July 1997

Root Page of Article: Not-so-strange Alliances and Their Impact on Online News Media, by Ann Auman

One Look at the Future of New Journalism

So far in 1997, the entry of non-media companies into the media landscape and the growing number of alliances between them and traditional news organizations has resulted in a panoply of strategies designed to engage an audience in information presented on line. What constitutes "news" ranges from niche news, such as entertainment and sports, to mass interest news, such as politics, disasters, and events of national importance.

Information is presented in a variety of formats on the Web from traditional newspaper sites to not-so-traditional newspaper sites that resemble the broadcast model with constant updates and links. The information sites include a compilation of news and news digests provided by a non-news service provider, and email services "pushed" at customers. Press releases masquerade as news; service providers such as Total News, which has been sued by a group of large newspapers, frames newspaper sites' news with its logo and its banner ads.

What's happening to the traditional news ethic of credibility, accuracy, balance and fairness in this new environment? The ideal newspaper must not only report on City Council, but also expose injustice and corruption, explain who has power and what they are doing with it, and ferret out information that the public should know but that powerful interests want to keep secret. The traditional news product is struggling to maintain these values in a sea of diverse media. Alliances that help media companies support traditional values in news content online may give them a chance at a rebirth before they are completely subsumed by a corporate culture. But content that has the best chance of prospering online is not traditional mass market news -- it's classified advertising, entertainment, and sports. Is there an opportunity in this environment for news that doesn't sell newspapers, online or print, to flourish? Do any media outlets allow reporters to attack the whole corporate culture of news?

It could be argued that the whole free spirit of the Web encourages anybody to be a publisher. But the argument has been made that credibility is a problem for an unbranded site. It helps to have either an established brand name, such as The Washington Post, or to create a new brand name in news, such as Microsoft is attempting. It also takes a lot of resources to set up and run a news Web site with national or international appeal. Dominant players may have the edge here.

In Civilizing Cyberspace (1996), Miller calls for strong public policy to oversee and check the rapidly deregulated telecommunications industry. Large networks of companies, partnerships, and conglomerates may not necessarily help society. It appears that we in America are reaching one extreme of the pendulum, and that public action is necessary to take us back to the middle. Government could allow such mergers to take place, but only if investors are taxed for making money off the information highway. The special interest groups and non-government organizations may well become the content creators of news underpinned with some sort of truth-seeking mission or values. Two scholars have researched alternative public interest news providers that are the direct opposite of the infotainment niche, such as Handsnet, operated by a national food and poverty action organization, and Econet for the environment.

Cole Campbell (1994, p. 5), editor of The Virginia-Pilot, calls the traditional journalist's ethic the "underpinning value that journalists add to information." He wonders whether wthe media can increase that value to make traditional news appealing to online readers (Campbell 1994, p. 5). In Cambell's article, Phil Meyer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill describes new workers in the media who "are motivated less by romanticism and more by teamwork and craftsmanship." What Meyer really appears to be describing is a change in corporate culture spurred on by the deconstruction of the ethics, or perhaps the "myth," of journalism. What has happened to newspapers is the clash of cultures and the unraveling of that myth. One culture is that of business; the other is that of journalistic ethics. The business culture has served its customers and advertisers, while journalists have traditionally served readers. In online media, the advertising customer has become even more important, and so once again the culture of business is in conflict with the culture and the ethics of journalism. It is time to find a way to return to a culture of truth-seeking. Perhaps alternative new media offer some hope. --

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