The Web 2.0 community has been a potent purveyor of myth . One of the myths that Web 2.0's most ardent kool aid drinkers have promoted is that the world of news media has been democratised.
In the process, Old Media institutions such as newspapers are supposedly dying and being replaced by citizen journalists, bloggers and new media startups.
Many have accepted this myth. After all, the erosion of newspaper print revenue, for instance, is often touted as evidence of a dinosauric, elite-driven industry in its last throes.
So it was with great interest that I read the comprehensive The State of the News Media 2008 report issued by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute that is a part of the Pew Research Center.
The report comes to a conclusion that will shock the kool aid drinkers - contrary to popular belief, not only has news media not been democratised by the internet, the internet is, in a number of ways, helping narrow media coverage and consolidate power in the hands of Old Media entities who are increasingly adapting and finding success online.
Starting with the issue of ownership, the report found that:
"The most popular news sites are still largely owned by the richest media companies, a trend we have noted in previous editions of the annual report.
"Of the top-20 most popular news sites, 17 are owned by one of the 100 largest media companies in terms of total net revenue generated in the U.S. in 2006, based on an analysis of data from Advertising Age and Nielsen Online.
"What’s more, the 10 richest companies are increasing their hold on the top Web sites. In 2007, they owned 30% of the most popular news sites, up from 21% in 2006 and 25% in 2005."
Turning to citizen journalism, the report states:
"The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists."
It is observed that despite all the hype around blogs, a 2007 Zogby Poll found that blogs were the least "important" source of news, trailing even "close friends and neighbors" as "an important informational source."
A poll by research firm Synovate in 2007 found that nearly half of Americans who read blogs read them for entertainment while only 15% read them for news and information.
Thus, despite the fact that more people are reading and publishing blogs, blogs are not yet considered a bonafide source of news and information by the mainstream public.
Dedicated citizen journalism websites face their own set of challenges.
Of the growing number of citizen journalism websites, only 21% "reported covering their operating costs" according to research by the University of Maryland's interactive journalism program.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism notes that:
"In the absence of revenue, most appear to be running on the owners’ blood, sweat and tears."
In the past, I have questioned whether those lacking significant resources can really do a great job at reporting the news consistently and reliably.
Clearly, it is going to be difficult for the mainstream to rely on citizen journalists who, for the most part, have not been able to turn their passion into a financially viable enterprise.
Interestingly, blogs and citizen journalism websites are showing a tendency to implement editorial controls similar in nature to their mainstream counterparts that are the source of criticism by Web 2.0 kool aid drinkers:
"...for all that citizen journalism might imply openness and interactivity, the majority of sites analyzed tended to demonstrate the instincts of 'strong gatekeepers' who control the content and are somewhat more difficult to interact with than the ideals of citizen journalism suggest. Now, instead of professionals, those gatekeepers were the bloggers or citizens who ran the sites."
Most of the websites and blogs contained in The Project for Excellence in Journalism's evaluation of the marketplace actually lag mainstream media websites and are "generally more restrictive" in terms of features that promote participation and staff interaction.
David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun points out the irony in this:
"While longtime giants of American media, such as Time Warner and NBC, are successfully adapting to the digital landscape, citizen journalists and bloggers are emulating old media 'gatekeeper' ways by restricting access to other new voices once they get established online."
Finally, the State of the News Media report also addresses services such as Digg, demonstrating that they are often out of touch with mainstream reality.
For instance, during the week of June 24 to June 29, 2007, the most popular story on Digg was related to the release of the iPhone while the immigration debate in Washington was the most popular story in the mainstream media.
That same week, stories about Iraq accounted for a tenth of mainstream media coverage while it accounted for a hundredth of the coverage on Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us.
Clearly, the users of these services are much more concerned about the latest gadgets than topics of national and global importance.
News.com's Charles Cooper, in his article "Were we wrong about tech and the democratization of media?", highlights what is perhaps the most important quote from The State of the News Media report:
"Some people even advocate the notion of "The Long Tail," the idea that, with the Web's infinite potential for depth, millions of niche markets could be bigger than the old mass market dominated by large companies and producers.
"The reality, increasingly, appears more complex. Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old-media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before.
"Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media."
Complexity, nuance and perspective seem to be things that Web 2.0 kool aid drinkers have difficulty dealing with.
Industries that are feeling pain because they've been forced to adapt to technological change must be dying. The fact that citizens can now become journalists must mean that there is a complete democratization of news media.
Of course, those with some common sense know that the world is a complex and nuanced place and that a proper perspective is required to evaluate what is really happening.
In his book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen raises the spectre that legions of often uninformed and unqualified amateurs will destroy important institutions such as the newspaper.
Fortunately, if the extensive research and analysis conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism is accurate, we needn't yet worry about the death of these institutions.
Despite all of the forward-looking post-mortems, the Project for Excellence in Journalism reminds us that "more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before" and it isn't the Old Media empires that are being left in the dust.
To the contrary, Old Media is increasingly adapting, experimenting and innovating. If only Web 2.0 would do the same.