RSS

Gatekeepers’ role in the transformation of news media

By Anna Such

How can journalism successfully migrate from traditional media to new technologies? Can new media technology work as well as conventional media did in its heyday? What is the role gatekeepers play in the transformation of the media? These were some of the questions concerning the future of journalism that the third panel addressed.

“Lately, I’ve been vascillating between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism,” said moderator Steve Petranik, of Hawaii Business Magazine. “We are now in the wilderness.”
The statistics are grim. Since 2000, the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in editor and reporting capacity, according to the Pew State of the Media Report (http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview_intro.php). Only about a third of Americans say they have an online news destination they would call a favorite, and among these people only 19 percent said they would continue to visit if the site set up a paywall. And 71 percent of Americans feel that most news sources are biased in their coverage.

Michael Freedman, the first speaker, shone a beacon of hope on the discouraging facts by saying, “we were told consumers wouldn’t pay for television,” and “today we’re told that people won’t pay for news.”

Freedman is a professor at George Washington University, and the executive director of the University’s Global Media Institute. The Institute’s research and productions are focused on the media’s evolving roles and responsibilities

Freedman expressed sadness at the loss of the Honolulu Advertiser, and started his speech by sharing with the audience what he had read over coffee earlier that morning: the Honolulu Advertiser’s mission statement.

He went on to read out loud part of what the staff of the Honolulu Advertiser was told on February 25th, 2010, the day the sale of the newspaper was announced:
“From a fiduciary responsibility standpoint to our shareholders, it was the right thing to do.”

“Welcome to the 21st century,” Freedman responded, “where journalistic idealism meets fiduciary responsibility.”

He continued to express his concern that the American public might not be as concerned as we, as journalists, will soon be about the transformation of the media.

“It may not have hit home with some people, that one day soon, in many of our cities, we may be without credible coverage of our local politicians, our schools, our businesses, and the police and fire department,” Freedman said, “And it goes without saying that credible, local investigative journalism could well disappear in many cities.”

Many people are unaware of how much the Associated Press relies on member newspapers for shared content. Without the AP, many online aggregators would have nothing of substance to list on their search databases.

“As newspapers fail, the job of the Associated Press gets tougher,” said Freedman.
“In this digital democracy we really do want to strive to achieve a tower of strength, and not a tower of babble.”

Freedman said that what we journalists need now is not an elusive new business model, but true leadership.

He said that he hoped the outcome of the Newmorphosis conference is a larger public dialogue, with committed leadership willing to step forward and help the public understand what’s at stake.

“People need to be reminded of what newspapers mean to their communities today, and what they do accomplish still on a daily basis,” said Freedman, “Once these editorial structures are decimated and destroyed they will not be rebuilt.”

Next to speak was Jeff Portnoy, who is not a newsman, but an attorney, with Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright. He is an expert in the First Amendment, as well as one of the main advocates behind the Hawaii Shield Law (which protects journalists from being forced to reveal their anonymous sources).

Portnoy said that one of the main problems in the media today is simply that the technology is outpacing the law, which hasn’t been a problem in America for the past 200 years.

“The law views the new media as a bulletin board,” Portnoy said, “What could never be in the Advertiser appears a million times a day on the web.”
Another big problem with the Internet is that you can never absolutely identify an anonymous poster.

“The traditional media is subject to rules, such as defamation and invasion of privacy, that the new media is not.”

Portnoy hoped that if the audience were to take anything away, take away the three letters CDA, the Communications Decency Act, “which allows the new media to promote every person to have a free reign on what they say about other people.”

As long as the host of a website takes a hands-off approach there is virtually no accountability for what is said on the site.

“It is my view, as a First Amendment lawyer, that if the traditional media were given half the freedom of the new media, there would be more competition,” said Portnoy, “People love controversy. People love to write and say what they want about anyone. But you won’t see it on television, and you won’t see it in the newspaper.”

Portnoy said that Congress is only now beginning to deal with this problem, and that courts are beginning to disagree with the lack of accountability of the Internet. He expressed his opinion that sites should be responsible for what people post on them.

“But the law views the new media as a bulletin board,” said Portnoy, “The other problem is that it is virtually impossible to obtain the identity of an anonymous poster.”

He said that it can sometimes take years to correct false or defamatory information on Wikipedia because it is so difficult to find out who posted something. However, Wikipedia recently made some changes that make it easier to find the identity of people who post information on their site.

Google takes a hands-off policy to anything posted on their website. It is impossible to ask Google to take off anything about you, explained Portnoy. The Communications Decency Act is responsible for this unfettered communication.

“The question I leave for you new media people is this: should the host be responsible for the content?’

Next, Petranik introduced David Shapiro, a Honolulu Advertiser News columnist, and one of the most popular bloggers at honoluluadvertiser.com.

Petranik noted that if anyone has been in the Honolulu news business for a long time, they probably recognize Shapiro as one of the best, if not the best, newsmen in town.

“Being described as one of the best newspaper people in Hawaii is kind of like being described as one of the best dinosaurs in the tar pit,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro focused on the gatekeeper role necessary in journalism. He used the metaphor of the Iraqi military forces in the first invasion by America to describe the role of the traditional media today. The U.S. forces went around the boundaries of Iraq, instead of battling their way through the gate, just as the new media prompts people to go around the gates of traditional media.

“We are too consumed with protecting the castle gate. I think consumers still value gatekeeping

Especially when people are constantly being bombarded with information. They could use some help figuring out what is credible and what isn’t.
Shapiro said that the journalism field is a swinging gate– information and opinion must be able to flow both ways. The journalists who will survive are the ones who are able to build that swinging gate.

Shapiro made it a point to say that creating a blog is quite different. It’s not what he has to say that’s important, it’s the total of the conversation he creates.
“I think that’s a fundamental mistake newspapers made. Twenty-five years ago we became obsessed with chasing non-readers instead of chasing the readers we had and trying to make them happy,”

The third panel talked of a multitude of ideas concerning the future of journalism. Michael Freedman, Jeff Portnoy, and David Shapiro are all men of different journalistic experience and opinion. They came together in the third panel to share their varying viewpoints and the multitude of perspectives they each have gained in their respective fields, and all who were present were able to benefit.