Wednesday, November 03, 2004

A fragmented world

Participatory journalism seems to be back in fashion after many years of an exile imposed by powerful media corporations. It's a tremendous comeback, given its potential impact on the meaning of democracy. For some 2500 years now, political scientists have found it hard to converge on a crisp definition of democracy, even though they agree on several universally acceptable connotations of the term. Perhaps the most central of these connotations is citizen-participation in politics. This is the context that participatory journalism frames. Participatory journalism is a campaign tool of the autonomous individual, helping the fragmented, de-unionized consumer navigate the postmodern global media. Coming to technology, the United States Supreme Court, no less, has pronounced the Internet as an electronic soapbox. A study on the state of American journalism finds a crisis in credibility and a fragmentation that offers challenges, but the report's lead author sees a potentially brighter forecast for the news organizations than even a decade ago.

Fragmentation has fractured audiences among onetime news media leaders, with the circulation of daily newspapers falling 11 percent since 1990 and TV ratings for evening news and late local news dropping double digits since the 1990s. Growth has occurred in other places, however, particularly among cable and Internet outlets. Today, the study said, too many outlets are chasing a shrinking or at best flat audience with more resources going toward the dissemination of news than collecting or carefully analyzing it. Personnel cutbacks have left their mark on newsgathering, the study said.

The problem is it's "fragmentation and convergence at the same time," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project For Excellence in Journalism, which conducted the study. He said trust in all forms of journalism has declined for about a generation. But it's harder for the media to recover because audience fragmentation has led to cutbacks in the newsroom, which has contributed to more of the same kind of journalistic problems that caused trust to fall in the first place.

"The State of the American News Media, which is being released today by a Washington, D.C.-based group is affiliated with the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is scheduled to be done annually. The full study can be found at beginning at 9 a.m. today.

Rosenstiel reckons that in today's world, it's harder than ever to figure out where consumers get their news, since they move through so many different types of media in the course of a day. But fragmented audience has meant that media companies face a more difficult economic model than ever before. For traditional media companies that have a presence on the Web -- particularly ones that don't charge for content -- much of the content comes from the traditional side.

"That is the single most important question that we face as a society about journalism," Rosenstiel said. "If the audience is moving online, will the Web pay for the kind of journalism that we've been accustomed to? Right now, it doesn't."

This question of how a media company will pay for its newsgathering and content hasn't been answered yet, Rosenstiel said. But he suggest that perhaps the CNN model -- where the brand is not only on cable TV but also in airports, radio, the Internet and elsewhere -- might be a sign of the future. "There, you have a news organization that is not in any one business, it's in all the businesses," Rosenstiel said.

I think I am less worried that Americans are less interested in journalism, but I'm not sure how the journalism will be financially structured. Whether the new technology will have the economic might to maintain the quality of that content, I just don't think we know yet. There is reason for hope on at least one front. In the 1980s and early 1990s, much hand wringing was done in the newspaper industry over the fact that young people didn't read anymore. The gloom and doom scenario forecast the death of newspapers by now. But, instead, the opposite has happened, thanks to the Internet.

Through the articles I have read thus far, I have concluded that, it's not so bleak. People do read. Online is largely a medium for reading right now, and young people are going there and getting news.


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