The Impact of Digital Technologies on the Gathering, Production and Dissemination of News
The evolution of digital technologies covers a large span of time and aspects. Decades have passed since the development of news broadcast to the advent of internet. From the time when news was the sole property of print newspapers, each steps and breakthrough has had major impacts on journalism. Whether it is gathering, producing or disseminating, each of these technological advances has slowly transformed the landscape. However, there is one aspect of news which resisted for many years. Since the development of journalism, news were generally distributed from producers to passive consumers. What I mean here is that the three aspects of gathering, producing and disseminating remained within the monopole of a few, while being consumed by the many. The developments and technological advances in TV, video, photo and any other digital medium never could break out of this monopoly.
Then came Internet
While the internet has already been around for about three decades and its adaptation to journalistic use also spread rapidly, maturity came at a slower rate. It was the mass popularisation of blogging, along with the introduction of the first few social networks which started to shake off the status quo. This phenomenon gave birth to a new buzzing word: Citizen Journalism, embedded in “the idea that the internet bypasses old structures of control and power” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 22). The explosion of this new way of engaging with news and social networks culminated in playing a major role in events such as the Arab Spring (Fuchs, 2014).
However, it has also been argued that this is as far as it could go and that instead of democratising, social medias are in fact a mean of control through dependency (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). However, while “the old business model required media companies to act as gatekeepers, this right was partially revoked when the news product went online” (Jones & Salter, 2012, p. 45). The ever increasing ways of sourcing mean that the role of online journalists evolved toward curating and digest compilation. In many ways one could argued that here is the major impact of digital technology and not much more can be expected.
Oppositely, I intend to use this research project to demonstrate that this is not the case. While I accept that internet and social networks have transformed journalism, I would like to point out the fact that news production has remained centralised. In the battle for survival in the arenas of revenues, views and readership, the big news corporations are increasingly squeezing small, independent and grassroots journalism. However, I think, far to have reached maturity, citizen journalism is yet to shows us its greatest fight, a bigger impact than just its own birth.
I have selected the international news website Reported.ly to research and try to establish if there is indeed a possibility that, in the future, social networked journalism could reverse this centralisation phenomenon. If proved possible, I believe it could represent the biggest ever known impact on gathering, producing and disseminating news, from the people, by the people and to the people. It could practically transform journalism, journalists and even the industry.
This research project has been articulated in three chapters. The first one highlights and identifies academic arguments around citizen journalism and the centralisation of the media industry. The second chapter has been dedicated to dissect Reported.ly in order to expose its particularities, methods and results. Lastly, I have used the third chapter to critically analyse the contrast between the literature review and the researches on Reported.ly, which seems to indicate a potential for decentralisation within the industry.
The aim of the following literature review is to identify the academic arguments around both concepts of citizen journalism and the centralisation of media understood as concentration of ownership.
Also the evolution of technologies has greatly participated in enabling the citizens of the world to report on what is happening around them, it is the result produced which had a major impact in terms of breaking and covering stories. Indeed, “citizen journalists have provided real-time descriptions of events” (Culbertson, 2014, p. 190). As compared to foreign correspondents who would have to travel, citizen journalists often happen to be there. Furthermore, a story, for a citizen journalist, is not a passing interest or an assignment, but rather a bit of his own life (BENTLEY, 2011).
Technological advances, particularly the web, “allow people to develop their media literacies in new and creative ways, becoming more engaged, active and critical viewers, readers and listeners” (Meikle & Young, 2012, p. 126). The development of social media has increasingly reduced the distance between online and offline life. What’s happening to me here and now, can be reflected, almost instantly, on my online me. “In the developed world, we increasingly are the digital information that facilitates our lives and engagements with one another” (Ess, 2009, p. 44). Internet, through social networking and the nature of events around us, has multiplied the connecting power of people around the globe. “Online venues dramatically expand our opportunities for cross-cultural communication” (Ess, 2009, p. 113) too. Online networking, in many ways, knows no borders.
