Online news: A ‘disposable economy’

The Pew Research Center measured the frequency that news agencies are using Twitter as a method of “pushing” information to consumers, in its 2011 analysis report.
The Pew Research Center measured the frequency that news agencies are using Twitter as a method of “pushing” information to consumers, in its 2011 analysis report.

Keosha Johnson, editor and producer for Boston’s NPR affiliate station, WBUR, said online news consumers just cannot get enough. The 24/7 demand for online news has made journalism a 24/7 content-creating job, she said.

Unlike other forms of media, like print or broadcast, the Internet has an infinite amount of space that cannot be filled.

“It’s not like you’re a producer and your show goes on at 6:30 and then you’re done for the day,” Johnson said. “If anything happens anywhere [at any time] that’s a major story, you’re expected to immediately publish information about it,” Johnson said.

The pressure to keep up with the competition, and outdo the competition, is one of the reasons why news agencies participate in what Andrew Davis, co-founder of digital media broker Tippingpoint Labs, calls “the race to create.”

“I think it’s a sensational desire to remain relevant that news organizations are chasing,” Davis said. “It started as the desire to be the first to break the story, and in an Internet world where things happen so rapidly, it’s just kind of manifested itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The web is one of the few mediums that gives information in real time. Since information is constantly evolving, online news organizations must constantly produce content, Davis said.

“It’s very much a symbiotic, parasitic relationship,” he said. “I think news organizations are approaching this as: if you push more information out there, you’ll get more people to read your information.”

According to the a 2010 Pew report (PDF), 70 percent of people feel overwhelmed rather than informed by the amount of news and information they see.

“A disposable news economy”

In Johnson’s newsroom, there is an expectation to deliver information as it is available. Johnson said she makes decisions about what to publish as a process through live updates, and what to publish as a single product based on the story and on what her competitors are doing.

As a consumer, Johnson said she is not particularly interested in following a live blog of the Grammy nominations announcement, for example. But, as a journalist, if competitors were to have this live blog available and WBUR did not, Johnson would be concerned that consumers would lose trust in her news agency.

Davis said live updates help to create a “disposable news economy,” where, whether on Twitter or blogs, short bits of information help consumers get the most relevant information for the day’s happenings.

“It’s helped people to be able to pick up anywhere and get today’s information.” But, today’s information becomes yesterday’s news very quickly, and it is impossible for any reader to be able to keep up with everything that a news organization covers, he said.

The constant need and demand to fill the Internet with the most up to date information is what many call “feeding the beast.”

At Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Staff Writer Andrew Phelps noticed that many newsrooms feel pressured to feed the beast at all times, and are producing content at the expense of quality.

Phelps said the need to constantly produce information leads a lot of news organizations to produce content just for the sake of producing content.

At WBUR, Johnson said she has never worked anywhere where she felt pressure to fill space, but has noticed a less deliberate approach to what is published online.

“When I first started out, there was a lot more effort on each single piece of content that was published,” Johnson said. Johnson had her first experience with radio in 2005.

It may not be WBUR, but Phelps and Davis said a lot of news organizations fill space with trivial content to keep up with competition.

“Unfortunately,” Phelps said, “I think filler pays the bills. There are websites like BuzzFeed and Gawker which have basically built their empires on filler content. But, you know, I think if you build a house on a landfill the house will start to sink. So, you have to do real content, real journalism and that’s why they are starting to do that.”

Around 90 percent of stories published on the web are “throw-away” stories, Davis said. Phelps described these types of stories as sensational stories that are not well reported.

“The last 10 percent are what consumers actually consume, and those are the things that should be expanded upon.”

Navigating a land fill:

There are around 44 million active Tumblr blogs. WordPress currently has around 71 million active blogs. These are just two of thousands of hosting sites. Graphic based on annual Tumblr.com and Wordpress.com figures from 2009-2012.
There are around 44 million active Tumblr blogs. WordPress currently has around 71 million active blogs. These are just two of thousands of hosting sites. Graphic based on annual Tumblr.com and Wordpress.com figures from 2009-2012.

In addition to the content produced online by news agencies, other organizations and individuals are also producing content online.

Aside from using social media outlets, like Facebook and Twitter, one of the easiest ways people are producing content is by using a blogging service, like WordPress.com, and Tumblr.com. Many reporters have their blogs on news websites, and many citizen journalists have their own blogs as well.

Phelps said the ease with which people are able to publish whatever they want is leveling the playing field. Rather than spending money to access a media outlet like in the old days, people can go online and declare whatever they want and whenever they want for free, he said.

Now, the reporter is becoming his or her own brand rather than the news organization he or she works for, he said.

“I may not say that I am a BuzzFeed reader, but I might say that I am a [editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed] Ben Smith fan,” Phelps said.

The flood of information on the Internet is dulling the traditional hierarchical pyramid of credibility, he said. For example, Yahoo News recently hired former New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan as its National Correspondent.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, you never would have thought that a reporter for the New York Times would leave for an online news startup,” Phelps said. “But if the money’s right and if the platform is right, it doesn’t really matter anymore.”

Davis sees the overwhelming amount of information on the Internet as all the more reason why journalists are more needed than ever before, he said. In a world filled with so much information, he said, journalists become all the more relevant in contextualizing information and adding meaning.

Johnson and Phelps said the best way to navigate through the spewing faucet of information on the web is to read critically.

Johnson said that the best thing to do as a reader is to question everything, and to always make sure that sources are properly attributed.

“An informed citizen is the best kind of citizen to have,” she said.

What’s Next

Although the way news is delivered is changing, news itself isn’t any different. Johnson said the same journalistic ethics still apply to online journalism. But, surviving online is a whole different ball game.

Davis and Phelps said the current online news model will not last much longer. News organizations will have to find specific niches on the Internet, they said. One website based in Colorado is trying to accomplish just that.

Wendy Norris is the CEO and founder of Tekhne.co, an online magazine covering Colorado based startups. Norris said people spend more than triple the time on her website than they do on a typical news website online.

“It’s because they know this is where they can get contextualized information, and kind of immerse,” Norris said. “Old dynamics of being first and breaking stories and having more content than the other guy is really an old paradigm that just needs to die.”

Norris said having political, business and sports news all being delivered together is not effectively serving consumers. That is why her website only focuses on innovative startups and technology, she said.

Rather than focusing on “churning out stories,” Norris said her website focuses on user experience.

Norris does not have fresh content on her website at all times. Somtimes she will produce multiple stories a day, and other times her website will only have fresh content four or five times a week, she said. Some articles require more research and time, she said.

Norris said she also does not reproduce the same content for her social media outlets. Rather than producing the same story four times for four different platforms, Norris will either choose a story that best fits a specific choice of social media, or write a story specifically for that platform, she said.

“Some stuff I just put on Facebook,” she said, “and some things I just do live Tweets and put it on the website after the fact.”

On Facebook, Norris said she likes to engage her readers with a video or a contest. On Twitter, she likes to do live updates, and on Google+ she prefers to engage with her readers in a conversation.

Phelps, Davis and Norris said news websites will have to choose one area in which they’d like to have an expertise. Whether it is as broad as foreign policy, international news, domestic news or social issues, the online news world will ultimately come down to quality, not quantity.

As Phelps said, “I think most serious journalists still value the quality of the story above everything else. The essence of the story will never change, but I also think that any serious journalist now knows how important an engaging experience is.”

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