Untangling the Web: The new gatekeepers

Online news allows individuals to have larger impact on flow of news, the industry is finding ways to catch up.

By ELANA KIRSH
December 12, 2011 18:01
online news

online news_311. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

What do flash mobs, Wikipedia and protests at Tahrir Square have in common?

More than just the fact that they are organized via the Internet. These three things, along with hundreds of thousands of other examples, move the power from “the man” at the top, to the man on the street. Facebook events bring large crowds of people together with relative ease and speed, and Wikipedia has given the concept of common knowledge a virtual home, allowing individuals to pool their intelligence and publish it for public use. The middle man has been all but excluded, and it’s working in the little person’s favor.

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In online news, too, the Internet is opening up the impact that the individual can have. News media have traditionally been the information gatekeepers, selecting what makes it out of the newsroom and out to the general public. But in the current online climate, the flow of information isn’t so straight forward. Every company, and indeed every individual, can now choose to play the gatekeeper role, easily disseminating information via social media and other online tools. This power shift is having definite effects, both direct and indirect, on the way the industry functions.

Social media expert Shel Israel told a recent Tel Aviv conference that the advent of such sites has changed “one directional messages into conversations.” While he was specifically talking about the PR world, it seems that this is true for all industries which have been affected by the Internet age in general, and social media in particular. It should be noted here that social media doesn’t just mean Facebook and Twitter. Blogs and talkback forums, as well as the more mainstream social media sites, have all had an effect on this change of direction, making the user an important part of the process rather than merely standing at the receiving end of the production line.

The power shift is having two main effects on the journalism industry. First, the people now have more power to influence content, a reality to which editors and journalists are forced to respond. Second, the industry has activated certain defense mechanisms in an attempt to regain some of the control lost. While the full impact is yet to be seen, it seems that this change in the flow of information is here to stay.

To understand this shift, we go back again to the days of yore, when the primary way an individual could communicate with the newspaper was by sending a Letter to the Editor. Perhaps if he was really moved he could tell his friends about a headline which had riled him up, or submit an op-ed to that same paper, or perhaps even to a different paper. In short, his options were limited and time-consuming, and certainly produced none of the instant gratification which humans love, and to which we have become so accustomed.

Nowadays, it’s obviously not so. Readers can share stories they think are important on social media, write positive, negative (or abusive) talkbacks on specific articles, e-mail individual reporters or editors, and of course write their own blog posts in response.

Perhaps more important than these options, however, is the instant feedback that news sites can get about which stories are popular, and how often and where they are being shared. The data to which the online news industry has access had no parallel in years gone by. Way back when, newspaper editors had to rely almost entirely on their editorial judgment to decide which story should be the leadall, which should go above the fold, and which would be relegated to later pages. Now, the system is far more democratic, and online news editors can use analytical data in combination with their own judgment to decide which stories to run and where to place them.

In other words, you are influencing your news site of choice simply by clicking on certain stories – you don’t even need to write a word.

But is this a positive development? Not necessarily. Often the industry, motivated by fear of the inevitable outcry that comes when people hear things they don’t want to hear, will write what the people want to read. And is this really what journalism should be? Right-wing papers writing only from a right-wing perspective, liberal writers criticizing only conservative politicians, Israelis getting news from Israel alone? If this new-found “people power” becomes the main factor in news judgment, then the industry will fast become far less relevant, and will probably find itself on the way out before long. There needs to be a balance, and just as news media need to put some faith in the people, to take their values and preferences into consideration, the people in turn need to put a certain amount of trust into the industry to provide not only what they want to hear, but also what they need to hear.

Another way in which the Internet has influenced the power balance is the forced de-monopolization of the industry. Today, anyone can set up a site, which means that in theory anyone can start his or her own news website; it’s just a matter of money and resources. As a result, the range of options out there has increased, and this also obligates journalists to step up to the plate and make sure the product they’re offering meets industry standards.

This diversification can, however, also be problematic, in that nowadays anyone can call himself a journalist. But of course saying it’s so doesn’t necessarily make it so. A blog can call itself a news site, but is it being held to the necessary ethical standards? Has information been properly edited and fact-checked? The man on the street needs to be far more critical about where he’s getting his news from, because information out there often isn’t being put through the proper checks and balances.

In response to these changes, the news sites have begun to integrate features which allow for a dialogue, rather than just a fast, free way to get their stories out there. Think social media buttons, polls and feedback sections, Facebook pages and talkback forums. Sites are looking for ways to stabilize the interaction between media and the individual, and to regain some of the power that has been lost.

Some of these initiatives are more obvious than others. In recent years, news organizations have been experimenting with ways to get consumers to start paying for their news, because newspaper sales are constantly dropping, and let’s face it, this is a business like any other. So while news organizations don’t necessarily regain editorial control by requesting payment, they do regain some element of access to “their” information.

On top of that, consumers tend to value products that they pay for more than products that they receive for free, which means that in theory people will put more trust in a news source to which they’re paying a subscription, than in one which they can access for free. The long-term effect of these models, however, is yet to be seen, as they’re only just being tested, and the majority of hard news online is still free.

Blog sections are another example of attempts to regain power. This is a news site’s way of saying, “Yes, everyone is entitled to his opinion, and yes, everyone can be a writer if he wants. And we believe that so much that we’ll give you a platform from which to express your views, right here on our site.” Hosting these sections is basically a win-win for the news organization and the individual – the site gets more traffic and diversifies the content it offers to readers, and bloggers can enjoy the exposure from their chosen site while still being able to express their own views.

So, where to from here? Is this just an intermediate phase or will things plateau for a while?

In his Tel Aviv talk, Israel opined that “the period where social media upsets or scares people is about to end.” That is to say, people are starting to get used to the current reality, and so businesses would do well to work with it. While of course more change is inevitable, it seems that this conversational, cyclical model of information exchange is here to stay.

What we’re seeing here is positive progress. The idea of the media sitting on high, looking down on the little people and deciding what they should think is not a comfortable one, no matter who you are. A system whereby the flow of information and opinions is multi-directional and multi-faceted leads to more accountability, and less potential for abuse of power. What we need to make sure, however, is that the value of “the most noble profession” is not lost; that we support and promote the experienced, knowledgeable, creative and ethical reporters without whom important stories might never get out there, and certainly not with the appropriate context to make them digestible for the general public.

That is to say, it’s all very well to tweet breaking news and write e-mails to the editor-in-chief and to run your own blog, but do you really know what you’re talking about? Possibly not. The news industry needs to take the new reality created by the Internet into account, and make sure to listen to the people, but the people shouldn’t forget that there’s a reason they have relied on reputable news sources for their information for so many decades.


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