PALO ALTO, Calif. — News junkies may be swimming in content but that does not necessarily bode well for the future of journalism in the Web 2.0 era. A panel of media experts offered divergent views on the topic of “Journalism After Print” at a panel discussion event here on Friday co-sponsored by the Churchill Club.
Rebecca Buckman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, bemoaned the trend toward shorter stories and fewer outlets for long form or in-depth reporting.
“You could say on the Web there’s unlimited space and you can run stories as long as you want to,” but that’s not what’s happening, she said. Instead, she said reporters are typically being “pulled in eight different directions” with added content responsibilities, such as maintaining a blog and producing video reports. “And with ad revenue down, there’s no money to hire more reporters,” she added.
But Krishna Bharat, a distinguished researcher at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) who works on the search giant’s online news projects, said there are plenty of examples of longer stories appearing on the Web. “The Wikipedia entry on the earthquake in Haiti is probably the longest piece out there, and because of the format it’s a living story that keeps on growing,” he said.
“Is that journalism?” quipped Buckman, given that Wikipedia is made up of user-generated content.
Another panelist, Ken Doctor, answered “No, it’s data. It isn’t journalism.” Doctor, a news industry analyst with Outsell, said a big issue for readers is figuring out what content sources to trust.
“The newspaper industry finds itself today terribly downsized and for journalistic story telling as far as reporting (in the professional sense) goes, there are far fewer people to do any kind of reporting. There simply isn’t the business model to pay them what we used to.”
A million fewer stories in 2009?
Doctor estimates there were a million fewer stories reported this past year than in 2007. While a million’s a big number, panelist Mike Masnick said wider availability of professionally reported stories is simply “an artifact of history.”
Masnick, who writes the Techdirt blog, said “I would argue there are a billion things being told because more people are able to tell their story in new ways, such as blogs …. Is that a loss?”
Buckman voiced a strong “Yes” in response. She said blogs have value, but that it’s not a question of more stories being told and she fears not enough people understand the value of standards-based journalism. While print publishers cut back, she sees hope in philanthropic efforts like ProPublica to support journalism.
Google is going through a love/hate relationship with newspapers in regards to the exposure they gain through the Google News aggregator site.
Google argues the headlines and snippets it features drive traffic back to the original newspaper or news source’s site. But while that is true to varying degrees, media companies like the Wall Street Journal and others have complained many readers use the aggregator as a kind of news-at-a-glance feature and don’t click through, depriving the sites of traffic for content Google collects for free.
Bharat suggested one direction online publishers might go is to build out bigger stories over time with a persistent URL, like the Wikipedia Haiti example, to make them more compelling. Google is experimenting with just such a “living stories” idea with the New York Times, Washington Post and others.
Another new experimental service, Google fast flip lets you “flip” at a click through magazine and other content sources online in a more visual format than Google News.
Panelists mostly agreed it’s unlikely “pay walls” or schemes to charge for content on the Web will succeed broadly. “Anyone is likely to try and fail,” said Masnick. For the record, Bharat said Google is neutral on the matter saying it’s up to users to decide how they want to get content.
Doctor mentioned some experiments with flat annual subscription fees that are gaining some traction and that a hybrid approach of a simple annual fee combined with ad-support could be successful.
During a Q&A session Bharat said content on mobile devices is important, but traditional notebooks and an emerging class of tablet devices will be preferred. “Form factor is a big deal,” he said. “There is something much more compelling about consuming news on a tablet or notebook.”
David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.