Digital Journalism: How Good Is It?

On the evening of Saturday, February 28, about one hundred people gathered in a conference room at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies in midtown Manhattan to salute Steven Greenhouse on the occasion of his retirement from The New York Times. For thirty-one years, Greenhouse had worked at the paper, the last nineteen of them covering labor. In December, he had taken a buyout—part of a cost-cutting campaign aimed at eliminating one hundred positions from the newsroom—and the tribute to him was one of a series of doleful farewells held to mark the exodus of so many veteran reporters.

Not all was gloom, however. After the announcement of Greenhouse’s departure, the Times had come under intense pressure to fill the labor beat, and in mid-February it announced that it would, with Noam Scheiber, a longtime editor and writer at The New Republic, who had left in the upheaval at that publication. More generally, the labor advocates present at the gathering expressed satisfaction at how the coverage of labor has rebounded as the interest in inequality has surged.

Among the journalists present, however, there was no such cheer. “No one can feel secure,” said one Times reporter who had survived the cut. Her comment captured the climate of fear and insecurity that has gripped traditional news organizations in the digital era. “Disruption” is the catch-all phrase. Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst interviewed by NPR at the time of the shake-up at The New Republic, said that “what you’ve got is an old brand, a venerable brand…that is roiled by digital disruption the same way The New York Times is, Time Inc. is, NBC, ABC, NPR, BBC, you name it.” And, he said, “We’re really just at the beginning of that process. It’s creative disruption, as we would call it in Silicon Valley, but it can be pretty ugly in the short term.”

That digital technology is disrupting the business of journalism is beyond dispute. What’s striking is how little attention has been paid to the impact that technology has had on the actual practice of journalism. The distinctive properties of the Internet—speed, immediacy, interactivity, boundless capacity, global reach—provide tremendous new opportunities for the gathering and presentation of news and information. Yet amid all the coverage of start-ups and IPOs, investments and acquisitions, little attempt has been made to evaluate the quality of Web-based journalism, despite its ever-growing influence.

To try to fill that gap, I set off on a grand (though necessarily selective) tour of journalistic websites. How creative and innovative has digital journalism been? How much impact has it had?

1.

As The Huffington Post marks its tenth anniversary in May, it has much to celebrate. The once-scrappy start-up now has an editorial staff of about five hundred in its New York headquarters and another forty in its Washington office, plus thirteen international editions stretching from Brazil to Japan, with more on the way. Its American edition has fifty distinct sections, and HuffPost Live offers a…


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