spam.
Very little of this aggregated “stuff” is new. Editors call it “fodder.” Most is copied or rewritten, often without attribution to direct competitors who actually wrote the original story. The rest comes from press releases or other filler from public relations outlets.
What was supposed to have been a renaissance in alternative information and genuine news, has actually resulted in a mush of “me too” stolen junk and advertising that’s hard to trace to its original and true source.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
The problem, of course, is that everybody’s brother is now a “source” of journalism. Not only has the term “journalism” been diminished, it has been defrauded.
Journalism has now been made to represent the public relations agenda of just about any industry or trade group.
Of course, one separator of real and fake journalists is the backing organizations who pay them a fair price for original reporting. Make no mistake about it; there are dramatically fewer real, paying jobs today in journalism. When there are, many pay less than 30 years ago! Yep, it’s true because I was there.
Life is getting tougher because of digital technology and it will continue to do so for all media organizations. Newspapers, our best sources of real news, are failing fast economically. Only a handful of large city dailies—the best and the brightest among what’s left—will probably survive. And even that won’t be easy.
It will be the same with a few large market O&O network-owned television stations. They will stay, at least for a while, serving as big city marketing vehicles for their networks. Smaller local TV stations will begin to disappear after the DTV transition next year—lost and undistinguished in a morass of hundreds of similar channels.
My prediction is things will get a lot worse before they get better. There will be more of the same for the rest of this decade. Then, slowly, I believe things will start to shake out.
A new beast—the hybrid newspaper-TV station-radio station—will begin to emerge on the Web. The successful ones will feature the best original multimedia reporting and will aggressively fight others who try to steal their original work. These outlets will offer video reports, full length text reports, and blog backgrounders with the reporters. And they will pay top dollar for the best reporters.
In fact, this model has already begun today with some excellent Web-based newspapers. The problem is their revenue is still being pulled down by “dead tree” paper publishing, something they will rid themselves of in the coming years. All this just takes time. It’s part of the larger transition from analog to digital technology.
In the meantime, finding and interpreting good sources of information on the Internet will not be easy. Big brand name news organizations—in many cases—can no longer be trusted. Aggregators are just that. Many good news organizations are branded biased by political snipers when they are not.
It’s a free-for-all time in the digital frontier. We all knew it was coming. Now it’s here. It’s time to be very careful about what you read, see and believe.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.