What Obstacles Exist for Online Journalism?

What obstacles exist for online journalism?

That topic will be on the minds of attendees at the Online News Association‘s annual conference next week in Manhattan.

Unfortunately, the major obstacle for online journalism is the people who practice it — the best of whom will be attending the conference. Most are transplanting into the new medium the failings of the old, mass medium: the failings of traditional journalism and the failings of traditional journalism’s packaging.

Journalists, whether they work in mass or new media, still tend to believe that traditional journalism and its packaging are as correct in a new medium as those once were in the mass medium. It is as an article of faith within their secular trade.

Yet, traditional journalism and its packaging have demonstrably failed in the mass medium, and there’s abundant evidence that that those are failing the new medium, too.

The verdict was handed down long ago in the mass medium. North American viewership of televised news has been plunging for two decades. In most of the world’s industrialized countries except Japan and China, newspaper readership has been plummeting for a third of a century. Radio listenership of news dove even longer ago. And the credibility of the news media, at least in North America, is in tatters.

So, why is most online journalism shovelware from traditional print, traditional video, and traditional radio?

Speak with most of the journalists who will be attending the ONA conference and they’ll give you several excuses: ‘Our website doesn’t have enough staff to do anything but shovelware.’ ‘This type of journalism is what was taught to us in journalism school and is still being taught there.’ ‘If it’s good enough for print or video or audio, it’s good journalism online.’ Etcetera.

Even what little original journalism is being done online is being done along traditional models (Macromedia Flash optional).

Although there are other reasons why viewership, readership, and listenership of news have declined for decades, traditional journalism is certainly a major reason, if not the major reason.

Simply reporting who, what, when, why, and how; quoting both sides’ statements; and expecting the public to decide the issues from such factoids is no longer effectively satisfying the unambiguous needs of viewers, readers, and listeners. Neither does traditional journalism’s story selection and packaging. The numbers were in decades ago.

Delivering that traditional journalism via HTML, CSS, Flash, PDF, streaming media, RSS, or podcasting solves nothing. If anything, it only makes the problem worse.

Ten years into the Internet era, although news publishers and broadcasters now boast of the numbers of people who visit their websites, the sites’ average visitor use those much less frequently and far less thoroughly than the average reader, viewer, or listener of those same publishers’ or broadcasters’ plummeting old media.

Neilsen/Netratings and Comscore Media Metrix agree that the average visitor to an American daily newspaper website visits only three time per month and read less than 20 pages and spends less than 30 minutes there during that month. According to the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, the average reader of a printed newspaper reads it three times per week, and readi more than 20 pages and spends nearly 30 minutes each time. The ratios between American broadcasters’ websites and their TV or radio broadcasts are little better.

Online journalism — if it is ever to be used more than the continuously lessening use of newspapers, news television, and news radio is — must change. Otherwise, shovelware will bury it.

Some online journalists say that ‘citizen journalism’ should be the future of journalism. But that shirks their own relevant roles.

The people attending the Online News Association next week have done yeoman work putting news online and deserve credit for that. However, it has come time for them to stop shoveling traditional journalism online. To stop waiting for their brethren in broadcast or print edition newsrooms to solve the problem of why viewership, readership, and listenership have been declining for decades; to stop hoping to shovel into online whatever that solution is. Judging by their long track record, it is highly unlikely that traditional journalists will ever solve that problem.

Because traditional journalists will never lead that change, it has become incumbent upon online journalists to lead, reinvent, and revitalize journalism for the 21st Century. That time is now. I challenge my fellow Online News Association members. Manhattan beckons.


jJon Garfunkelcomments:

I want to respond to this comment:

“However, it has come time for them to stop shoveling traditional
journalism online. ”

How do I square this with the fervor that most bloggers had for demanding that the Times make all content available online, for free?

Vin Crosbie responds:

And a fervent bunch they are! As a blogger, I can sympathize with them. It’s best for bloggers to have a free source of news to comment about.

However, bloggers aren’t the Times primary audience online, merely a small (single digit?) percentage of the NYTimes.com usership. The Times isn’t making them the basis upon which it bases decisions about its online business model. [For what it’s worth, I disagree about its decision to charge for Times Select.]

However, my posting was about journalism itself, not charging for it. And The New York Times, even though it’s core circulation has been moribund for decades, isn’t a good example of the problems I’d mentioned. It’s perhaps the last newspaper that should stop shoveling its core content online, although it can be doing so much more.

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