Can reporting prosper in a parasitic golden age?

Melissa WilsonInformation still costs money, but there are ways to make journalism pay its way, Ira Basen and Rem Rieder told a Toronto audience. Melissa Wilson reports.

The conversation about journalism has changed drastically, according to the two speakers on a September 15 panel discussion. Six months ago, it seems, newsrooms and bus stops alike were abuzz with predictions and proclamations about the death of journalism: How long until this magazine goes under? How much debt is that newspaper in, anyway? The station laid off how many staffers? The industry will never recover.

Rem Rieder Ira BasenBut when about 200 people assembled in Toronto to hear Rem Rieder and Ira Basen discuss the state of journalism, the panel title captured the new mood: “Journalism is Dead; Long Live Journalism.”  Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, and Basen, CBC radio producer and instructor at Ryerson University, spoke with more than a glimmer of optimism as they discussed new attitudes that are infiltrating the discourse and changing journalism for the better.

But the Canadian Journalism Foundation event also spotlighted serious problems that the new journalism has yet to solve. (View a video of the evening.)

Basen launched the discussion with two quotes, the first from David Simon, veteran Baltimore reporter and creator of The Wire TV series:

“High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else. The internet is a marvelous tool … but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from the mainstream news publications, whereupon websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin—namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.”

The second, contrary, quote was from Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post:

“Despite all the current hand-wringing about the dire straight of newspapers, we are actually in the midst of a Golden Age for news consumers. We can surf the net, use search engines, access the best stories from around the world, and interest by commenting and forming communities.”

The Huff Post is one of the Net’s most popular blogs, Basen said, but its business model “does not include paying for content and certainly not paying for opinions.” The site has a paid staff of 60, including only seven reporters, but a roster of over 4,000 bloggers work in exchange for exposure, experience and a place to voice their opinions.

The question he posed was: is this parasitic “golden age” the future of journalism, or is it killing journalism?

Proponents of sites like the Huff Post often cite the citizen journalism catchphrase “information wants to be free.”

“Information wants to be free,” scoffed Basen. “I want to win the lottery. But you don’t always get what you want.”

Someone, said Rieder, needs to pay for the first wave of reporters on the ground; otherwise, even the Huffington Post would have little to say.

The trick lies in developing a business model that would have consumers paying for the online content that they have been getting for free for years. This isn’t an easy task, but it’s by no means impossible. Basen cited a recent American Press Institute survey that found, on average, consumers would be willing to pay $4.64/month for a subscription to a news website, though a whopping 47% said they wouldn’t pay anything for access to the news.

These are not ideal numbers, but the current situation has forced the news community to look at alternate models for funding (the current business model, one based on paid advertisements, has been in place since the mid-19th century), such as crowdfunding through sites like, and foundation-supported journalism, such as Kaiser Health News. Rieder said he believes the notion of foundation funding holds the most promise for the future of journalism.

Nor is the newspaper industry’s state all doom and gloom. Rieder said that while major metropolitan papers face big problems, a lot of small dailies and weeklies are doing just fine. As for the bigger papers, said Rieder, “They wouldn’t be in nearly as bad shape if they didn’t have so much debt.” Papers that are hurting the most would be making a profit if not for the “orgy of borrowing” that led to their crushing debt load.

Basen said that journalists shouldn’t be as quick as Simon to dismiss news aggregates and applications like Google Reader. Rather, these operations can be a useful tool for bettering the craft. “Aggregators make me a better journalist and a more informed citizen,” said Basen. “In many ways, it’s a great time to be a reporter because people all over the world can read your stuff.”

Ira BasenEven the notion of the so-called citizen journalist should be embraced and used to the advantage of news agencies, according to Basen, who recently wrote a cover story for Maisonneuve that detailed the upswing of user-generated news. “If present trends continue,” he wrote, “the day is approaching when the CBC, The Globe and Mail and others in the traditional press will no longer be able to afford to fly their correspondents around the world, or even send them to cover city hall…. Mainstream media has historically relied on freelancers and ‘stringers’ to fill gaps in their own reporting. As those gaps get bigger, they will need to be filled somehow.”

Basen’s article praises ventures such as Digital Journal, a news service that aims to train citizen journalists—almost always the first on the scene during a major event—in the art of verification. Digital Journal‘s editors scrutinize and vet each article that comes in from their 17,000 worldwide correspondents before publication. They also make a point of paying their contributors, though for now the sum is token. 

Many audience questions centred on the issue of credibility and accountability when it comes to relying on untrained citizens for breaking news coverage. Basen said not to worry, calling internet news a “self-correcting mechanism.”

For Basen, the idea of journalism is changing from a product to a process. A report is no longer something to be knocked out after a day’s reporting and forgotten about. Instead, it evolves over time in the course of the interaction between journalists and what used to be called audiences.

Is this a change in the essence of journalism? Not for Basen. There always has to be someone asking the reporter, “How do you know this is true?” Traditionally, this role has fallen to the editor, but now, he said,  it’s the online community that is most often keeping the reporter in check and negotiating change until the “best available version of the truth” is published.

Melissa Wilson is Students’ Lounge editor at J-Source. She is a freelance writer and former intern at This Magazine who is completing her fourth and final year at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. She is based in Toronto.

(Images by Roger Cullman.)