"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." So goes the infamous beginning to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, but he could very well have been speaking about the newspaper industry of 2010. The Washington Post, the Ann Arbor News, and the San Francisco Chronicle − all former giants of the newspaper industry − are now tottering on spindly legs as they scramble to recover from sharply declining ad sales, sharply rising overhead costs, and dwindling readership.
Of course, the death of the newspaper doesn't at all mean the death of news. People always want to know what's going on. In the waning shadow of the traditional newspaper, a different kind of news has sprouted up online.
It's no question that this shift from print to web is a big one. And despite the doomsayers, it's not necessarily negative, either. For one thing, it eliminates the quandary that morning newspaper readers have of trying to eat their breakfast with their inky fingers and read a paper that covers their face at the same time. For another, the web opens a whole playground of possibilities that allow newswires to share stories, offer multimedia and publish higher resolution graphics. Publishing on the web also reduces many of the overhead costs of the traditional newspaper, allowing news bureaus to redirect their money to content rather than on printing.
But does the money really end up improving content? The thing is when you move from the print to the web, you're covering a whole different beat. Everything on the web moves at a startling speed. Studies show again and again that readers tend to browse rather than read on the internet and so web journalists have only a second to capture the web browser's attention. As a result, a lot of online content has been reduced to short blurbs and slideshows. On websites like Time.com and newsweek.com, seldom is an article is longer than one page. The New York Times' website is the only website that consistently has five-page articles.
And while news has traditionally always been time sensitive − with the web making it easy to publish anything for the entire world with a click of a button − there is an even greater emphasis on split second news. A common feature next to articles on the web is the timestamp, indicating that the article was updated as recently as seconds ago. Competition for "new" news is fierce, which means that the website that can generate content the fastest wins, regardless of its quality. Say bye-bye to time-consuming journalistic standbys such as fact-checking and proofreading.
Also, now more than ever, news is dictated by the readers. Unlike the days of old when journalists and editors had a certain responsibility to tell the public what they ought to know about the world, today's journalists and editors are told by the public what they want to know. It's too easy for users to close a window on something they don't want to read (even if they should).
In order to keep visitors on their website (and thus keep courting their advertisers), web publishers pore over statistics on what drives traffic to the site, what keeps readers reading, and what they are searching. There was no print equivalent to the web analytics tool and so web journalists have the unique blessing (or curse) of knowing exactly what readers want and what makes money. Entire businesses have been built on this very concept – for example, ehow.com creates articles based on the most commonly searched Google terms. These articles can be written by anyone and as such, are not very useful. (According to ehow.com, the first step to getting a guy to like you is: "Make sure he is available. Before you can start doing your thing, you gotta [sic] make sure he doesn't have a girlfriend, or that your BFF doesn't like him, or else you can get yourself into a cat fight! MEOW! If you're BFF likes him, then he's kinda out of the question because your BFF likes him! So that would just be rude to steel [sic] her crush away, after she liked him first.") Whether this is a positive development or not remains to be seen, but the balance between consumer and journalist is clearly shifting and the lines between the two are blurring.
The ease with which content can be created spawns hundreds of citizen journalists, making news as ubiquitous as weeds (and sometimes, just as useful). In the babble of voices on the internet, voice is what makes a website stand out. Websites like The Huffington Post and Slate have risen to the top for their snarky commentary. Jumping the bandwagon, traditional newspaper and newsmagazines now give "bloggers" more spotlight on their websites. These writers are essentially the electronic version of columnist and they provide much more editorialized news content, which may be refreshing for the savvy news consumer, but dangerously biased to the mass consumer.
All these developments are just the beginning. The news revolution may not involve guillotines and petticoats, but it is a story that promises to be just as dramatic and turbulent as the one documented in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. After all, as opening chapters go, this one is a real cliffhanger.
Jenny Chen '12 is an English and international studies double major; she first got her taste of journalism when she pitched a youth column for a local newspaper in 2008 and was paid to write about her opinion on the news. Since then, she's enjoyed the excuse for snooping and trying the new things that a career in journalism offers.