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The incredible shrinking traditional media. Just another, not particularly reliable news source? 2/29/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Trust.
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“Consider the source” is something we are urged to do whenever we hear news that doesn’t sound quite right. Some of those who spread news often get it wrong. Others may have an ax to grind that distorts their ability to see things clearly or pass them on accurately.

In the field of law, so little faith is placed in any individual source that elaborate procedures to get to the truth have been established, involving adversaries’ arguments, cross-examinations, rules for evidence, and jury management. By contrast, journalists’ claims of superiority for truth-telling rest upon a discipline called “verification.” But since verification is performed differently by every journalist according to industry icon Tom Rosenstiel, this would seem to place our trust in journalists on the weakest of foundations. Nevertheless, Rosenstiel says “In the end, the discipline [of verification] is what separates journalism from other fields and creates an economic reason for it to continue.” Well then, perhaps we are at the end.

Two startling surveys released this week suggest that when news consumers now “consider the source,” traditional media outlets fair poorly. According to We Media/Zogby, for news and information more people now trust web sites (32%) than newspapers (22%), television (21%) or radio (15%). And according to Rasmussen, just 24% have a favorable opinion of the New York Times vs. 44% who have an unfavorable opinion. Yes, the NY Times that is the gold standard of Old Media and which sets the “national conversation” daily in a questionable collaboration with the Washington Post. When you consider the source of this powerful rejection of traditional media — the American people — perhaps it no longer does have an economic reason to continue.

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1. Fresh Air - 2/29/08

Steve–

This is exactly right. What I’m afraid Sam Zell doesn’t grasp–maybe never will–is that the way old media is used has been changed radically by those who have ceased trusting it.

I gave up reading newspapers cold turkey four years ago after the Abu Ghraib story broke. Since then what I do is sample the portion of political news I want from about 10 websites I trust. Each of these sites embeds the “counterspin,” if you will, against the mainstream media–where warranted, at any rate. If there is economic news, technology news, etc., there are lots of places to get that without the burden of liberal indoctrination/worldview.

Thus while the old media is still making the first move, the second, third, fourth, and on and on are made by blogs and independent commenters, often with subject-matter expertise. The commenters and bloggers sometimes form a kind of dialectic debate. This almost never happens in my experience at old media websites, which are either rant boards or echo chambers, depending upon the organ.

What the papers are missing is that comments sections are at their poorest utility when they are thought of as letters to the editor, and their strongest when used as an Army of Davids. Verification can be done by readers more cheaply and effectively in many cases than by a so-called “fact-checker.” The old media also does not understand that the thousands of experts in the world will always run circles around their “generalist” reporters, no matter how clever or tendentious their prose.

Even older people are now starting to realize what’s going on online. With each passing week another newspaper shrivels and its reach and importance diminishes. Ultimately all media will be but a click away from a blog or independent news source that will set the reader straight. Perhaps then we can return to the reporting of Dickens’ era: just the facts. (You can keep the analysis.)


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