Not too long ago, the term ‘blogger’ might have conjured in the public consciousness the image of a computer nerd who dreams in HTML code and rants in cyberspace about technological terms and concepts most people outside of the IT industry would have been mystified by. Social networking meant business lunches, power breakfasts, weekend parties and work conferences, and the news consumer relied on trusted names in the print and broadcast media for their daily view on the world around them.
Fast forward a few years, and social media websites like the ubiquitous Facebook, MySpace and Twitter rule the media world. Seemingly overnight, blogs – originally called weblogs – have become the definitive source of news and information for a tech-savvy Internet generation, to the detriment of the more traditional news media.
“Blogs today are what newspapers used to be, just in a different format,” says Melissa Feeney.
Feeney, the communications coordinator for the Centennial College students’ association, says that she relies heavily on social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter to reach out and interact more effectively with students of the college.
“Lots of students are already on Facebook and all of these social networks, so it’s just a matter of pushing out material to them,” she says, sitting in her office, while a tiny ‘ping’ every few minutes on her desktop Twitter feed announces new updates. She says that the advantage of online news, especially with blogs and social networking sites, is its immediacy.
“You could be sitting on your computer and an announcement pops up on Twitter saying there’s a flood, or a terrorist attack or something major. You’d probably find out about that information faster than you would on any news broadcast or in the news the next day in your local paper.”
Online social networking sites were once seen as simply an easier way for people to keep track of friends and family – Facebook’s home page announces that it “helps you connect and share with the people in your life”, while Twitter allows users 140 characters to update “followers” on their activities from minute to minute. However, these sites, as well as online blogs are steadily gaining credibility with news consumers as well as news outlets as a viable alternative to traditional news.
For example, CNN has Facebook pages and Twitter feeds for most of its anchors, and MSNBC has its ‘World Blog’, where correspondents and newsroom producers express their views on events that shape world issues.
Frank Rodick says that the tremendous rise in importance of social media as news sources is due in part to the Internet’s ability to level the playing field.
“It kind of makes everybody a potential reporter,” Rodick says. “One thing the web’s done is, everyone has a platform of sorts, whether it’s a blog, or it’s Twitter, or it’s Facebook.”
Rodick is a counsellor and educator, and when it comes to the news media, he says that online is the inevitable next step in the evolutionary process. With the Internet, he says, journalism has the potential to become almost a cottage industry where the news comes, not only from a newsroom, but from individuals blogging about the who, what, where, when, why and how of breaking news and events.
He says that blogs have been given credibility by the calibre of writers now working with the medium, as well as bloggers’ ability to break though the stranglehold on information access once held by news reporters.
“[Joshua Micah Marshall] has pretty excellent access to sources and stuff, but his platform is his blog,” Rodick says, referring to the author behind TalkingPointsMemo.com, an acclaimed political news blog.
“I’m sure he Twitters, I’m sure he gets a lot of material in turn via these social media so the whole thing networks in together. There’s not so much a hegemony on sources any more, I would think.”
Stephen Strauss talks similarly about the overthrow of the ‘tyranny’ of reporters and their information dictatorships through the collaborative nature of the Internet. In an article on Jsource.ca, the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s interactive news site, he says that the Internet allows news consumers to decide for themselves what they consider to be news, and to challenge the writer’s version of the story through the townhall-like feature of the comments page beneath each online story.
“In the pre-Internet past reporters and writers…would nose about a subject and after a certain amount of research decide it was time to write,” Strauss says in the article. “They then ordered the information they had uncovered in a way they thought was best.”
However, he says, with online news, readers are free to discuss and refute the writer’s view or perspective on the story, present their own, and essentially add to and enrich the experience of reading the article through their own input.
With the rise of online news via news blogs and social media sites, newspapers are widely reported as being in danger of extinction, and doom is predicted with every slashed newspaper job. For these and other reasons, especially the immediate nature of online news, the traditional, tangible news media have responded to the Internet effect by switching their focus to web-based content.
“There’s been a huge switch to more online content,” Feeney says. “There’s whole newspapers that are online, like the Huffington Post which was never a print publication.”
“I think people that have grown up with the web have a different kind of literacy, and that’s one that integrates multiple media much more,” Rodick says. “They’re very comfortable reading an article where they don’t just read it, they watch it, they listen to part of it, there are links, and so on and so forth. You have to adapt your journalism to that kind of literacy.”
The downside to a loosened hegemony on the production of news, however, is the danger of accuracy becoming a casualty of instant news.
“Anyone can be a journalist these days,” Feeney says. “So you really have to filter through the news you’re getting and decide what’s relevant and where the source is coming from, and just not believe everything you read online.”
This is where traditional news still has hope, according to Rodick.
“It’s not that people aren’t interested in great writing, they are,” he says. “If they [newpapers] survive, they’ll survive in a different format because insight is still insight, good reporting, I imagine, is still good reporting.”
He says that the essentials of journalism remain the same, from the reporter getting credible sources, to in-depth research into the background of issues and events in order to get at the truth.
“People are always going to be interested in great writing and great argument and insightful pieces, but the delivery system is going to vary. It’s going to change, and it has changed over time. We don’t use town-criers anymore, either.”