Debunking the replacement myth

The tired idea that born-on-the-Web news sites will replace traditional media is wrong-headed, and it’s past time that academic research and news reports reflect that. Jay Rosen, the New York University professor and media critic, calls them “replaceniks,” and it’s an apt term. Rosen is talking about people who insist on evaluating new, born-on-the-web news outlets as potential replacements for established news organizations, such as your local newspaper. As if.

Michele McLellan

As if the new online publishers are trying to replace the local traditional outlets. As if newspaper-centric standards of dailiness and comprehensiveness matter the way they did pre-Web. As if citizens can only turn to one or the other type of outlet amidst a vast and diverse emerging new ecosystem and only one type of news site will prevail.

As one online publisher, Timothy Rutt of AltadenaBlog, said in comments on a recent Time story about local news start ups:

I think those of us who run community news sites know that we’re not the only source of our reader’s news. I HOPE our readers are continuing to read newspapers for state and national politics, pro sports, etc. Our niche is covering the important parts of everyday life in a community that larger scale operations tend to ignore—for us, that means church fundraisers, local concerts and art gallery events, wildlife sightings (when a cougar is sighted in your neighborhood, you want to know!), etc. Sometimes we’re your best source—recently the cops shut down several streets because a suicidal man was sitting in his car with a gun. We covered that in real time, as people wanted to know why the helicopter was buzzing, why the streets were closed, etc. Readers on the scene—hunkered down on their floors—sent us dispatches. We’re a small community without its own radio or TV station, but our site was able to keep people informed as it was going on live.

Steve Buttry, the Director of Community Engagement at the Washington, D.C start up and recent Editor & Publisher Editor of the Year, offers a strong analysis of the shortcomings of one recent study, ““Comparing Legacy News Sites with Citizen News and Blog Sites: Where’s the Best Journalism?” from University of Missouri researchers in “Academics measure new media (again) by old media yardstick”. (Post includes the Missouri study and a response from Margaret Duffy, a respected Missouri researcher.)

Buttry wrote:

For academics studying whether “citizen journalism” is going to “replace” traditional journalism, let me save you some time: It won’t. It’s not trying to. It shouldn’t.

Journalism is not, never has been and should not become a zero-sum game.

I share Buttry’s criticisms. I think such studies fail to assess other sources of news and information, and I think these all complement, rather than rival, traditional news media. Also, a traditional newsroom of any size is going to produce consistently better journalism than a lone blogger but I think overlooks the idea that it only takes one determined digger to uncover an important story that a larger outlet might miss.

I pushed back at a similar study, also from the University of Missouri, where I recently completed a one-year fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. The Project for Excellence in Journalism invited my comments and I responded in February with an essay that said:

… the new news ecology is dizzying. As it develops in ways and with a speed we can’t predict, the requirements of academic research may leave out the context of a rapidly changing environment. As a result, this new research could be read to reinforce the out-of-date idea that citizen news and professional news are in competition.

If professionals and nonprofessionals were ever producing news and information as distinctly separate groups, this is becoming less so every day. They’re merging. They’re joining forces in exciting experiments that will help shape the future of news, information and civic engagement.

I also added my own community news research to my fellowship activities. I decided to evaluate as many new local sites as possible against a very simple set of criteria (drafted with Jay Rosen’s help) that included producing original news; attempting to be accurate, fair and transparent; and working on a sustainable revenue model. My research partner, Missouri PhD student Adam Maksl, and I reviewed more than 1,200 sites, including sites on which the Missouri study for PEJ was based.

The result was a list of what I called “promising” online news sites, ones that are starting to figure things out.Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the sites on the list are run by or employ journalists, often working with citizen contributors, local nonprofits and foundation seed funding. At the same time, most put a very high priority on citizen engagement, more, I believe, than traditional news outlets typically do. That doesn’t mean these sites don’t struggle, especially with business and revenue aspects.

My point was to give us something specific to talk about rather than a replacenik either/or abstraction. I wanted to help us begin to understand what local news start ups may be able to accomplish and how we might help them do that. I also thought such a list might help some traditional news organizations think about how they mightform local partnerships that would help provide better news and information to their communities. I reject the notion that there is only one solution for bringing news and information to communities. While established media may be an important part of any solution, I also reject the idea that effective ways of producing and delivering journalism must look just like what’s gone before.

My work bumped up against another replacenik offering last week, this one from Time magazine under the headline: “Are Hyperlocals Replacing Traditional Newspapers?

As if. Or as John Paton (@jxpaton), CEO of the Journal Register Co. and 2009 E&P Publisher of the Year, tweeted: “Interesting Time story but headline shows the zero-sum attitude of those who don’t understand the new news ecology.”

Apparently the writer also didn’t understand what I told him about my research. Or perhaps my comments had to conform to the replacenik frame of the story. The result: My research conclusions were misstated.

According to Time, I “concluded that 1 in 10 hyperlocal sites is producing “good” content, some good enough to give traditional journalism a run for its money—sometimes literally.”

My response in the comments:

To clarify: I did NOT find or say that only one in 10 hyperlocal sites are “good.” I never made such an assessment.

First of all, I looked at a range of sites, not just hyperlocal ones. Out of more than 1,200, about one in 10 met a very specific list of criteria I developed, and I described them as “promising.”

I think it’s impossible to use a blanket characterization of “good” or not. Is a site good if it’s useful? Is it good if it has a large user base? Is it good if journalists think it is? You get my drift. That’s why I tried to be very specific in my criteria.

As well, I did not say these sites give traditional media a run for their money. I don’t know that. I think it would vary from community to community and depend on a variety of factors that I did not study.

I also have said that IF nine out of 10 local news sites are not very good, as other research has asserted, then I think it’s valuable to study the other 10 percent to learn what they can teach us and support them. That’s what we’re doing at Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010 in September. Link:

Ironically, the article cited the West Seattle blog as its example of “giving traditional media a run for their money”. As it happens, the West Seattle Blog has a content partnership with The Seattle Times.

The article also refers to the Knight Foundation as a “a nonprofit journalism organization,” which is sort of like calling a Mazerati “a car.” (Disclosure: I do consulting for the Knight Community Information Challenge, which funds community news start ups, and for the Knight journalism program.)

I e-mailed the Time writer, Gary Moscowitz and flagged my comments about how I was quoted. Here’s his response:

Thanks for the heads up, and thanks for posting your comment. The 1 in 10 comment got much debate from me throughout the editing process, but they seemed to be intent on keeping it. The “give them a run for their money” I know are not your words verbatim, just us paraphrasing.

So there it is. While I don’t buy into replacement thinking, indulge in this comparison: Many fledgling news sites do a better job of accuracy than Time managed on this story.

This is a cross-post with Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog.


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