Sharing the News: The Transformation of Journalism in the Digital Age

Bringing a sharing economy to the newsroom is the most significant transformation wrought by the digital news revolution.

We know that the transformations wrought by revolutions often take decades, and that will probably be true for the news revolution as well. If we peer beneath and behind the frantic efforts of legacy media to simply stay alive, we can see the roots of a news economy that will look very different from the one we have today—better in so many ways.

The media we think of as providing our daily news in the United States—TV stations like CBS and CNN, newspapers like the LA Times and Washington Post — arose in a competitive economy where winning the distribution battle led to a monopoly over an audience. That economy generated so much profit that owners were able to invest in journalism while keeping audiences entertained with sports, weather, and happy talk.

The digital revolution—and particularly the rise of social media—has replaced the competitive economy with a sharing economy. In this new economy, distribution is horizontal rather than vertical. Audiences rather than publishers control what they see, hear, and share.

Most of the large corporate media have not fully understood this new economy or have opted to profit by offering infotainment rather than journalism. However, two important strands of the current ecosystem are truly transformative and may point towards the future of news: the rise of community journalism and the growth of a network of shared content among niche outlets. As these two trends merge, journalism will be transformed.

An Era of Competition

The newspaper era was defined by competition. Each newspaper could reach only as far as its area of distribution, so it fought to gain a monopoly there. By the early twentieth century, most major cities had at least two major papers, a morning and an evening edition, battling for audiences.

These battles over the newspaper business also drove editorial sensibilities. The watchword for early journalists was the ‘scoop.’ Whoever got the story first could get more readers. The fight for the scoop led to such practices as ‘ambulance chasing,’ as journalists rushed to find out where the nearest fight had taken place and who was hurt.

In this competitive economy, breaking the news first won awards. To ensure that their journalists would get to the news first, the largest newspapers opened field offices across the world. The only content that was shared was through a trusted third-party source, the Associated Press or Reuters, both of which promised to be completely neutral in the newspaper wars.

The advent of radio and then TV news did not change much. The Big Three television stations fought with each other for Nielsen shares, as did their local affiliates. Radio stations vied with each other to be first on the scene and the channel to which you would stay tuned as big stories unfolded. Whether local, regional, or national, each newsroom thought of itself as a fiefdom that needed to be protected and expanded.

The digital revolution changed all that.

Digital Disruption — Moving from Competition to Sharing

What makes the Internet so revolutionary is that anything posted to the Internet becomes accessible to anyone anywhere in the world. The video blog I post with my own personal musings can become an international sensation (e.g., jennamarbles).1 The Internet shatters fiefdoms, as newspapers quickly found when they tried to put paywalls around their content.

The biggest change this new revolution has wrought has come in the area of breaking news. Now, with the exception of government news, almost all stories are first broken by people who are not professional journalists. Anyone anywhere with a smartphone becomes a journalist when they see something happening, snap a photo, and upload it to Twitter or Facebook. Breaking news stories from car crashes to oil leaks are mostly ‘broken’ now by you and me, using our phones.

Social media has become the key driver of all the news—the place where news is first produced and consumed. A recent study by the Pew Research Center2 shows that 63% of Facebook and Twitter users find their news on social media. Increasingly, news organizations are discovering that no one goes to their home pages anymore. Instead, we find our news by listening to our friends and then clicking through to the story page on a news organization’s website. The new news economy is a sharing economy in which news is created, distributed, and consumed by friends reaching out to other friends.

Challenges of the Sharing Economy

The new sharing economy has created a number of challenges for the news industry, all of them ultimately linked to the business of producing the news.

In the competitive economy, news organizations gained monopolies over distinct geographical areas, which gave them unfettered access to all the advertising dollars in those areas. In the new sharing economy, advertisers are turning mainly to social media, where most of the people are looking for their news. Advertising dollars flow to Google search and to Facebook, with even the biggest news sites a very distant third.

