Features, Journalism

What place is there for journalism in the digital age?

It is an exciting time to be a young reporter.

This is a mantra all student journalists will be used to hearing.

Where once you had to plead with an editor to get a story published and then deliver it by post to other editors in the hope of making a name for yourself; now you can create a blog, publish your content and in minutes have your article being read by hundreds, if not thousands, of people via social media.

On top of this, you can contribute to new sites like Huffington Post and Sabotage Times. You won’t be paid but you’ll gain greater recognition by attaching your name to these established news organisations.

The digital age has also transformed news gathering. Sources are easier to find than ever before and archives can be trawled through in minutes using increasingly sophisticated search engines. Further, the rise of data journalism has opened up a whole field of story-telling, banishing the traditional reporter’s fear of numeracy in the process.

But the relentless enthusiasm for the new age of reporting masks the deficiencies of the modern era.

For all the virtues of data-driven journalism, its increased use in newsrooms across the world is as much because of cost as it is down to an excitement about the new medium.

After all, a journalist sitting at a laptop mining data is not going to accrue the same expenses as a roving reporter in the field. Similarly, stories derived from datasets won’t have the same legal question marks hanging over them as more conventional articles. Generally, as long as you’ve got your sums right, you’ve got the story right.

Moreover, the rise of the internet has coincided with a rise in job insecurity. The transformation of the advertising market online has stripped local and regional outlets of their main source of revenue and unemployment has inevitably followed. It is estimated that in the United States the number of working journalists fell by 25 per cent between 2001 and 2010.

In some cases new technologies threaten to diminish the role of the journalist altogether. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times posted an article online that was generated entirely by an algorithm, while a recent article on Motherboard speculated that a partnership between Buzzfeed and social sharing site Whisper could lead to the creation of automated viral content; lists by robots, if you will.

As the role of journalists has diminished in the digital age, the role of advertisers has strengthened. It is telling that the bastion of the modern era Buzzfeed boasts that it is “redefining online advertising with its social, content-driven publishing technology” before discussing content on their ‘about’ section.

Similarly, as part of its plan to combat heavy losses, the Guardian has become increasingly cosy with advertisers; signing up first with EE and now Unilever to sponsor whole sections of its website.

Of course, the news business has always had to walk a moral tightrope. Work that can generally be thought of as a public good – news that informs debate in a democratic society – has been funded by private money, through advertising.

But as the communications scholar Lance Bennett has argued, the rise of advertising-driven content could serve to diminish the freedom of journalists to report as well as decreasing the number of subjects open to scrutiny. A glossy, ad-filled magazine section would previously supplement expensive investigations in the news pages, but such a distinction no longer exists.

To quote Bennett: “When the internet suddenly offered cheaper and more precise means of targeting ads to audiences, both advertisers and audiences began to drift away from conventional media formats, leaving the news itself as an odd piece out in the media picture. Who would pay to produce a story on climate change? Who would pay to consume it?”

The digital age offers incredible opportunities, both for the young journalist looking to make a name for him or herself and for the public consuming the news. But the relentless enthusiasm for the modern age of journalism exhibited by media professionals still in a job and also budding reporters masks more disturbing trends in our media. By acknowledging this we can have a real discussion about what we want the future our press to look like.