From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age? #544505-00006

Submission Number:
Lowell Peterson
Writers Guild of America, East
Initiative Name:
From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?
Comments of the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO October 30, 2009 The Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO (the “WGAE”) represents thousands of members who write for film, television, radio, and digital media. Our members work the major television and radio networks and stations and by public television, where they write, produce, edit, and create graphics for news and public affairs programs. Their material is broadcast over the airwaves, distributed on cable television, and posted on the internet. Thus, WGAE members are directly involved in the transformation of the news business (for-profit and non-profit) in the digital era. These members experience first-hand how difficult it is to create reliable, informative material in the face of unrelenting budget cuts. Far too many of them have been laid off, especially this year. The workloads of the remaining employees have increased substantially, and there is a limit to the amount of time and attention they can devote to programs. Hollowing out the newsroom hurts quality. Period. According to the 2009 Annual Report on American Journalism issued by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, evening news viewership has declined slowly but steadily, from an average of over 50 million in 1980 to about 25 million in 2008. The same report described significant reductions in television newsroom staff in 2007 and 2008. There is another trend: More and more people get their news from the Internet, according to a recent Pew survey. We applaud the Federal Trade Commission for holding public workshops and roundtables on December 1 and 2, 2009 to discuss how journalism might survive the Internet age. Digital technology has the potential to expand participation in the public dialogue to unprecedented levels. At the same time its economic structure is insufficient to support the in-depth investigation and reporting the public needs in order to participate in a meaningful way. Changes Driven by Technology There is a relationship between the changes the Internet brings to the way consumers access news, on the one hand, and the way news organizations and others research, write, edit, produce, and distribute news, on the other. Declines in advertising revenue are, of course, a significant factor, but there are also more fundamental changes wrought by the Internet’s open architecture. Decades ago, consumers would commit a substantial amount of time to one news outlet at a time. Breakfast was for the morning newspaper, and an hour was set aside in the evening for one local and one national broadcast, beginning to end. Now a consumer with even a casual interest in the day’s events can access a huge number of news sources in a matter of moments – newspaper websites, television news websites, radio news websites, blogs of various levels of sophistication and budget. Content is essentially portable: Friends and colleagues can transmit web page links, Twitter feeds, and Facebook postings; other organizations (including rivals) can integrate stories into their own web pages and email feeds. This makes it more difficult to tie revenue streams to particular shows or outlets. It increases the importance of branding (to emphasize a particular point of view or level of quality) and simultaneously undermines the ability of a news organization to maintain control of its material. It also tends to compress news pieces to suit more limited attention spans, and it increases the pressure to be the first news organization to come out with a story. Stories distributed on the Internet are detached from real time; they can be accessed on demand as long as they exist in the digital ether. Some are never completed; they are updated continuously through an entire news cycle. Taken together, these developments have already affected the work our members perform, and the changes are likely to accelerate. Writers have less and less time to think, ask questions, and write. There are fewer levels of editorial oversight, fewer checks and balances to ensure accuracy, and fewer opportunities to exercise editorial judgment. Traditional distinctions between job functions are eroding. It is not uncommon for one person to produce, investigate, write, edit, and post a story to the Internet. Perhaps this can be more efficient and it can make news jobs more interesting, but it can also make workloads nearly unbearable and multiply the risks of error, and it ignores the tangible benefit of having more than one mind think about a particular viewpoint or assertion of fact. In these ways, the rise of the Internet as a primary source of news has undermined quality and reliability, and has made it increasingly difficult to forge a meaningful career creating thoughtful, accurate material. We do not think these developments are inexorable. There is nothing inherently destructive about digital technology and the open architecture of the Internet. With sufficient resources and determination, digital media can enhance the public dialogue about the important issues facing modern society – the environment, the economy, international relations, diversity, health care, education. First, we must ensure that everyone has ready access to high-speed Internet connections and that information flows freely over the Web. Second, we must ensure that sufficient resources are available to create informed, thoughtful news content. In the current environment, those resources are simply not available. Digital technology makes it possible to disseminate just about anything – ranging from witless gossip, unfounded rumor, narrow propaganda, and salacious nonsense, on