How has digital technology been changing the news—and journalism?
Whenever and wherever news breaks today, the first reports and images often arrive in newsrooms and on people's mobile devices via social media—whether transmitted by journalists or by ordinary citizens who happen to be at the scene of events. Journalists can sometimes initially reach witnesses and sources through those same social media. They can quickly search the Internet for background, context, and relevant records and data. They can use a steadily growing number of creative digital tools to organize, analyze, and display information.
As they piece a story together, working to verify, explain, and interpret its content, journalists and their news organizations can rapidly post what they are finding in social media messages, blog items, early versions of the story, and even photos and videos—sometimes attracting additional information from sources or readers reacting to what they have posted. They no longer have to wait for the next edition of a printed newspaper or the next scheduled television or radio broadcast. An increasing number of journalists with multimedia skills also can produce their own photographs and videos, and their news organizations can use digitally transmitted images from members of the public. Finished stories can be presented on websites and mobile devices in a variety of audience-engaging ways. And all of it can be distributed digitally far beyond the confines of print circulation and broadcast signals or national boundaries. News consumers can choose among many digital forms of journalism from an almost infinite variety of sources and share them through social media.
In these ways and more, digital technology is profoundly changing the news and journalism. It has enabled faster, broader, deeper, and more participatory news reporting that can be distributed digitally to potentially much larger audiences. It has made possible new, more informative, and engaging ways to present news by digitally integrating text, video, slide shows, animations, interactive charts, maps, and other graphics, and searchable databases with links to source materials. For example, readers of the digital presentation of the prize-winning 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stories about dangerous delays in required genetic screening of newborn babies in US hospitals were able to easily search an interactive map for what was happening in their states.
But digital technology also has destabilized news organizations that had long produced most of the news and set journalistic standards. Digital media have fragmented audiences and undermined the advertising-based economic models of once dominant newspapers and television and radio networks and stations. As the advertising revenue that had effectively subsidized news gathering continues to shrink steadily, many American news organizations have cut costs by drastically reducing their newsroom staffs and payrolls—and, in too many cases, by lowering their journalistic ambitions.
Today there are far fewer newspaper and television journalists covering everything from local and state to national and foreign news, in addition to subjects like education, the environment, health care, and science. The number of fulltime newsroom employees at the nearly 1400 American daily newspapers, for example, has fallen from 54,100 in 2005 to just 32,900 in 2015, according to an annual survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. After several years of staff reductions, employment has stabilized somewhat in network and local television news, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project. But those journalists are spread more thinly over an increased number of hours of news at local stations and national cable networks. The number of news-gathering jobs shed by long-established news media still dwarfs the number created so far by digital startups, which account for only about 7% of the estimated 70,000 journalists now employed by American print, broadcast, and digital news media, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project's 2014 State of the News Media report.
At the same time, digital startups have kept multiplying, without the burden of the legacy costs of expensive printing presses, physical distribution, broadcast facilities, or transmission towers—and the employees to run them. Digital technology enables startup news websites to be more entrepreneurial and experimental as they seek both to fill gaps left by downsizing legacy media and to create new forms of journalism. Many have focused on local and state news and investigative reporting, a few others on foreign news. Some have involved their audiences more deeply in gathering and sharing news; others have specialized in new kinds of analytical, opinionated, or advocacy journalism, independent of corporate ownership and traditional journalistic standards. But many of the digital startups also are struggling to create sustainable economic models.
While disrupting old economic models, digital technology has created some new revenue opportunities for both new and old news media. Many are now requiring paid subscriptions for some or all of their digital news. To attract advertisers, they offer digital data about audience traffic and demographics. Many also are selling digital advertising that looks and reads much like news stories on the same websites and mobile applications, which makes it more difficult for you to distinguish news from digital ads. Some like Gannett newspapers and the Dallas Morning News have started digital marketing services for local businesses. Yet, for newspapers in particular, the new digital revenue so far has amounted to only a fraction of the pricier print advertising revenue they have lost.
Both new and old news media also are using digital technology to closely monitor the size and news habits of their audiences, including audiences for individual stories, images, and features on their websites. Some news organizations are using these audience metrics to evaluate the productivity of their journalists and the popularity of their stories, even basing compensation on that data. Some also are using digital traffic data to decide what news to cover, rather than relying only on journalists' news judgment.
Digital technology has made immediacy—being first with new or breaking news on social media, news sites, and search engines—an even more important factor in the competition for news audiences. And it is changing how journalists and newsrooms work. Posting news fast and first, often by minimizing or bypassing editorial review and fact-checking, can attract a larger digital audience.
At times, however, such haste can imperil accuracy and understanding, as we've seen with erroneous early reports of breaking news by both news media and citizens using social media. For example, several innocent young men were wrongly linked by television and social media reports to the 2012 Boston Marathon terrorist bombings. Later that year, Ryan Lanza was initially identified by cable television and digital media as the man who shot to death twenty children and six adults at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school, when the shooter was actually his brother, Adam, who also killed himself. The first cable television reports about the US Supreme Court's 2012 decision largely upholding the Affordable Care Act wrongly told everyone watching that the court had overturned the law because CNN and Fox News reporters had not yet read the entire complex ruling.
Digital technology also makes it easier for news-like rumors, half-truths, and purposeful misinformation to spread rapidly on the Internet before the truth catches up with them, if it ever does. For example, opinion polls have repeatedly shown that 10% or more Americans still doubt that President Obama was born in the United States, after years of false rumormongering by so-called "birthers," much of it on the Internet.
On the other hand, digital technology also gives news media and their audience new tools to correct mistakes, check facts, provide context, update information, reveal plagiarism and fabrication, and authenticate or discredit social media posts and citizen-contributed photos and videos. It enables anyone posting news on the Internet to include hyperlinks to primary source material and other relevant information and images. It gives news media the means to show how they cover the news and what goes into their journalism, and it gives their audience opportunities to help shape the news. The same technology that has so disrupted American journalism is enabling its reconstruction in still evolving new forms.