Why Old Media and Social Media Don't Get Along

Earlier today I did a brief drop in phone interview on CPAC’s Goldhawk Live. The topic was “Have social media and technology changed the way Canadians get news?” and Christoper Waddell, the Director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Chris Dornan, Director of Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger School of Public Affairs were Goldhawk’s panel of experts.

Watching the program prior to being brought in I couldn’t help but feel I live on a different planet from many who talk about the media. Ultimately, the debate was characterized by a reactive, negative view on the part of the mainstream media supporters. To them, threats are everywhere. The future is bleak, and everything, especially democratic institutions and civilization itself teeter on the edge. Meanwhile social media advocates such as myself are characterized as delusional techno-utopians. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Indeed, both sides share a lot in common. What distinguishes though, is that while traditionalists are doom and gloom, we are almost defined by the sense of the possible. New things, new ideas, new approaches are becoming available every day. Yes, there will be new problems, but there will also be new possibilities and, at least, we can invent and innovate.

I’m just soooooo tired of the doom and gloom. It really makes one want to give up on the main stream media (like many, many, many people under 30 have). But, we can’t. We’ve got to save these guys from themselves – the institutions and the brands matter (I think). So, in that pursuit, let’s tackle the beast head on, again.

Last, night the worse offender was Goldhawk, who tapped into every myth that surrounds this debate. Let’s review them one by one.

Myth 1: The average blog is not very good – so how can we rely on blogs for media?

For this myth, I’m going to first pull a little from Missing the Link, now about to be published as a chapter in a journalism textbook called “The New Journalist”:

The qualitative error made by print journalists is to assume that they are competing against the average quality of online content. There may be 1.5 million posts a day, but as anyone whose read a friend’s blog knows, even the average quality of this content is poor. But this has lulled the industry into a false sense of confidence. As Paul Graham describes: “In the old world of ‘channels’ (e.g. newspapers) it meant something to talk about average quality, because that’s what everyone was getting whether they liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. Consequently, print media isn’t competing against the average quality of online writing, they’re competing against the best writing online…Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality are missing an important point. No one reads the average blog.”

You know what though, I’m going to build on that. Goldhawk keeps talking about the average blog or average twitterer (which of course, no one follows, we all follow big names, like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly). But you know what? They keep comparing the average blog to the best newspapers. The fact is, even the average newspaper sucks. The Globe represents the apex of the newspaper industry in Canada, not the average, so stop using it as an example. To get the average, go into any mid-sized town and grab a newspaper. It won’t be interesting. Especially to you – an outsider. It will have stories that will appeal to a narrow audience, and even then, many of these will not be particularly well written. More importantly still, there will little, and likely no, investigative journalism – that thing that allegedly separates blogs from newspapers. Indeed, even here in Vancouver, a large city, it is frightening how many times press releases get marginally touched up and then released as “a story.” This is the system that we are afraid of losing?

Myth 2: How will people sort good from low quality news?

I always love this myth. In short, it presumes that the one thing the internet has been fantastic at developing – filters – simple won’t evolve in a part of the media ecosystem (news) where people desperately want them. At best, this is naive. At worse, it is insulting. Filters will develop. They already have. Twitter is my favourite news filter – I probably get more news via it than any other source. Google is another. Nothing gets you to a post or article about a subject you are interested in like a good (old-fashioned?) google search. And yes, there is also going to be a market for branded content – people will look for that as short cut for figuring out what to read. But please people are smarter than you think at finding news sources.

Myth 3: People lack media savvy to know good from low quality news.

I love the elitist contempt the media industry sometimes has towards its readers. But, okay, let’s say this is true. Then the newspapers and mainstream media have only themselves to blame. If people don’t know what good news is, it is because they’ve never seen it (and by and large, they haven’t). The most devastating critique on this myth is actually delivered by one of my favourite newspaper men: Kenneth Whyte is his must listen-to Dalton Camp Lecture on journalism. In it Whyte talks about how, in the late 19th and early 20th century NYC had dozens and dozens of newspapers that fought for readership and people were media savvy, shifting from paper to paper depending on quality and perspective. That all changed with consolidation and a shift from paying for content to advertising for content. Advertisers want staid, plain, boring newspapers with big audiences. This means newspapers play to the lowest common denominator and are market oriented to be boring. It also leaves them beholden to corporate interests (when was the last time the Vancouver Sun really did a critical analysis of the housing industry – it’s biggest advertisement source?). If people are not media savvy it is, in part, because the media ecosystem demands so little of them. I suspect that social media can and will change this. Big newspapers may be what we know, but they may not be good for citizenship or democracy.

Myth 4: There will be no good (and certainly no investigative) journalism with mainstream media.

Possible. I think the investigative journalism concern is legitimate. That said, I’m also not convinced there is a ton of investigative journalism going on. There may also be more going on in the blogs than we might know. It could be that these stories a) don’t get prominence and b) even when they do, often newspapers don’t cite blogs, and so a story first broken by a blog may not be attributed. But investigative journalism comes in different shapes and sizes. As I wrote in one of my more viewed posts, The Death of Journalism:

I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply  flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.