Also, more than just networking, the internet has also provided an array of journalistic tools, freely available to anyone and everyone. In terms of publishing content, “blogs are tremendously flexible, ideal for quick updates, while also well suited to in-depth analysis; used for personal reflection, but also for impersonal use of useful links; and able to be based on images, audio, video or text” (Bradshaw & Rohumaa, 2011, p. 74). Even more convenient, micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter are “ideal for posting updates, asking questions and inviting suggestions” (Bradshaw & Rohumaa, 2011, p. 85), all crucial aspects of journalism. It has been demonstrated that “Twitter is particularly useful for journalists reporting live” (Bradshaw & Rohumaa, 2011, p. 88) as it allows to connect with distant witnesses (Carvin, 2012).
The web has also facilitated the popularisation of media tools such as YouTube. It is almost like if everyone can be a broadcaster now. The medium itself must have contributed greatly to the growth of citizen journalism. “Video is not only integral to online journalism- it is evolving as a form of online journalism in its own right” (Bradshaw & Rohumaa, 2011, p. 105). In fact, all the array of media used to report, be it video, images or audio recording, are all accessible and contribute massively to user-generated content (UGC). “On news websites UGC has become part of the furniture, whether it’s a comment box on news stories, or a Your Videos section” (Bradshaw & Rohumaa, 2011, p. 139).
However, it has also been advanced that internet users suffered a great loss in terms of privacy and “seen from this light, the internet seems to be as much an advance in control as an empowerment of the user” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 25). The economist, or capitalist, argument here points toward the level of dependency on internet developed over time, as well as the free labor character of citizen reporting. But even from a professional perspective, “critics argue that citizen journalists consequently don’t have the skills to get stories” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 67). It could possibly take more than being at the right place at the right time with a smartphone, to be a journalist. Even if it is the subject of debates, it has often been advanced that recent revolutions, in Egypt or Tunisia, were initiated on social networks. However, an actual data survey has shown that among all the means of communication, social media had the smallest share in terms of usage by the revolutionaries (Fuchs, 2014, p. 85).
Regardless, what I wanted to highlight here, was the strong recognition in academic circles that whether or not citizen journalism is real journalism, its came about is strongly related to internet and other technological advances. However, it remains to be seen how much can it impact the structure of the news industry, currently highly centralised.
Critical scholarship have explained that “media and other concentration is not just something bad, but rather a structural feature of capitalism” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 57). Indeed the constant search for increased productivity and profits, often changes competition into monopolies (Fuchs, 2014). Realistically, and from a cost perspective, “social media offers an interesting alternative for the collection of news stories, allowing news organisations to crowd-source content for very little money” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 64). Also, one of the counter effect of mass popularisation of social networks, is that not only it is available to all citizens, but also to corporations. Due to the fact that Big Media are also able to use social media to present themselves with the same openness than citizen journalists. It has been argued that “it can be used to reinforce, strengthen and deepen existing power structures” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 69). Furthermore, “visibility is a central resource in contemporary culture that powerful actors, such as media corporations, can buy” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 60).
Along these lines, a recurring concept within the scholarship is media convergence, which refers to “ the ongoing processes of consolidation and expansion through which global media firms become larger, more integrated and more networked” (Meikle & Young, 2012, p. 35). Researches and studies have demonstrated that “a small number of companies now control more aspects of the media business” (Biagi, 2010, p. 12). Here again, “the convergent environment has highlighted the complex questions of power, influence and control” (Meikle & Young, 2012, p. 36).
While “the global media landscape remains characterised by large corporate entities” (Meikle & Young, 2012, p. 58), it has also been argued that, paradoxically, “almost no media organisations are truly global and a decreasing number of media outlets are singularly local” (Meikle & Young, 2012, p. 39). “In Australia, for example, the news media is highly concentrated into two companies: Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited and John Fairfax Holdings Ltd” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 67).
