Thursday, June 25, 2009...7:00 am

Print versus online journalism – the view from Belgium

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Here’s a very interesting post by, of all things, a Belgian linguistic researcher, about the differences between print and online journalism.
I like its academic slant (something which often puts me off), as it actually helps to illuminate the murky way that news journalism is constructed and then passed off as something whole and authoritative. 
Often web content (news, semi-news, rehashed news, comment, vitriol etc) is condemned by “real” journalists for being a mess. But Tom Van Hout points out the hidden intervention that conceals exactly the same process going on in the print newsroom. 
In essence, he is saying that print journalism shares a lot of the so-called failings of web journalism, but is much less transparent about it. Or, more crudely:

The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit-show that is actual news production is hidden away.

[Update: in the spirit of process journalism, Tom Van Hout reminds me that the quote is not directly his, but is from a post by Cody Brown on similar topics. My fault for blurring Tom’s post with his authorship. I was a bit sloppy, in other words…]
I also really liked this quote [which is from Tom]. Comparing the process of journalism with sausage-making, Van Hout says:

Online, ‘readers’ can see how the sausage is being made and promptly start making sausages themselves. This inevitably leads to discussions about sausage making.

In essence, his point is that online journalism is about process, not the perfect finished object. And that authority evolves online – through a kind of peer review of linkage and comments.
This view of the web as mutable and living very much chimes with how I see journalism (content/services) evolving to meet technological, and social, change. 
There’s a link to a very good account of process journalism here, which is referred to in the Tom Van Hout blog. In it, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington outlines how the site often uncovers the truth of a story by an iterative process that sees foggy rumour crystallise into hard news over time – something that print media outlets are often loath to allow. 
Crucially, for all the critics who say that underfunded or volunteer web journalism can never compete with the professionalism of the print newsroom, the process of process journalism also drives the uncovering of truth. 

The fact is that we sometimes can’t get to the end story without going through this process. CEOs don’t always take our calls when we’re asking about speculative rumors. But when a story is up and posted, it’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to give us additional information.

It’s a new environment, and I’m sure there are kinks to be ironed out. But while the new world of web journalism will be fragmented and lack the instant authority of old-style media, it has a real future – despite, or perhaps because of, the web’s perceived limitations.
[HT: Bill Bennett]


  • G’morning. Glad you like the post. Two short comments:
    1. In fairness, the ‘rumorladen shit-show’ quote is not mine, it’s Cody Brown’s.
    2. The rationale for this post is this: I find the old vs new media discourse strenuous (‘democracy is doomed’ vs ‘online is better’) and believe that the future of journalism looks brighter than most people think.
    Take the widespread ‘nail-in-the-coffin’ practice of churnalism. In a print environment, churnalism equals poor quality. In an online environment, I see churnalism becoming capital – a form of new media literacy if you will.
    Online, news discourse becomes much more dynamic. This renders the practice of churnalism – lifting discourse out of its original context (eg a press release) and subsequently inserting it anew – visible and hence turns it into quality standard – we can now see/judge what the added value is of this transformation. What did the author add/substract/change/edit/check/link?

  • I absolutely agree, and I suspect many long time professional journalists agree as well. Recently one of the main criticisms of web journalism is not the messiness of the process but the lack of any editing which could make the messiness meaningful for the reader. The call for editing is not an attempt to pretend that traditional journalism isn’t messy before editing, rather exactly the reverse. Now, the real challenge is how one goes about providing a form of editing for internet journalism. I think sites like Global Voices are a good start. They edit, translate, aggregate and contextualize blogs so that the international blog world is accessible to the reader. There are some great interviews with top journalists about these issues and the future of journalism at,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 which I have found very useful.

  • […] also – shameless self-plug coming up – a nice reblog of my post which was then picked up by […]

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