And finally, Myth 5: People only read stories that confirm their biases.

Rather than Goldhawk it was Christopher Waddell who kept bringing this point up. This problem, sometimes referred to as “the echo chamber” effect is often cited as a reason why online media is “bad.” I’d love to know Waddell’s sources (I’m confident he has some – he is very sharp). I’ve just not seen any myself. Indeed, Andrew Potter recently sent me a link to “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline.” What is it? A peer reviewed study that found no evidence the Internet is becoming more ideologically segregated. And the comparison is itself deeply flawed. How many conservatives read the Globe? How many liberals read the National Post? I love the idea that somehow main stream media doesn’t ideologically segregate an audience. Hasn’t any looked at Fox or MSNBC recently?

Ultimately, it is hard to watch (or participate) in these shows without attributing all sorts of motivations to those involved. I keep feeling like people are defending the status quo and trying to justify their role in the news ecosystem. To be fair, it is a frightening time to be in media.

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

And I refuse to lie. It sucks to be a newscaster or a journalist or a columnist. Especially if you are older. Forget about the institutions (they’ve already been changing) but the culture of newsmedia, which many employed in the field cling strongly to, is evolving and changing. That is a painful process, especially to those who have dedicated their life to it. But that old world was far from perfect. Yes, the new world will have problems, but they will be new problems, and there may yet be solutions to them, what I do know is that there aren’t solutions to the old problems in the old system and frankly, I’m tired of those old problems. So let’s get on with it. Be critical, but please, stop spreading the myths and the fear mongering.

20 thoughts on “Why Old Media and Social Media Don't Get Along

  1. BillWittur

    Hi David,This is a great post and I'm surprised that we in the digital industry are still having to wrestle with these 'demons' related to digital. But here we are …I wouldn't stop with the content of a 'mainstream' site. I'd also look at how they encourage public participation as well as their advertising model.I still find that MSM sites either block commenting or stop this feature after a certain date. Does stopping comments mean it's no longer newsworthy? No. I just means they no longer want to keep filtering the comments that are being posted.Consider voting. Letting users decide the validity of both the original content and the subsequent comments makes for a much more dynamic model, something we get glimpses of, but doesn't really seem to be the norm.A bigger opportunity is what Wayne MacPhail calls 'open journalism', where a number of experts from a different array of fields help generate content for public use and benefit. I can't see the Globe or National Post assuming that model any time soon, but smaller networks are.And let's look at advertising. We're still buying real estate and not focusing on strategy.I find as a media buyer, the online ad model is broken, particularly for most Canadian publishers. People aren't looking for ways to create better conversations online. They persist in the intrusive model (ie. pushing something in your face, instead of letting you decide it you're interested), thinking that since it 'worked' for the last 100 years for print and later TV, it should work with this 'new' medium.However, products like Google AdWords or Facebook have pushed us forward into the era of 'self-serve', where advertisers should be able to go directly to the publishers and 'fill the boxes' without the help of agencies or consultants (which doesn't bode well for me in the long run, but people still need help understanding how to use these tools).Few sites allow advertisers to post their ads directly and I think it's time to encourage Canadian publishers to change that structure so that they can actually make more money from a broader audience of buyers.Until they do, advertisers will choose the path of least resistance, and right now, that path does NOT lead to the door of CPAC or other MSM news shows.

    Reply
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  3. Shepsil

    Good critique of the MSM crowd.The idea or fact that no one reads bloggers MSM comments is sort of a half truth. Probably true for the more discerning, but anyone who comments has to have read one or two comments before and/or after they commented. My thoughts though, concern what is going to happen in the future to these MSM commenters, how will they and their medium evolve. Certainly, it was not too long ago that most of them never engaged online and certainly most never wrote a letter to the editor. So how is their engagement, as pithy as it is, going to change them. Because under the old MSM model, they didn't really exist and now they do and they seem to enjoy commenting, even if by some standards no one reads them. I moderate a small blog and I have my own style, as do most site's moderators. Moderating standards are changing as we write, even to the point where there will soon be certain requirements by law. Like, drivers license required in mandatory registration before blogging. The MSM sites seem to have little moderation, other than nastiness is not acceptable. But I suppose this is a topic for another article by you.

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  4. David Humphrey

    Great points, David. One myth that goes the other way is that social media is somehow disjoint from mainstream media. Your level of frustration that you're having to have these conversations again, that you're appearing on television (twice in 1 week!), that what they think matters, etc. all points to the fact that social media can't (yet) simply drop the old school and move forward. If it could, it would, I think. So part of the problem here is that we (I'm guilty of this too) are so sick of big media, but at the same time connected to it in ways that are hard to untangle. Social media, like many revolutions, is often constructed in reaction to traditional forms (cf. your numerous challenges and rebuttals to things in newspapers and magazines). We're also guilty when we don't recognize our hybrid existence. I'm not sure it will always be so, but it is today.

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  6. John Tedesco

    “We all follow big names, like Clay Shirky …”Shirky's concern is that newspapers bore the heavy lifting of accountability journalism at the local level, and now that coverage is shrinking. Shirky says it's unclear what new model will replace the old model — and it might be unclear for a very long time.A lot of great blogs generate interesting content. But when you drill down to who is actually covering City Hall in your community on a consistent basis and making an effort to tell people what's really going on, it's usually a newspaper funding that kind of work.