Finally, another aspect of the news industry, which ought to be mentioned, is the question of revenues. Media organisations remain, before all, businesses, with bills and staff to pay. While the industry has long been trying to enlarge the ways to monetise news, a recent “research shows that in fact advertising is the most significant element of funding newspaper and television news” (Jones & Salter, 2012, p. 19). However, it is no secret that internet has seriously affected the revenue capacity of advertising within the news sector. Scores of news outlets are still struggling to find a viable financial solution. In such a difficult context, “the normal response of capitalist enterprise to declining profits is to merge and cut” (Jones & Salter, 2012, p. 21). It explains greatly why more and more newspapers belong to less and less owners. In many ways, it is problematic, even in terms of journalism, as it poses serious issues of independence and freedom, since a growing majority of journalists work for the same employer. In this sense it has been concluded that “the business side of journalism seems here to conflict with the supposed democratic role of journalism” (Jones & Salter, 2012, p. 21).
Reported.ly: A Case Study
By all means, this literature review is brief and concise but it does provide an insight on the grounds for citizen journalism, its impacts and capacities. More importantly, it has allowed us to understand the state of centralisation of the industry in which citizen journalism has appeared. The following chapter will now focus on a case study, which I will use to try to imply that citizen journalism might, or might not, play a role in a decentralisation process.
In order to understand what Reported.ly actually is, I find their moto self explicating: “Global news, our way. That means your way, too” (reported.ly, Twitter, 2015). I have selected this news website for the fact that it has based itself on its journalists’ long tradition and experience in online community coordination. The outlet represents a new model of how citizen journalism can be embedded in professional practices and structures.
I will start by looking at the core values (reported.ly, Our core values, 2015) on which the website is anchored. I think it explains a great deal the more human and ethical aspects of such a news medium.
The first point to mention is that Reported.ly is fully supported by a charity organisation, First Look Media, which “seeks to improve society through journalism and technology, to help individuals hold the powerful accountable, build responsive institutions and, most important, shape their communities and what happens in their lives for the better” (Media F. L., 2013). This financial back up, allows Reported.ly the luxury of editorial independence, since no advertising or revenues obligation can come to influence the stories.
As editor in chief, Andy Carvin explained in his initial welcome to Reported.ly article, this new form of social media journalism intends to be built on a vibrant community of people, where a news consumer is more than just “a view”. The idea is to have news delivered where people are, not sent away to rack up page views (Carvin, Medium, 2014). Also it recently launched a website to document all the reporting work. Reported.ly emphasises social networks as primary, not secondary platforms.
The idea behind the project is to create and promote good journalism, based on ethics and values, but most importantly, a human journalism. As Carvin explains, “forget native advertising — we want to produce native journalism for social media communities, in conjunction with members of those communities” (Carvin, Medium, 2014).
As some academics have argued, Social networks and media “allow us to reach out across time and space at a speed, scale and level of complexity that were not previously possible” (Meikle & Young, 2012, p. 77). I think this is where Reported.ly takes its strength from. I propose to take a brief look at the website’s digital presence. Reported.ly is somehow different to mainstream news websites, and makes extensive use of a large array of digital resources and platforms. Journalistically, it changes the gathering, producing and disseminating processes, but at the same time, it feels like its all in one place.
To enumerate the list of digital tools used by Reported.ly, I will start with their Twitter account (reported.ly, Twitter, 2015). In terms of number, Reported.ly has inherited the long social media experience of its journalists. Just to put into context, the team is composed of six journalists (Reported.ly, 2014), all with years of experience in online journalism.
It starts with Malachy Browne, ex-Storyful news editor, he is now managing editor and Europe anchor. Then comes P.Kim Bui, deputy managing editor, university instructor in California and founder of super popular journalism Twitter chat #wjchat. As a West Coast anchor, the radio news expert Wendy Carrillo also brings her experience in networking and crowdsourcing. Editor in chief and founder of Reported.ly, Andy Carvin, has won multiple journalism awards, he is also seen as a pioneer of networked journalism. The team then is completed with two renown online journalists, Asteris Masouras and Marina Petrillo.
