‘We’re all journalists in the digital age’. Explore what is meant by this phrase and interrogate the validity of this claim.
In this essay I will be exploring the meaning and the theory behind the quote above, and how the ‘digital age’ and its effects have influenced the practice of journalism. I will be questioning whether the advent of the internet and ‘Web 2.0’ allows the ‘ordinary user’ (or citizen journalist) to be on a par with professional journalists, and drawing parallels between the practice of journalism and the ‘Twittersphere’, as well as rise of YouTube (and similar) within the entertainment industry, amongst other examples. My essay will also outline why exactly old media is facing adversity, especially with the ascent of new media – reinforced by theories from Henry Jenkins and Robert McChesney, amongst others.
The ‘digital age’ is defined as the shift from an industrial society (a direct result of the Industrial Revolution) into a computer-driven society where efficiency and costs take precedence. The shift between the industrial and digital ages can be characterised by the recent change to computerised processes, as computers are favoured due to their efficiency and low cost. Media products have transformed massively as a result of the information age, and especially since the World Wide Web’s introduction in 1991 – so much so that media products are now split into two categories; new media (products dependent on the use of computers such as websites, mobile apps, computer games, etc.) and old media (products which dominated before the digital age such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, film and music studios, etc.).
David Carr (2008) for The New York Times published an article, Mourning Old Media’s Decline, in which he reviewed the lack of parity between the profit margins with new and old media. Carr described print products as ‘legacy technology’ but stated that ‘more than 90%’ of a typical newspaper’s revenue comes from the physical copy. Almost ten years on, more and more print publications (magazines especially) are falling foul of the digital age – with The Independent the latest and greatest UK publication to move solely online in March 2016. With the shift to new media accelerating at the turn of the century, many newspapers and magazines had a fight-or-flight response and began moving their content online – accepting the comparatively paltry advertisement revenue and consequently resolving the losses by making savage cuts to personnel.
However, knowing their brand names still had a certain prestige in the journalistic world, many print publications began introducing a ‘metered model’ for their content, installing a ‘paywall’ to protect the best content. Frederic Filloux (2011), editor of Monday Note and media academic (a digital business newsletter covering digital media), says ‘finding the right metered setting is far from trivial’. He gives the example of The Times, who have put all of their content behind a paywall – the ‘riskiest option’ according to Filloux, as it sees the publication lose ‘90% of its audience (and the related advertisement revenue)’. Another more successful example would be the Financial Times’ model, who have adapted time and time again over the years to keep content competitively priced. The Financial Times allows the user a £1, four-week trial with full access, and digital packages thereafter are priced at £5.35 and £8.60 a week.
Other old media entertainment industries have reacted to the digital age shift by converging with new media figures, a process defined by theorist Henry Jenkins (2006) as convergence culture. An example of this would be film studios using YouTube stars in their own films, such as KSI and Caspar Lee in Laid in America, and Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla in Smosh: The Movie. In the sports world, the controversial channel ArsenalFanTV crossed the divide between YouTube and terrestrial television when they featured on the BBC before the 2017 FA Cup Final contested by Arsenal and Chelsea, giving the ‘ordinary fan’ a platform to express their opinions and views on a huge stage. ArsenalFanTV, who produce videos reacting to Arsenal’s performances, are perfect examples of Jenkins’ theory of a Participatory Culture (2015), in which he views modern media users as active and passionate consumers who exercise dominant (acceptance), negotiated (some resistance) and oppositional (rejection) readings of media products, as per Stuart Hall’s (1973) reception theory.
The main draws of new media and journalism’s role in the digital age – according to Kelly (2008) – is the immediacy, personalisation, accessibility and findability of content on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The advent of the internet has allowed users to tailor the content they see exclusively to their tastes (for example on Twitter and Facebook the user can only see posts from users they follow), and this new personalised style ‘conforms to the expectations of a society whose collective attention span has shortened notably’ according to Davis and Owen (1998). ‘Attention economy’ is another term coined by digital marketing experts when describing the process behind ensuring relevant content is presented to the user, who will only consume the media product if it appeals to them.
McChesney (2008) also criticised old media’s reliance on ‘official sources’ to provide stories and pique the public interest. McChesney stated that ‘when a journalist dares to raise an issue that no official source is talking about, he or she is accused of being unprofessional, and attempting to introduce his or her own biases into the news’. With the ‘Twittersphere’, there is no such problem. Because of the typical user’s lack of reputation and relative anonymity, stories can be propelled into public knowledge immediately – instead of waiting for a sometimes unreliable ‘official’ press release.
Initially the internet was incredibly limited in terms of content, with plain text pages, low resolution graphics and aesthetically horrible websites dominating the World Wide Web. Darcy DiNucci (1999) wrote in her article Fragmented Future that ‘the Web we know now… is only an embryo of the Web to come’. We can say now that she was entirely correct with this forecast, with her brainchild ‘Web 2.0’ fully realised for more than a decade. The key features of Web 2.0, listed by David Best (2006) include ‘rich user experience’ and ‘user participation’ – key components of Jenkins’ aforementioned Participatory Culture.
