Researchers determine mainstream online journalism still mainstream

In a shocking (possibly only to the researchers) conclusion, a study of major media online journalism newsrooms in the UK has discovered that they follow a relatively narrow mainstream agenda. I think that is a fair summary of an interview on Radio 4 with Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith University Media Research Centre in London speaking about her book New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. From the synopsis on Radio 4, “Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith’s University in London, … argues that instead of democratising information, the internet has narrowed our horizons.”

I haven’t read the book, seeing as the release date on Amazon is tomorrow. I am sure that book covers the themes in greater depth in what can be covered in a couple of minutes on radio, but I found the interview infuriating.

Dr Fenton and her researchers looked at three online newsrooms, two of which I’ve worked in: the BBC News Website, the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. I might have to pick up a copy and see if her researchers’ interviews with me are reflected in the book.

First, I would say the book was out of date a year ago based on changes here at the Guardian. We were just beginning our print-online integration. We are still going through the process, as are many newsrooms, but one thing we have done is combined web and print production as much as possible to not only reduce duplication of effort and work around re-purposing print content. This frees up journalists to do journalism and not just ‘copy and pasting’ as Dr Fenton puts it in her interview.

Secondly, I think her conclusions, as expressed in the interview, are undermined by a selection bias. As Charlie Beckett at Polis at LSE says in a blog post from a year ago when they unveiled their draft conclusions, there are problems with the methodology of the study and some of the assumptions underpinning the research. Dr Fenton comes to conclusions about online journalism based on research from three newsrooms connected to traditional news organisations. Is it really all that surprising that she finds their agendas in line with mainstream media organisations? The news environment is much more complex outside of most newsrooms these days than inside, which is one of the problems with the news industry. By condemning online journalism at traditional organisations as focusing on a narrow agenda as Dr Fenton does in the interview, isn’t this more accurately an indictment of the narrow agenda of the mainstream media seeing as the websites track closely the agenda of the legacy media be it broadcast or print?

Thirdly, online news operations connected to traditional news organisations have never had a major stand-alone newsgathering facility. The BBC News website once did have some original newsgathering capacity. I was their reporter in Washington. However, most of the newsgathering capacity rested with television and radio journalists whose work was re-purposed for the website. The situation is more complex at the Guardian now. We produce more web-only content during the week than we do print-only content.

Fourthly, Dr Fenton says that online staff are desk bound, and online newsrooms rely on “less journalists with less time to do proper investigative journalism”. Can we have some perspective on investigative journalism please? Really. Fighting to perserve investigative journalism and investigative journalism only is like trying to save the auto industry by fighting in the name of Porsche. Investigative journalism has always been the pinnacle of our craft, not its totality. It’s important, but investigative journalism was a fraction of pre-digital journalistic output. Again, if Dr Fenton has an issue with lack of investigations, then it’s an issue to take up with the organisation as a whole, not the online newsroom. Having said that, I’ll stand by the Guardian’s investigative output online and off: MPs expenses crowdsouring, Datablog, Trafigura, just to name a few Guardian investigations and innovations here in 2009.

Lastly, I think the narrow frame completely ignores the work of digital pioneers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of journalism. I think of the Guardian’s Matthew Weaver and his live digital coverage of the G20 protests this spring and his recent project to track post during the strike using GPS transmitters. I think of the Guardian’s Simon Jeffery with his recent People’s History of the Internet and the Faces of the Dead and Detained in Iran project as other examples of excellent digital journalism, journalism only possible online. I think of the work that my good friend Chris Vallance has done with BBC 5Live’s Pods and Blogs and iPM on Radio 4. I think of the many projects that I’ve been proud to work on at the BBC and the Guardian. Chris and I brought the voices of those fleeing Hurricane Katrina to the radio and also US soldiers fighting the war in Iraq radio audiences through creative use of the internet. I consider myself primarily an online journalist, but I’ve been working across multiple media for more than 10 years now. I covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for the BBC News website, BBC radio and television. I’ve done webcasts from the 29th story of a building overlooking Ground Zero three months after the 11 September 2001 attacks. I tweeted from the celebrations of Barack Obama’s victory outside the White House after a 4000 social media-driven month of coverage of the historic 2008 US presidential election. Online journalism isn’t perfect, and it reflects imperfections in traditional journalism. However, in the hands of a good journalist, digital journalism offers up radical new opportunities to tell stories and bring them to new audiences.