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  7. David Eaves

    John, at this point I suppose it depends on what your definition of a blog and newspaper is… If a blog is, by definition, an amateur than yes. But if it includes online only writers who may or may not get paid, then I disagree.Indeed, as I noted here, based on this post by Frances Bula, (one time reporter, now blogger and reporter covering the Vancouver city hall) there are more and more people covering city hall, from a broader range of news sources. So, I'm not sure this is true at all.But then, I would also argue that more people get press releases and news from the city directly. They then talk about and debate it, something I think is, in of itself a good thing.

    Reply
  8. Kirk LaPointe

    I am curious on why there are so many generalizations in the post and comments.Some mainstream organizations are working hard to master and lead new techniques. Some are trapped in an earlier era.Some new organizations are fumbling economically and journalistically. Some are finding some innovative financial means and developing superb forms of reporting.Change has never been in short supply in media, but these days it's accelerated.It's so lacking in sense to decry newer forms or older practicioners. There are far more fruitful ways to focus.I may be sounding hypersensitive as a greying manager, but I don't fear the future. Not in the least. It doesn't “suck” to be a journalist today. It's the most exciting time imaginable. It would be a tragedy if journalists did anything but look back on this period as anything other than extraordinary.And as someone relatively, um, experienced, I can make that statement without generalizing or hyperbolizing. (As for the smallish criticism of our newsroom, well, a cursory examination of archived material would correct the misstatement.)

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  9. David Eaves

    Kirk, I don't think we disagree. I still sense that given the turmoil in the industry I think it is a very, very tough time to be a journalist. Especially if you are a traditionalist. Conversely, I think it is also one of the most exciting and interesting times to be a journalist – if you can find a place that will let you experiment and innovate. I completely agree that we will look back at this time as one of the most exciting – I just wish more of you colleagues felt the same way, rather than hashing up the worst of mythical problems that are completely divorced from how people use the internet.

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  10. AlexSchleber

    Excellent post, a see myth #1 as the crux of the matter: Haven't Old Media learned any lessons from Wikipedia?! There are plenty of experts that are willing to contribute and publish for free, just for the recognition, or the love of the subject matter, or maybe because they have a back-end product or service to sell with a free content front-end.Many blog authors, and not just the A-list either, are bigger subject matter experts than just about any journalist just picking up a story. As I said previously over here:http://businessmindhacks.com/post/how-wrong-is-…“The internet has created vast ARMIES of people with sufficient expertise that they can write with depth about any topic or news event imaginable. And they are perfectly willing to do so FOR FREE, simply for the chance at recognition, for directing a slice of the attention pie back towards their own personas/personal brands, businesses, products, or services.If we again take the example of the Journal, there is now a sufficient number of financial news blogs serving up their own news, analysis, and key (linked) excerpts from the in-depth reports of various industry analysts and researchers, etc. (yet more people willing to put their stuff out there for free), that there really is very little need for anything the WSJ may report or opine on….The only reason why the Journal has any value left is the strong brand that has been built up over many decades. The brand that has engraved “WSJ = Serious Business News” on the minds of millions of people.But that doesn’t mean that there is much “there” there. Just go over to WSJ.com and look at each front page article headline for a moment. Spot the ones that are currently denoted as “paid subscribers only” via the little grey key symbol, and ask yourself if you feel compelled to purchase a subscription for any of these.”—And on highly in flux, highly “avant-garde” Tech issues, the likes of Scoble, Arrington, Winer, and Om Malik, just to name a few, are talking about things that most journalists won't even touch for another 6-12 months out…

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  14. Greg Corcoran

    Surely where old media are concerned, much like movie studios and record companies, it's all about money as opposed to content, and morseo, how to charge for that content? They had defined, hugely controllable channels of distribution previously that drove revenue streams. These have been blown away and that's why the fear has started. Fear of not knowing how to make money any more. Fear of embracing, or even creating, new commercial models.

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  16. Keven Kanten

    About news broadcasts on tv – the only comment I wish to make is, what happened to journalism?Now from what I see happening from national to local news, the actual news is but a segway to give these reporters/anchors the opportunity to ask bystanders and people that were part of the news just reported “HOW THEY FEEL?” When did how people feel about the news actually become THE news?Our opinion has become the news to the point, broadcasts even report the public comments on their twitter and facebook accounts. “Here's what you've said.” Come on? Who cares?

    Reply
  17. Keven Kanten

    About news broadcasts on tv – the only comment I wish to make is, what happened to journalism?Now from what I see happening from national to local news, the actual news is but a segway to give these reporters/anchors the opportunity to ask bystanders and people that were part of the news just reported “HOW THEY FEEL?” When did how people feel about the news actually become THE news?Our opinion has become the news to the point, broadcasts even report the public comments on their twitter and facebook accounts. “Here's what you've said.” Come on? Who cares?

    Reply
  18. Pingback: This Week in Review: Facebook’s big move, the iPad’s news app control, and a future for hard reporting | Mark Coddington

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