Monday, September 28, 2015

Changing News Networks, Ecologies & Ecosystems

“Traditional news media are for people…. like … our grandparents, I get my news through twitter…”                                                   (Sophomore, Course J201 UW-M, 2015)

The role of a Teaching Assistant for ‘Introduction to Mass Communication’, course J201 at UW-M, has made me aware about the changing attitudes of youth towards news media. While conducting a discussion session on Entman’s “The Nature and Sources of News”, the overwhelming majority of the students seemed to follow news solely through their social media accounts. Such “mobile and tablet applications such as Flipboard, Zite, and Facebook Paper are driven by automated forms of personalized content packaging” (Lewis & Westland). Algorithms used in social media platforms help users get tailor-made content, according to their viewing patterns. But many researchers have expressed their unease about the overall impact of such platforms on journalism. I share a similar concern, not just for journalism or traditional media, but for the readers too. In the small sample on 36 students in my discussion session, I have observed that the range of topics of awareness of the students, who say that their sole source of news content is Social Media, seems to be limited (as demonstrated by the answers to quizzes held in the session ever alternate week). The cause of the same can be speculated to be the fact that social media algorithms display news that match the user’s preference. Thus, the variety of news displayed may be highly skewed. Today majority of the population obtain their news from digital sources (PEW Research Center, 2015). But “as the news industry and journalism profession begins to settle on new business and editorial models for the Internet Age, (we) should not forget … What kind of work constitutes legitimate journalism?” (Anderson, 2013).
This week’s readings show us the face of changing media ecology in the digital age. The content can be broadly classified as changing inter-medium and intra-medium ecology. While the equation between the different mediums, digital and traditional, seem to be evolving with time, equations of the various elements of the digital and traditional mediums too seem to be changing with time. Digital media has “confounded the boundaries between production and consumption, professional and nonprofessional, and intra and extra-organizational domains.” (Lewis and Wesland)
“The Internet is the most important single development in the history of human communication…” (Barry, 2012). The notion of people as a passive audience has been replaced by “active meaning makers in the process of media consumption” (Bolin 2012). But research shows that audiences are allowed to participate in mainly one stage of news making, interpretation – by commenting on public forums on digital media. “The audience are still, overall, receivers of information created and controlled by the journalist” writes Singer et al. However slowly algorithms are taking control of the information dissemination process. Advocates of algorithms as editors of social media, ‘robot-journalism’, often justify it by stating that it is just the actualization of audience preferences. But critiques argue that “the precise nature of the algorithm involved, and the implications for journalism and public knowledge that they entail is yet to be examined.” (Lewis and West Lund, 2014)
 Another source of concern is perhaps the changing nature and purpose of journalism. With the convergence of technology and journalism, the focus is slowly shifting “to figuring out how you can use software to tell a story, and do it in a more comprehensive way than maybe had been done previously” (Peter Edstrom, Minneapolis–St. Paul, June 5, 2012).  While the fusion of knowledge of technologists and news journalists is sure to change the rules of storytelling and may help journalism to evolve further, concerns still loom about ‘what stories are being told’. With algorithms doing the work of editors on major social media and websites, do people still get objective, all encompassing “stories that they need?”
While the benefits of digital media are undeniable, many are anxious about the changing inter-media ecology. Bob Brown in a news interview on ABC said, “I'm worried about the traditional media, but I think the new media is a plus for democracy” (Brown, 2011). However, in his Monograph on Ecology of news production, Lowrey notes that “Any new media entity scours the environment for news of change, responds strategically and seeks a sustainable niche, but it also begins to seek stability, familiarity, legitimation, and validation from similar media.” Both his studies show that new media over time tend towards the familiar and popular rather than uncertain. Lowrey concludes, “Media adhere to their own kind and to past paths already taken, but they also respond to changing economic and social conditions.” Thus, the role of traditional media may still be that of a guide to new media. Which perhaps brings us back to the situation in Philadelphia demonstrated by Anderson “the news ecosystem has a center, that center remained the traditional media organisations that historically have produces news objects…” The same situation is reflected today in social media where majority of the news content is sourced from digital form of traditional news media.
To conclude, Westlund writes, “The roles, boundaries and processes of news work has become increasingly hard to detect  ... Future research might more thoroughly review, synthesize, and develop models for journalism, of which there are relatively few emphasizing the distinct interplay of and tension between human and technology, or manual and computational modes of orientation and output” (Westlund, 2013). While we still await the optimal model for online journalism, I was introduced to a possible bridge, a probable step towards evolution of “digi- journalism”, by a student of my discussion session in Journalism 201. The latest trend among youth seems to be digital newsletters like the Skimm, Need 2 Know and Next Draft, that preserve the traditional model of human editing yet exploit the immense possibilities and audience of digital media. They cater to the audience preference by making the content easy to read, humorous and succinct. The stand of and Next draft on this issue of journalism in the digital era is echoed by the editor’s message on their homepage:
 “I am the algorithm. Each morning I visit about 75 news sites, and from that swirling nightmare of information quicksand, I pluck the top ten most fascinating items of the day, which I deliver with a fast, pithy wit that will make your computer device vibrate with delight. No bots. No computer algorithms.” (Pell, Next Draft, 2015).

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