Digital Journalism & the Slogans of Doom (1)

[March 30, 2010]

As anyone knows who has followed the debate about American healthcare reform, we live in an era dominated by ideology. Whether grounded in fact or paranoia, a single phrase uttered in commercial media space quickly becomes a battle cry of uncommon ferocity—sufficient to motivate oceans of people to protest a bill they haven’t yet read.

Although conducted at a much lower emotional pitch, the current spate of lamentations about the death of journalism bear the same stamp of hypnotic allegiance to one-dimensional slogans.

As always, it’s a question of perspective. Surely, it would be more appropriate to say journalism is in the midst of a major transition. Not that there’s anything abstract or intangible about newspapers shutting down and people losing their jobs. That, regrettably, is quite real. Less real is the supposition that this alone signals the demise of an entire discipline.

Shift of inclination or simple decline?
Now, as I understand it, part of the reason some people are ready to measure journalism for a casket is the number of eager witnesses who regularly post cell-phone images to social space. There are, apparently, news editors who feel they’re being “scooped” into irrelevance by a generation they believe has stopped reading and stopped watching TV. Whether TV viewership is actually declining, however, is open to debate. But statistics aside, since when has journalism been defined as simply “reporting stuff?”

If mainstream news consumption is off, I doubt it has much to do with “millennial indifference” or the rise of social space as a permanent fixture. No, if people are tuning out, it’s more likely due to a decline in standards for objective evidence gathering and the gradual demotion of broadcast news to the status of an entertainment medium. Simply put, these two trends, for which the medium must take full responsibility, have eroded our trust.

A re-imagined medium…
As evidenced by the Web sites of many major news outlets, however, if the audience for traditional journalism is shrinking, there’s still one more reason: With only a few exceptions, these sites are a disaster. It’s as if, in their contempt for that new-fangled-Internet-what’s-it, competing news bureaus had all hired the same discount design vendor to get them up and running until the fad wore off.

Trouble is, it’s not 1999 anymore. If the major news outlets believe people have turned away from the tube and toward digital space, the only reasonable course is to set a new standard. In other words, to provide analysis and global vision no well-intentioned witness of the recent Moscow subway bombings could ever encapsulate by uploading camera phone clicks to social space—and do so in a new format re-imagined for digital space.

…or more poll-dancing?
But in a manner analogous to the behavior of our elected officials, professional journalism seems unwilling to take a stand against the societal forces aligned, we’re told, to seal its doom. With very few exceptions, instead of defining a new standard for the digital dissemination of news, many statistic- and poll-addicted news media executives, like many of their political counterparts, have become complicit in the Facebookization of their field.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to sort out the steps news services might take to regain credibility and reposition themselves—as more than just a click on the continuum between gossip and scandal.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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