Online Media vs. the 'Paper of Record'

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 24, 2009

Listening to the recent interview with Green Party leader Elizabeth May triggered a tangential reflection about the role of the media in a democratic nation.

After May pointed out the steady decline in the diversity and quality of mainstream media, interviewer Steve Paikin responded, "But you're only referring to mainstream media. We have a proliferation of voices online, which presumably have been increasingly important during election campaigns."

May countered:

We have some very responsible journalists online, in places like the Tyee, or Straight Goods, or Rabble, but we've also got a proliferation of unmitigated garbage that isn't vetted by anyone for accuracy. You know, the most salacious gossip and outrageous slander can appear on internet sites.

So the ability to have a paper of record, a newspaper you can trust that's actually going to tell you what's going on - people rely on that, particularly the engaged electorate connection to reading a daily newspaper is very strong.

And if you look at countries where you still see a lot of people voting, they tend to read a daily newspaper, or more than one. So I think it's a serious declining sign in our democracy.

May is clearly a smart, savvy political analyst and, arguably, a competent politician, given that the Greens were the only party to increase their vote count in the last election - but she's wandering into "Get Off My Lawn" territory in her media analysis.

The traditional newsmedia produce content that ranges from accurate, vetted, well-researched, well-written coverage to sensationalist dreck; and the online media also produce content spread across the same range.

If you doubt me about the former, you need only pick up a copy of the Toronto Sun and try to get through it cover to cover without grinding your teeth into dust.

May's lack of understanding about the nature of online media goes deeper than merely cherry-picking. What tipped me off was her use of the phrase "paper of record", which implies an authoritative publication produced to the highest standards - a publication you can trust.

Authoritativeness and Accountability

Therein lies the problem: as a citizen, you can't simply trust a publication to be accurate, fair and comprehensive. There is no objective arbiter of the truth to which we can turn to give a stamp of approval to a given publication.

This is not to to suggest that there can be no objective truth itself; only that we citizens have to determine the truth of a given matter for ourselves, rather than letting some authority do it for us.

The reason for this is simple. In assessing the fitness of a news story, any potential source of authority can a) lack relevant information, b) possess false information, and/or c) be subject to conflicts of interest.

Yet the traditional newsmedia still produce the news as if they possessed the authority and expertise to serve as a "paper of record" - a more-or-less infallible, objective source of knowledge.

To be sure, the traditional newsmedia generally do follow journalistic standards that emphasize the importance of stating the relevant facts of a story, consulting multiple sources for information, giving different sides of an issue a chance to make their case, and so on. They also acknowledge that mistakes are sometimes made and they attempt, within the limitations of the print medium, to issue corrections in a timely and accessible manner.

That is all to the good. However, ultimately the authority is still rigidly top-down and the opportunities for citizens to hold the newsmedia to account are severely constrained. That accountability is limited to:

In this model, the consumer of news is essentially a passive recipient of content produced by professionals.

Online Media: Iteration and Collaboration

New, online media have to do things differently. Their comparative access to resources is so severely limited compared to the traditional media that they simply don't have the luxury of professional journalists and editors.

The crucial difference between the old media and the new media is that, as Clay Shirky reminds us, the newsmedia have gone from being a scarce, expensive commodity to a cheap, abundant commodity. When the cost of publishing collapses, the principal use of publishers as gatekeepers of quality for a scarce resource becomes moot.

Thanks to this new abundance, instead of the top-down, expertise-based model of the mainstream media, the online media compete through iteration and collaboration.

By iteration, I mean that the online media actually publish the process of newsgathering as well as, and in some cases rather than, the finished product.

Traditional jounalists file reports internally and develop their story before submitting it to an editor, who then prepares and formats the story for publication before it appears in print in a discrete edition.

By contrast, online journalists - essentially, anyone whose writing is published online - are more likely to file their reports publicly and share them right away, rather than holding onto them until the finished product is prepared.

Whereas a traditional reporter might make sure to get at least two reliable sources for a report before filing it (though not always), an online journalist may well publish a scoop right away - preferably with the caveat that the report is not yet confirmed and is still developing.

Journalist Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, calls this "journalism as beta", analogous to the way that some software companies release web applications in a "beta" or still incomplete version, which requires more testing and additional features before it can be considered complete.

This is an important observation, because the big advantage to journalism as beta, like software development as beta, is that it benefits from widespread collaboration - feedback from users, as well as fixes and new features from volunteer developers.

As ReadWriteWeb's Bernard Lunn explains:

"Iterative" is the way of the Web. Create something, put it out there, get reactions, improve. That has to be the future.