Web 2.0 has forced old media producers into moving their content online, as we have seen with newspapers, and as we are seeing with television and radio – with the BBC (among others) creating an online platform in which all of their content is housed, as well as moving long-running channel BBC Three entirely online. Much like the BBC, journalists have moved their content online. Instead of waiting for their publication to print news, many sport journalists have cut out the middleman and are posting snippets of their content on social networking sites such as Twitter. Paul Joyce, for example, is the ‘Northern Football Correspondent’ for The Times, yet has a Twitter following of 117 thousand. Tweeting news on Liverpool and Everton Football Club as it happens, Joyce likely reaches about 30% of Liverpool and Everton’s combined Twitter following of just under 11 million, through the official hashtags (#lfc and #efc) and other news aggregators such as Reddit and Facebook.
And for the average sports fan, this coverage is enough. ‘Professional’ journalist’s offerings on social media, coupled with writings from unexperienced citizen journalists through official channels (club based blogs and YouTube channels) quench the thirst for content. However, and this is a mantra with anything that is free, quality can be compromised. Free journalism (or social journalism – stories which have been written by amateur journalists but screened by professionals) can often be unreliable and downright unsatisfactory. Users like TheLADBible and UniLad will often tweet suggestive headlines and link to a story which has been completely overdramatised, baiting the average user into clicking on the story to generate advertising revenue – in a technique universally known as ‘clickbait’. And yet this model seems to have worked, with the official @LADBible handle boasting over two million followers, proving again that the collective attention span among ‘users’ has sharply decreased (Davis and Owen, 1998) as the want and need for news is instantaneous.
Shoemaker and Vos (2009) have reworked the theory of gatekeeping (the practice of deciding newsworthiness) to encompass Web 2.0 (audience gatekeeping), and because of the broad range of content available to suit almost every taste – they found that users will ‘pass along already available news items, commenting on them’. This allows the user to broadcast their biases to their online following, possibly influencing the minds of the users reading the content. Another adaptation by Kwon et al (2013) determined that user-generated content generates far more interest on social media websites than established mass-media producers, reinforcing the ‘gatekeepers’ role of the online society, whilst their platform is mostly ‘ungated’ due freedom of speech.
Tweets, blog posts and videos are examples of citizen journalism, a branch of the profession which has seen real growth since the start of the digital age, and especially through social media (brought on by the capabilities of Web 2.0). Mark Glaser (2006), a freelance journalist defined the idea behind citizen journalism as ‘people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create, augment or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others’. Citizen journalism is a field which as seen huge success in Arab countries, where regimes have been toppled, and ‘ordinary’ citizens scramble to paint a real picture of what is happening in their country and announce it to the world (through social media such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook). Examples of this include the Arab Spring (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain), 2013 Turkey Protests and Russian interference in the Ukraine. We would not have had access to the wealth of information and constant updates from these troubled countries if it weren’t for the work of many citizen journalists (in some cases risking their lives) making sure their voices are heard.
Although citizen journalism is effective in the short-term, the profession is still regulated by bodies such as the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists ) – who accredit courses which train journalists effectively enough to deal with the rapid change we are experiencing with technological advances. Jobs in the higher echelons of the profession usually require professional accreditation – either through a course like the NCTJ or other short courses offered throughout the country. The NCTJ teaches prospective journalists many important processes and skills that they will use throughout their careers – such as shorthand, public administration and the law behind the media and journalism. The NCTJ is often described as the journalist’s toolbox as it gives them the platform, the methods and the skills to build a successful career in the field.
In conclusion, I would determine that the profession of journalism is split into categories – or almost a hierarchy of ‘authenticity’. Towards the bottom will be participatory consumers such as ArsenalFanTV, presenting a passionate reading of media products without demonstrating traditional journalism practices and displaying clear bias. Citizen and social journalism would be next on the ladder, with citizen journalism providing much-needed information we wouldn’t otherwise have – but possibly exposing bias, inconsistencies and ‘clickbait’ in the process. Social journalism is a more attractive prospect because pieces (although written by amateurs) must be independently ratified by professional journalists who have passed through the system (attaining a professional accreditation such as the NCTJ), therefore guaranteeing the quality of the journalism. Finally – towards the top of the hierarchy – are professional journalists working at accomplished and celebrated media outlets, who combine use of old and new media (such as Paul Joyce) to their advantage, reaching as many consumers as they possibly can. In summary, I would determine that everyone can be a journalist to an extent, but to progress to the highest level they must follow the path that top journalists have trodden, by passing the NCTJ or another equivalent course.