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Iggy Azalea, Disappointed Pets and Ben Smith on The Demise and Rise of Journalism


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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The Internet poses challenges and opportunities for journalism.
  • The Internet is breaking down local media monopolies, and upstart news aggregators are beating the big papers at search engine optimization.
  • The characteristics that make media shareable are the same ones that indicate a return to quality journalism.

In his keynote address at #ComNet14, Ben Smith, Editor of BuzzFeed, was optimistic concerning the future of journalism. Smith’s comments highlighted two immense challenges for journalists introduced by the Internet, as well as a significant opportunity.

Challenge 1: The Loss of Regional Monopoly

When the Internet arrived, media monopolies of local markets disappeared. Now, every newspaper on the planet competes directly with The New York Times.

Not only was the monopoly power of media organizations undermined, but many of the specific business elements of media organizations—like the help wanted ads in newspapers—were now under specific attack by new Internet services that were faster, cheaper, and more effective.

With the crumbling of business models came the downsizing of the journalist corps. As Ezra Klein noted in an earlier #ComNet14 keynote, every layoff at The Washington Post was accompanied by a cake, until, “even the cake budget had been cut.”

Challenge 2: Optimizing for Internet Search

As newspapers moved online, Internet traffic became critical. Increasing traffic required a new skill: search engine optimization (SEO) to guarantee a large and growing stream of readers from Google and other outlets.

Unfortunately, emerging online aggregation news sites have for the most part been more adept at SEO than the traditional newspapers’ as they moved online. The aggregation sites could quickly summarize articles from traditional media, and present them in a way that would rank higher in Google than the original article itself.

And the focus on SEO, where keywords and speed are paramount, provided no reward whatsoever for thoughtful, insightful, accurate journalism. Indeed, the terms people would search for most in the privacy of their own search box were often health, lifestyle, and sexual, or other topics of limited relevance to traditional media.

Opportunity: Optimizing for Internet Sharing

In the current environment, search remains important—although a larger, countervailing factor has emerged. Successful sites like BuzzFeed rely principally on readers sharing content with other readers through social media sites like Twitter, Pinterest, and most of all, Facebook.

There are many tactics to making content shareable—and nobody knows the full recipe. The ingredients, however, certainly include making content high-quality, provocative, accurate, timely—which is to say, all of the characteristics that require a return to quality journalism. BuzzFeed has a growing, experienced journalist corps, and is, among other things, opening a number of new foreign bureaus. (When was the last time a major media organization expanded foreign bureaus?)

So on balance, Ben Smith is optimistic about the future of journalism. As he noted in a recent op-ed in The Guardian, the “unbundling of news” is good for readers. And good for journalism too.

As communications professionals, we should be optimistic too: the “shared” web is rewarding quality—and that’s very good news for journalists, and for communications professionals overall.

Jim Cashel - Jim headshotJim Cashel is chairman and co-founder of Forum One, a digital communications firm. Follow him on Twitter at @cashel.

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