the one hand, to carefully-investigated programming, thoughtful analysis, and well-produced material that educates as much as it appeals, on the other. Without a strong institutional and financial base, the latter type of programming (which is expensive to produce) will be drowned by the former (which is cheap). As long as revenues – indeed, survival – are tied to getting material up on the Web as quickly as possible and making that material as superficially appealing as possible, news quality will remain caught in a powerful down-draft. However, with adequate resources, news can be significantly better on the Internet than on broadcast. The technology makes it possible for news organizations to create a greater variety and quantity of material, with more fluid production schedules. A single story can be produced in multiple lengths, permitting both breaking and in-depth coverage. Video and text can be integrated, and material from other sources can quickly become part of the coverage through links or (cited) quotation. Just as it gives writers and other journalists more tools to provide better coverage, the Internet permits consumers to explore issues in greater depth and to participate more actively in the process than with traditional television and newspapers. Thus, someone who is interested in, for example, the federal budget, could view a video news story about current deliberations, including interviews with Congressional leaders and an analysis of the most salient line items. She could then click on a link to another well-crafted video piece about how the budget process is structured – from the Administration’s draft budget to committee mark-ups, committee votes, floor votes, and so forth. The consumer could pause that piece of video and click on a link to, say, an article about the membership on the relevant House and Senate Committees. Without leaving her computer she could send an email to her Senators asking their positions on funding for public television or national parks or cancer research. In other words, although the Internet has thus far imperiled the quality of news, this most certainly does not have to remain the case. To the contrary, the Internet offers consumers quicker access to a lot more information from a broader range of sources than any other medium. The question is how to fund this work. Economic Challenges of News Organizations The Internet gives news organizations the opportunity to create and distribute enormous amounts of news programming that is of enormous value to consumers, but the current economics of the Web push in exactly the opposite direction. Although public television stations present public affairs and news programs of tremendous quality and insight, the vast majority of news programming is created by for-profit organizations, whose revenue derives mostly from advertising and, to a lesser extent, cable subscription fees. At this point, Internet revenues are a small fraction of what is paid to broadcasters and newspapers. Although it seems likely that Internet advertising rates will increase substantially over time, particularly because the technology permits advertisers to target audiences with greater precision, the open architecture of the Internet could still make it difficult for news organizations to pay for thoughtful, in-depth coverage. By its nature, the Internet tends to disfavor exclusivity, so it is more challenging to tie revenue streams to content production. During the era of Walter Cronkite, there were three national television and radio networks. In larger cities, some stations also broadcast local news programs. One could count the number of broadcast news outlets on one hand. With the advent of cable television, you needed two hands. There are now thousands of websites that present news – in both video and text. The completeness and accuracy of content vary widely, but it is safe to say that, given the economics of the Internet, most of the material falls far short of the Cronkite ideal. Internet revenues do not pay for stand-alone newsgathering operations. It is our view that quality will ultimately prevail. There will continue to be a sizeable paying market for well-researched, well-presented news and public affairs material. For now, consumers are generally able to access that material over the Internet for free. This cannot last long. Although the equipment is cheaper than ever, people cannot be expected to work for free; they must be able to make a living, to build careers producing reliable, informative content. Although “citizen journalists” contribute a great deal to the flow of information, they are not a substitute for trained, experienced content creators who know how to investigate, interview, write, edit, photograph, and speak on-air. We think that people will choose to pay for quality news if the alternative is unreliable and undifferentiated babble. Most content is now free so the market does not require people to make that choice. It would be bad public policy to allow the current newsgathering system to fail in the interim. It would be very difficult to rebuild the industry from scratch; professional journalism might not make it through the transition period. There is a different, workable model for presenting carefully-investigated, thoughtful news and public affairs programming – public broadcasting (or “public media” in the digital age). Unfortunately, public television and public radio have been systematically underfunded for many years, so a very large infusion of capital would be required to make this a viable alternative to the existing large newsgathering companies. If policymakers do not choose to commit the required amounts to public broadcasting, they must do something else to protect the news business during this transition period, while the public decides how much quality programming is worth.