This chase for dollars has led many news organizations away from the kinds of stories we associate most with professional journalism: deep investigative pieces, in-depth profiles and features, clear explainers, and ambitious attempts to locate solutions to complex problems. Those kinds of pieces take time and money to produce and don’t always appeal to mass audiences.

The biggest news organizations have responded to this dismal set of economic facts by dismantling much of the infrastructure that made their journalism excel. National news providers including CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, the LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Times have cut both foreign and local bureaus. The number of working journalists has been cut in half since 1990—from 56,900 to 32,900.3

A serious result of these cutbacks has been a decay in local news reporting, as local news sites cannot compete with national ones, and national ones no longer see a reason to invest in local news. Areas that once had two or three major newspapers now may have none. Areas that had thriving TV and radio news now find that the local news show is actually just a rehash of national news,4 sent in via corporate headquarters. News deserts are now growing.5

Many had hoped that these older ‘legacy’ institutions would be replaced by exciting local news websites—outlets ‘native’ to the digital environment. That has not happened. The one attempt at a digital network of local sites, Patch, failed miserably. On the national level, digital ‘natives’ have not made as many inroads as one would have thought. The fact is, however, that eight of the top ten digital sites are run by legacy media. The only two digital ‘natives’ on the list are Huffington Post and Buzzfeed.

A quick look at Buzzfeed and the HuffPost show that these sites are not filling the hole left by legacy news media. Buzzfeed did not even begin as a site devoted to journalism, and infamously built its audience via funny cat videos, lists, and quizzes.6 Huffington Post grew via aggregation and search engine optimization. It expanded into journalism briefly in 2013, but after being purchased by AOL a significant number of its reporters left. Said Peter Goodman, quoted in Politico,7 “There is a widespread sense on the team that the HuffPost is no longer fully committed to original reporting; that in a system governed largely by metrics, deep reporting and quality writing weigh in as a lack of productivity,” he wrote in the memo. From the standpoint of mass media, the story of the digital revolution looks bleak.

Opportunities Created by the Sharing Economy

Ironically, what legacy news outlets and most mass-media digital natives have not learned how to do in this new economy is to share. They understand that their audience shares content, and they work hard to make sure that their content gets in to that stream. All of these organizations now have hired whole departments of people who monitor social media, using complicated metrics to analyze what headlines, keywords, and photos make a post more ‘shareable.’

Yet what these outlets are not doing is actually working with members of the community or with each other to share in the production of their news content. For them, ‘sharing’ is a business issue, a distribution issue that dictates what content will look like and when it will appear. They don’t think of ‘sharing’ as a new way to develop, research, write, and produce new stories.

Yet it is the creation of news via sharing that is the truly transformative aspect of the new news economy. This sharing is currently happening in two ways: via members of the community who are creating their own news and via news outlets that have realized the benefits of working with each other.

Logos from The Media Consortium
Logos from The Media Consortium

Community Journalism

‘Community journalist’ is now widely used to describe a nonprofessional who breaks a news story, usually via a photo or video. Breaking news, once the heart of journalism, has now been almost completely outsourced to the person on the street.

The #Ferguson and the #BlackLivesMatter movements could not have come into being without the deeply distressing videos bystanders made of police violence against black men and women. For the first time, news content like this could be uploaded instantly to an untold number of viewers, making it possible for local news to reach an international community. Immigration reform and the push for a $15 minimum wage have been sped along by community members posting video of protests from their phones. From school board meetings to oil spills, what happens now can be told by anyone with a phone and a wi-fi connection.

The fact that anyone in a community can tell a news story has literally changed the face of journalism in the United States. It is a well-known (and much bemoaned) fact that most professional US journalists are white. In a 2013 census, for example, an ASNE census of US newsrooms found that only 12% of all professional journalists were people of color.8 However, when we look at the pool of potential community journalists, we see much greater diversity. More blacks (70%) and Hispanics (71%) own smartphones than whites (61%).9 The voices of the poor, the oppressed, the minority, were rarely heard or seen in mainstream media. The rise of the community journalist changes all that. News finally has the potential to become truly democratic.