This is a big - and increasing - part of what we are trying to do at RTH. While we are still in many ways a traditional news organization - complete with an editorial team who decides what primary content to publish - we publish online in a cheap, abundant medium that informs how we approach the challenges of journalism.

We've discovered that the contributions of readers through commentary on the articles and blog entries is at least as valuable as the articles and blog entries themselves. Astute readers regularly find mistakes in our reporting - which we try to correct in a timely fashion - as well as presenting additional information that fleshes out or sometimes changes a story.

Baked-In Accountability

Again, we do it this way at least in part because we have to do it this way: we're a small, volunteer-run organization and have only miniscule resources.

But we also do it this way because it works. It works because people like to create things and to participate in interesting projects and will do so if given the opportunity. One of the most startling discoveries of the widespread internet is that it's possible to create truly impressive project not just by bringing in experts and managing them effectively but also by aggregating modest individual contributions by amateurs.

This broad participation serves to produce more accurate and comprehensive reporting, and the forced accountability helps to keep us honest and fair in how we present stories or make arguments.

If I write something that's sloppy, inaccurate, intellectually dishonest or unfair, I know I'm going to be called out on it in the comments for all to see; so that's an additional motivation for me to question my assumptions and test my beliefs.

Finally, we do it this way because it hews closer to the prevailing online culture: a culture of openness, transparency and active participation. It's a culture that is starting to spill over into other areas of public policy.

Lunn explains why this accuracy and fairness is essential to what he calls the three-layered "emerging journalism stack" composed of 1) "millions of eyes, with camera phones, SMS, Twitter, whatever works at the time"; 2) "the spotters and amplifiers, people who see the potential importance of a story and do a bit more research online and use their network to push the story out"; and 3) "the trusted [media] brands":

Each [media brand] has to earn the public's trust every day. When you see a news item coming from multiple sources, which do you click on? Different clicks for different folks; this is no winner-take-all market. Can be MSM, can be niche. But that trust is earned every day. Facts have to be checked, and that takes time, money, and training.

He concludes:

Bloggers have to accept that readers are looking for the rigor of traditional journalists. We have to figure out how to get enough money to do that properly or else do it much more efficiently.

The reason, Lunn notes, is that the new journalism stack is transparent:

The truly amazing thing today is our ability to cruise up and down this stack at will: to see the raw reports from the million eyes, to hear the impassioned voice of the amplifier, and to see how the story emerges down the final mile of media.

New Role for Professionals

When a resource is scarce, we need professionals to manage it effectively so that it is not wasted - so that all of its uses are valuable to the largest number of people. When it is abundant, we only need ways to distinguish its valuable uses from its trivial, superfluous or wasteful uses.

The role of professionals changes when a resource becomes abundant, from finding, identifying and preparing high-quality content to fostering the kind of collaboration necessary for great content to grow organically.

Instead of hiding behind a cloak of authoritativeness and professionalism (and sometimes hiding mistakes there), the responsible new media expose much of their workings to the world, knowing that their end product gets better faster as more people scrutinize it.

There will always be sleaze, gossip-mongering, slander and sensationalism. These things all existed when publishing was scarce and expensive, and they will persist now that publishing has become cheap and abundant.

Responsible journalists (both amateur and professional) will leverage the collaborative power of the internet to produce works that grow steadily more detailed, comprehensive and accurate as they iterate through the contributions and oversight of active citizens.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By synxer (registered) | Posted June 24, 2009 at 14:54:08

Internet media accuracy is actually easier to accomplish than for the traditional newspaper brand.

Online people can comment and otherwise vote on news, eg: commenting, ratings, Digg-style democratic news.

In the traditional newspaper brand you get what you get and if you have a complaint you have to trust it'll pass all the filters to make it from "Letter-to-the-editor" to the next daily. Even web-based versions of the newspapers have a "moderated" comment system at best, while almost all blogs allow you to post freely, even anonymously.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 01:00:28

Interesting article. I guess what I like about the internet is having the ability to go places and read other thoughts and opinions about a wide range of subjects.

It opens opportunites that never before existed, it is too bad that many cannot afford this medium, as I think we would see a more balanced pool of what public opinion really is about a particular subject.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 11:00:04

I don't know that voting makes online stories more accurate, as it can be abused. I find the ability to have immediate access to source data is what makes online articles so much better than traditional print (or tv) which are more passive.

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By zookeeper (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 12:09:20

Great essay, nice to see people here "get it", actually I realized while reading this that it completely ties in with your open source city idea - instead of experts telling us how things are going to be and we have to take there word for it, we get to go to source and see for ourselves what's going on. Citizen empowerment ftw!

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By amateur (anonymous) | Posted July 28, 2014 at 11:50:49

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