Last night, New York University hosted a panel in its continuing “Primary Sources” series focusing on journalism, featuring professors and media commenters Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky.
While the topic may have officially been “New Media’s Present and Future,” the conversation quickly moved into the past: specifically delving into five years ago, which Shirky said most people mistakenly refer to as the Golden Era of Journalism — before the Internet came and took all the money away. Five years ago, Shirky stated, newspapers were losing readership left and right, but their revenue was booming. Ironically, now most newspapers actually have more readers due to their Web sites, but the money has dried up.
While most news orgs would have liked to take that conversation in the direction of how to get that money back, Shirky and Rosen were more interested in how the Internet plays into the public’s perception of the mainstream media.
Rosen, known for his work in the movement of public journalism, sited the longitudinal study that showed that in 1976 over 75 percent of Americans had “a great deal of trust” in the press, whereas 30 years later, only 4.5 percent did. Yet journalists on the whole, Rosen asserted, have only become more educated and better informed. So where did this mistrust of the media come from?
Well, from the small groups of Internet watchdogs, which perform the important function of “after-the-fact-checking,” as the professors put it. Starting (debatably) as early as Dan Rather’s MemoGate in 2004, and up to the recent Balloon Boy incident, the Internet has offered up information that contradicts what is being fed to us by our televisions or newspapers. Compare this to 30 years ago, when we may have had a pick of only several outlets of information in which to get our news, which stood as indisputable facts of the world at the time.
So is the Internet bad for all news organizations, undermining the public’s trust in once-reputable sources? Not necessarily, said Shirky, though news publications’ latest act of going to the FTC to regulate the information disseminated on the Web is absolutely the wrong direction. It is the act of forwarding a piece of journalism these days, not the publication of the piece itself, that gets these publishers an audience, he said. And by placing a pay wall or premium on your brand or story — as Rupert Murdoch and several other publishers are trying to do — you’re directly hindering that story’s ability to gain readership.
Then again, if we’re going by the adage of The Golden Age of Journalism, an audience isn’t as important as a profit.