Community and Independent Outlet Collaborations

Some news outlets did lift up these stories that the mass media never saw. Foreign language, Latino, and Black newspapers voiced the news of their respective communities. Issue-based outlets like Earth Island Journal, Ms. magazine, and Rethinking Schools dig deep into topics like environmental justice, gender, and education that mass outlets often slide right by. Outlets like Kosmos Journal and Yes! Magazine have focused on solutions to longstanding problems, while outlets like Mother Jones, PR Watch, and In These Times have investigated corruption.

The new sharing economy has given these outlets the opportunity to take advantage of each other’s strengths. Society’s most significant challenges are complex, crossing different populations, geographies, and issue areas. That is where my organization, the Media Consortium, has been able to support news outlets in better reporting on—and finding solutions for—complex issues. We organize editorial collaborations around complex social problems so that editors can work together and audiences can easily access and share this joint content.

One of our biggest successes was a collaboration we organized around GMO seed grown in Kauai. Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow all create seed genetically modified to withstand herbicides and pesticides. They grow this seed on the island of Kauai, where there are four growing seasons a year. To test the seeds’ resistance, they spray extra amounts of herbicide and pesticide. The seed fields are, in some cases, only yards from schools and homes of indigenous Hawaiians.

In our collaboration, we pooled resources to send four journalists to Kauai—specialists in environment, politics, and solutions journalism. They shared sources and tips, and then shared these with reporters who stayed on the mainland but researched corporate money flows and the history of indigenous people on Kauai.

Each journalist then wrote a story for their own outlet, focused on what that outlet does best: Earth Island Journal and Cascadian Times reported on the potential dangers of these herbicide sprays; PR Watch and the Hawaii Independent investigated how the chemical companies had paid off politicians to look the other way as the spraying intensified; “Making Contact” interviewed the indigenous people, who were caught between fears over their health and good-paying jobs; and Yes! Magazine sought out solutions such as organic farming that would give locals an alternative livelihood.

The pieces were published on their own sites, published jointly on, and promoted together on social media. Working together, journalists were able to tell the whole complex story of what was happening on Kauai and, as a result, they created change. On Kauai, activists were energized and passed law 960 (later overturned by the courts) to ban spraying near homes and schools. The fight became internationalized with activists travelling from Kauai to Switzerland for the Syngenta corporation’s annual meeting. It continues today. By sharing their work, these outlets were able to provide an intersectional look at the Kauai situation that changed politics on the ground.

What’s Next?

To truly transform the news ecosystem, we will need to take positive action. Both community journalism and collaborative newsmaking face their own challenges. Community journalists can post their content, but increasingly Facebook and Google control who sees content online. Their algorithms determine what appears when you look at your feed or search a keyword. Too many stories are still hidden because we simply can’t hear the voices of the people telling them.

Community media need to figure out viable sustainable revenue streams and for that will probably need to increase their audience sizes. They also have a diversity problem. While these outlets have begun talking to each other, too few of them (Kosmos being one of the few exceptions) are inviting audiences to participate in content creation.

The new sharing ecosystem surely will require that community journalists and community media merge in some way. Journalism outlets must hire journalists who come from the communities they wish to reach and who are willing and able to connect with their community in an authentic and open way. When they do so, members of these diverse communities will be more likely not only to share their own news, but also to share the news the outlets produce, creating larger audiences for the outlets.

We also must continue and deepen the sharing between outlets. When outlets work with each other on stories, they deepen the depth and value of their reporting, creating stories that fully manifest the complexities that we recognize as authentic to our lived lives. They also teach each other about their different communities and expand the reach to increasingly diverse community members.

What we imagine is a fully horizontal networked mesh of professional editors and reporters working hand in hand with members of communities to tell the stories that matter. That is the truly transformative vision of the sharing news economy.


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