As media technologies become faster, more affordable and more accessible throughout the world, patterns of media delivery and consumption are adapting rapidly to meet the changing needs of audiences.
A new generation of media makers with an eclectic beat has emerged. They report directly, based on their interests and personal experience, or as on-the-spot eyewitnesses at scenes of disaster. Before the age of cell phone cameras, Blackberries and pocket-sized video devices, bystanders were the ones interviewed by reporters. Now, on-the-scene witnesses record the news themselves and hit “send,” launching unfiltered information and circumventing a journalistic selection and vetting process that many say is central to credible reporting.
Images, opinions and eyewitness accounts are bouncing off satellites, traveling fiber optics and cables to wider and more diverse populations. In 2006, Internet usage has grown 189 percent since 2000, with over one billion users worldwide.
With such an explosion of digital media access in all parts of the globe, it is inevitable that the way we produce and receive information will continue to morph and evolve in the decades ahead. And questions are sure to arise along the way. For example, as the media re-organizes to accommodate populations in Africa, China and the Middle East, what might the political consequences be? Will balances of power shift from those who thrived before to those who are now emerging? And how should traditional media makers respond to the changing demands of their audiences? The possibilities and challenges appear endless as we stand at the gate of this new frontier.
Traditional Meets Digital
As the number of Internet users grows, newspapers are adapting, increasing and evolving to meet the demands of the technologically advancing masses. While most newspaper readers (71 percent) still primarily turn to print for their news, the trend is showing a steady rise for online and a continuing decline for print.
NYTimes.com ranks the highest of U.S. online newspaper sites, with 11.4 million unique visitors in 2005, and their success may be a bellwether for the media at large. The newspaper’s companion Web site responded to consumer expectations by regularly updating online reports, companion audio, slide show and video features, blogs, podcasts, e-mail alerts and instant news feeds from all over the world.
The approach has proven popular enough for the paper’s online readership to accept a $49.95 annual charge for TimesSelect, a premium service that provides access to editorials, columns, multimedia, e-mail alerts, archived stories and other features––ultimately raising the paper’s Internet revenue from $49 million to $66 million in 2005.
Media watchers point to the integration of print and online newsrooms as one important factor, blending the prestige and credibility of print journalism with the speed, variety and versatility of features such as streaming video, slideshows, podcasts and blogs.
Most agree that the participation of venerable journalists in new media ventures has improved credibility and signaled a shift from the pure print mentality to a hybrid goal of maintaining journalistic standards while taking advantage of the increasingly powerful instruments of digital media––a hybrid that has come to include a new class of reporting called citizen journalism.
What is Citizen Journalism?
Citizen or participatory journalism amounts to non-professional participation in the process of reporting, sharing or analyzing the news. Citizen journalists use the Web to disseminate images and stories, sometimes using camera phones or sending text reports as events are happening. When Hurricane Katrina struck, victims and rescuers sent first-person descriptions of relief efforts, helping readers and television viewers learn about damage and looting and offering practical up-to-the-minute information about aid centers, transportation and insurance. When the news media and government were blocked from getting into New Orleans, citizen journalists took up the cause. And when the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper offices were destroyed, the editors turned to the Internet to get the stories out.
Blogging the News
Blogging––personal online publishing, once known as Web logging––has become a form of citizen journalism, with the content evolving from strictly personal diaries to include news coverage and watchdog reports. According to a July 2006 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, there are twelve million bloggers in the United States. Thirty-four per cent of those interviewed consider blogging to be a form of journalism.
During the 2004 election, bloggers were responsible for revealing that 60 Minutes reporter Dan Rather had used forged memos critical of President Bush’s service in the National Guard. A team of bloggers at Daily Kos uncovered that Jeff Gannon, aka Jim Gluckert, was an illegitimate member of the press corps given day passes to White House briefings in order to assist the Bush administration.
Journalist Mark Glaser writes in his PBS Weblog “Mediashift” that 80 percent of the top newspaper sites have blogs, most of which allow reader participation. He notes that this trend is spreading fast among smaller newspapers, as well. Glaser’s blog, which focuses on tracking how new media is impacting society and culture, claims that while the Internet may have negatively impacted investigative newspaper and magazine reporting by reducing circulation, online initiatives have also put forward possible collaborative solutions which involve citizen participation and more dynamic multimedia venues.
Major media outlets are now inviting citizen journalists into the fold. CNN has a citizen journalist site where contributors upload videos, photographs and e-mails called “I-Reports.” Witness.org also solicits video from around the world, and uses those images to expose human rights abuses that would otherwise go unseen. MSNBC has joined in with their “Citizen Journalists Report,” which asks observers to big news events to send video and photos for instant coverage.
These Web sites represent a small sampling of what has grown into an international phenomenon, with hundreds of “j-blogs” listed on Cyberjournalist.net under categories such as “Independent,” “Spot News and Events,” “Published by News Sites” and “Personal Sites of Journalists.” The Web site Reporters Without Borders highlights a voter-selected list of citizen blogs published from some of the most oppressed regions of the world, each chosen for their efforts to defend freedom of expression.
New Frontiers: The Digital Wild West
Digital technology is booming and advances have made it possible for almost anyone anywhere to get images and reports instantly. This reality has drawn skeptics as well as supporters. While supporters emphasize the benefits of producing speedy, unfettered news, and circumventing the “gatekeepers” of information—as the mainstream media are sometimes called—many professional journalists say that it is impossible to ensure that something as instant and ethereal as “citizen journalism” can meet the standards of traditional journalism.
Questions loom: What will distinguish a regular blogger from a journalist blogger? How far can “j-blogs” take their reporting without being held to the more rigorous standards of traditional news media? What restrictions, if any, are appropriate for publishing photographs and videos?
The answers may not come soon, but history suggests that however America’s new media pioneers move forward, they will defend and take refuge in the same First Amendment protections as those before, beside and after them.
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