From April 2008-April 2009, Sue Robinson spent over 225 hours watching a newspaper in the Midwest receive a digital makeover. The newspaper, which allowed Robinson to observe on the basis of anonymity, laid off 20 reporters and editors, promoted one reporter with online magazine experience to section editor, and stopped daily production of its print edition to free up resources for its online version.
Among the journalists, there was a divide between those who were “new world”, with their twitter accounts, blogs, and laptops— and those who were “old world”, and struggling to make space for technology or outright refusing to change.
Here is a particularly amusing exchange between a couple “old world” journalists adapting to their strange new habitat:
Reporter 1: I guess we’re getting laptops now. I feel like I need one. It would make my life a lot easier so that when I am on vacation I am not faced with an overwhelming number of emails when I get back. But, I also feel like we’re being co-opted into the 24-7 world, man. It never ends.
Reporter 2: I am too old for this shit. I can’t wait until I retire.
The time period of this study was basically just the jump off point. Since 2009, newspapers have had to cut resources from their print edition and put them into their digital product. And the trend is continuing to grow. Over the last year, the Chicago Tribune saw a 6% rise in digital circulation, helping to offset the 11.8% fall in print circulation it saw over the same time period (Channick 2014). So by now, those “old world” journalists that were stuck in the days of print have most likely either evolved or become extinct—professionally speaking, I mean.
At this point in my blog post you are probably thinking to yourself, “WHAT? Newspapers are going digital? I didn’t even see this coming! The internet is so cray!”
I know you know that news organizations are all online now. What I don’t know, and what I don’t think you know, is what that means for the content of online publications.
With new school journalists rushing to post things on their publication’s website, and then their publication’s twitter account, and then their publication’s blog, and then their personal websites and twitter accounts and blogs—is the quality of reporting diminishing?
According to a content-analysis study of articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune done at Tulane—yup. It totally is. In 2012, the Times-Picayune cut down its print publications to 3 a week in order to focus on online content. Students at Tulane analyzed articles published in the print version of the publication in 2011 with articles published online in 2013. The study revealed that stories published in the online edition were more likely to be on topics such as sports an entertainment rather than on politics, education, or courts and they cited fewer sources. The students also concluded that the online stories tended to be softer.
Of course, reps from the Times-Picayune say that the study had fatal flaws that led to false information. You can read this article in the Columbia Journalism Review to see complete results yielded from the study, as well as the refutations made by the publication here.
But this is just one study done on one publication.
In Chile, I was introduced to CIPER, Chile’s online publication dedicated to investigative journalism. Their website publishes one or two articles a week, putting its resources into investigating leads to reveal corruption—like when it broke the story that Chile’s government manipulated census data.
So, there you have it—an example of a publication whose quality of journalism declined because of the new digital platform, a reliable investigative publication that would not exist without it, and the opportunity for every publication, present and future, to use the platform for good or evil depending on their priorities.
Here’s hoping they go the right way.
Channick, Robert. Chicago Tribune Circulation Up 6% as Digital Gains Help Offset Print Declines. (2014, May 1). The Chicago Tribune.Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-05-01.
Robinson, Sue. (2011).Convergence Crisis: News Work and News Space in the Digitally Transforming Newsroom. Journal of Communication, 61, 1122-1141.
Starkman, Dean. (2014, January 14). Tracking Digital-Era News Quality Declines. Columbia Journalism Review. http://www.cjr.org/.