In numbers, Reported.ly on Twitter has over 23 thousand followers, but the social media power in fact comes from the strength of its team. Andy Carvin alone has 108 thousand followers. By browsing each members of the team’s Twitter accounts, it doesn’t take long to realize that what makes Reported.ly, is not the name but its people. Each of them are amazingly personally involved in many communities, and in many ways, they are part of the stories they break. Twitter represents the backbone of Reported.ly, and it is all due to its journalists’ expertise in coordinating online communities. The medium allows them to practice high quality journalism, whether it is sourcing, checking facts, producing digests or disseminating. As most of modern platforms, Twitter allows for a large range of resources where users can easily share video, photos and audio formats. For Reported.ly, this is an incredible source of content. This is also the reason that we naturally find the website having a presence on YouTube, Vines, Instagram (reported.ly, Instagram, 2015), Reddit (reported.ly, Reddit, 2015) and Storify. To be present on such a variety of platforms has several advantages as it allows them to reach, interact with and engage an audience, wherever it might be. Finally, the last two platforms Reported.ly uses are Facebook and their newly created website. Both are used less for social networking, but rather as a place to park up and document all the accumulated work and coverage. While the popular Facebook page (reported.ly, Facebook, 2015) simply offers daily digests, the website categorizes and classifies the ever increasing number of stories.
In terms of results, the Reported.ly project has been recognised as a new award winning journalism, which attracts an ever-increasing popularity. This is visible through the amount of follows, like and share on social networks. Furthermore, the results of researching about Reported.ly also show the reality of an “emergent networked journalism” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 69) which incorporate both trained and citizen journalists. Andy Carvin is very keen to emphasise that Reported.ly is for the community, but also by the community (Carvin, Medium, 2014).
In this final section, I would like to co-relate the results of my research on Reported.ly with the various arguments presented in the literature review. The overall argument presented here highlights the fact that while citizen journalism had not broken industry centralisation at first, we cannot predict the effects of its evolution toward professionalisation. The scholarship has already argued that “social media impacts on the way in which we think, experience and practice online media. It is no longer a form of teen socialising “ (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 2). Furthermore, it also “amplifies the changes in the media landscape and as it does, it provides new avenues for dissemination and engagement” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 2). As the number of ‘networked users’ ever increases, it influences “the rise of participatory culture which empowers users” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 55). It is also difficult to base our judgment on history, since “unlike the mass media before it, social media is fundamentally a participative medium” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013).
While citizens won’t be able to fully replace trained journalists, “professionals and amateurs can form powerful partnerships to create important journalism” (Jones & Salter, 2012, p. 29). Reported.ly gives us an example on point in terms of this partnership. As per tradition, “a professional journalist assigned to a story will research the issues, talk to the people involved, check the facts and craft the results into a story” (BENTLEY, 2011, p. 116). Also it is entirely through social media, Reported.ly’s team is doing exactly that. While “there is no question that open, public exchange of information is valuable” (Sienkiewicz, 2014, p. 699), professionalisation of citizen journalism is likely to require a middle man, able to search for raw news, and make it into consumable digests. This is where the role of social media becomes crucial, as “to function, the interpreter tier requires interaction, debate and cross- referencing” (Sienkiewicz, 2014, p. 699). And it is certainly true that “without a robust interpreter class, mistakes threaten to diminish the tremendous potential of citizen journalism” (Sienkiewicz, 2014, p. 699). Furthermore, “the presence of for-profits, professionals, and editorial staffs suggests the sort of professionalisation and organisational maturation” (Lindnera, Connellb, & Meyerb, 2015, p. 566) which has the potential to launch citizen based journalism into the realm of mass news consumption.
As stated in the introduction, the object of this research was to enquire on the possibility for social media, networked and citizen journalism to effectively participate in a decentralisation of the news industry. In order to conclude, I have to say that while it has been a really interesting research, I am only able to come to a rather nuanced or open conclusion. On one hand, yes, the example of Reported.ly demonstrates the potential of professionalisation of citizen journalism and the evolution of its standards in terms of ethics, methods and dissemination. However, on an other hand, it does not provide enough of a case to conclude that it will definitely lead to the disappearance of the industry’s state of concentration. Further, and more extensive, researches would be needed in order to integrate other important elements such as business viability, the issue of revenues or even power relations within the field of journalism.
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