My experiences and my career aren’t representative of the industry. I have been doing original journalism online for more than a decade. That is rare, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I lost a lot of colleagues in the dot.com crash when newspapers and broadcasters slashed online budgets. After an interview with the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in 2002 on the one year anniversary of 11 September attacks, he took us on a tour of their much slimmed online newsroom. He spoke with pride about the work of the online staff, but he said, “The Mouse (Disney, ABC’s parent company)” didn’t see it that way and continued to make deep cuts.

In 2009, the picture is much different. Print and broadcast journalists are doing more original work online. We have more online-focused journalists than even when Dr Fenton was doing her research. Journalists cast off by ailing journalism institutions are re-launching their careers on the web.

I chose the internet to be my primarily journalistic platform in 1996. I chose it because I saw unique opportunities for journalism. When I did, it was a lonely choice. I faced a lot of prejudice from print journalists who based their views on lack of knowledge and fear. A passion for the medium kept me going despite some of that prejudice. Everyday I get up and help push a unique medium just a further journalistically. (To their credit, my colleagues at the BBC in radio and television told me almost on a daily basis with respect and admiration how I was the future of journalism.)

These prejudices against online journalism are parroted by Dr Fenton in her interview, which I guess is one of the reasons that it made my blood boil. I hope the book paints the reality in a bit more complexity than was possible in a few minutes on air. I hope that she includes some broader examples of how online journalists do original journalism that can’t be done in any other media. However, if the interview on Radio 4 is representative of the book, it’s a reality I don’t recognise. Bad journalism begins with a thesis which never adapts to new information. It’s the same with bad research.

2 thoughts on “Researchers determine mainstream online journalism still mainstream

  1. Hi Kevin,
    They are very good people at Goldsmith and Natalie is a fine academic. But I just don’t believe that conclusion. Possibly somehow there was some magic moment just before the papers went online when they were super-diverse editorially but I just can’t see how their online work has actually narrowed the range of stories. Just take the Guardian’s Katine project alone. It was a massive expansion of the range of the paper’s story-telling and choice of subject matter and voices.
    I think that inevitably, left-wing academics are always going to be disappointed in the news media which inevitably fails to live up to their ideals.
    Which is a shame because speaking as someone working in a University, I find many of the critical insights – often drawn from pretty obtruse theory – can provide robust and challenging insight. It’s just that they always think we’re crap…
    cheers
    Charlie

  2. Charlie,
    As I said in the post, I’m sure the full study goes into more detail. The problem with the interview on Radio 4 is all I heard were the conclusions, which you and I don’t believe. It’s not simply that I worked at the BBC and now work at the Guardian and am taking professional umbrage at a sharp critique, having worked in two of these newsrooms, I see the issues in a lot more complexity.

    I also think by focusing on three traditional newsrooms, it bleeds out some of the complexity of what is happening online. If you were to do the same thing online in the US and not look at the Huffington Post, ProPublica or TPM, you’d miss some of the more interesting parts of a new news eco-system. In the UK, now, we’ve got Help Me Investigate.

    I’ll agree with you about some academic critiques of the media. (Don’t get me started on Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent extrapolates quantative analysis of coverage of a single issue to divine the motivations of news organisations without ever talking to a single editor or journalist. ) I also get irritated with these critiques because not only do they deal with an idealised set of end goals, but I find the suggestions to improve journalism lack credibility. They are often done by people who have never worked in industry.

    Have you read the book? Is it worth a read?

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