No one can deny the Internet is a life-changer. As a social networking tool, it is nonpareil. Many married couples would never would have met but for the Internet. Employers find employees and vice versa from around the globe--people whose paths never would have crossed but for the magic of cyberspace. But the Internet has its downsides, and one of those is that it is causing the demise of American journalism--as we know it or have known it for centuries. The Internet is single-handedly responsible for the death this year of the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, and the conversion to online publishing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor.
In a fascinating column for the Wall Street Journal Online, Democratic pollster Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne revealed the increasing impact of independent bloggers, who earn their livings by blasting opinions (as opposed to facts) across cyberspace.
They are the technology age's equivalent of reporters and columnists, but without the degree of separation that used to protect readers and consumers from being targeted for commercial or political purposes, that old-fashioned edited newspapers and magazines used to (and to a limited extent, still do) provide.
The problem is, veracity is deleted and placed in the trash bin. Unverified opinion is taking its place. Well-written, fact-checked opinion has a storied place in journalism history. But off-the-cuff, on-the-take opinion does not. Yet there is much more of the latter on the Internet than the former.
Penn & Zalesne write:
One out of three young people reports blogging, but bloggers who do it for a living successfully are 2% of bloggers overall. It takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year. Bloggers can get $75 to $200 for a good post, and some even serve as "spokesbloggers" -- paid by advertisers to blog about products. As a job with zero commuting, blogging could be one of the most environmentally friendly jobs around -- but it can also be quite profitable. For sites at the top, the returns can be substantial...
As bloggers have increased in numbers, the number of journalists has significantly declined. In Washington alone, there are now 79% fewer DC-based employees of major newspapers than there were just few years ago. At the same time, Washington is easily the most blogged-about city in America, if not the world.
The column goes on to say that the way to generate traffic to an Internet site is to make it as outrageous as possible. "Outrageous" on the Internet usually comes in one of two forms: 1) pornography or 2) wildly unsubstantiated, extreme opinions.
The fact that, as Penn discloses, some bloggers are making as much as $200,000 per year and many of them are doing so by shilling for companies or selling consumer goods is downright scary. Consumers need a filter. They need to know if someone is saying something just to grab one's attention, or touting a product because that person is being paid by an advertiser to tout it.
I used to be friendly with a woman who quit a high-level job at a cable news organization because she insisted on the old "two source" rule. That rule, observed by all reputable news organizations, insisted that no one could publish or broadcast a source story, unless that story was confirmed by two independent sources. The cable network wanted to put on air stories based on information from one source and she quit rather than comply. How old-fashioned of her!
Magnify that a million-fold and you can imagine the junk being peddled to American news consumers in the form of blogs. It is a shame the Internet is the font of this form of change in American journalism.
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By Bonnie Erbe