The Digital Fourth Estate

The Internet is drastically changing the face of journalism. But unlike many other industries that are undergoing painful transformations, journalism is more than a business — it’s a vital part of our system of government. Thus, when institutions like the New York Times that have served as important checks on our government are struggling to stay afloat, it’s more than just their investors who get nervous. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that the very same technologies that are making print journalism obsolete will also enrich and enhance our democracy.

The Internet isn’t simply replacing newspapers with their digital equivalents. Due to the historically high costs of distribution, newspapers are highly integrated, both vertically and horizontally. A single newsroom would be responsible for tasks at all levels of the journalism stack, gathering information, reporting on it, and providing in-depth analysis. In the digital world, there often different destinations for each of these. When I’m looking for the latest happenings in the world of tech policy, I look to Ars Technica’s Law and Disorder blog. If I need help making sense of it, I read sites like the Technology Liberation Front and Freedom to Tinker. And of course, I don’t expect these sits to tell me the latest baseball scores or help me sell my old couch, there’s mlb.com and Craigslist for that. Because these websites specialize, they provide much richer content than any integrated portal ever could (imagine trying to get all your tech policy news from the Wall Street Journal). And, thanks to RSS readers, I can still get all this information in one convenient place.

But there is still one of these roles that the digital world is lagging behind in filling: gathering news from primary sources. Because of this, some have claimed that digital journalism will suddenly find itself without a leg to stand on when the traditional reporters aren’t around to gather the news¬† (including me, oops). It’s not hard to see why this would be a point of concern. Unlike distributing content, where both the creators and consumers are online, most news still happens in the “real world.” It still requires old-fashioned leg work to get that information into a computer. This, however, is beginning to change.

Increasingly, ordinary citizens are digitizing information and making it publicly available. At the CITP’s recent conference on “Studying Society in a Digital World,” evidence of this abounded. Professor Samuel Madden of MIT demoed a system that streamed data from cars’ on-board computers into the cloud, where it could be used to map out exact locations of potholes and provide accurate traffic reports. Another researcher, Professor Jon Kleinberg of Cornell, presented an amazing method [pdf] for making sense of the 50 - 100 million geotagged photos that are freely available on Flickr. Kleinberg was able to identify the most photographed landmarks in the world, what their names were based on tags (e.g. eiffeltower), and what a canonical picture of that landmark actually looks like (i.e. the Eiffel Tower is the big metal structure, not the photographer’s mother standing in front of the ticket stand), all with a completely automated algorithm.¬† As this trend of social information sharing continues, it’s not hard to imagine an independent blogger making a simple query to find a CC-licensed image of a toxic waste dump to appear alongside his critique of the federal government’s Superfund policy, for example.

The second method real-world information will begin to make its way into digital form is by newsmakers providing it that way in the first place. As we discussed in class a few weeks ago, one of the largest sources of news, the federal government, is beginning the process of providing its data in machine-readable formats through it’s as-yet unlaunched data.gov site. When sites like MAPlight.org and Govtrack.us are built around other forms of government data, citizen journalists will find it much easier to provide insightful commentary on what happens inside the beltway, even if they’re a thousand miles away. A similar transformation will hopefully occur for state governments through the efforts the Sunlight Foundation’s 50 states project. And there’s no reason that this trend has to be limited to governments either. Right now, Major League Baseball carefully licenses it’s data, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years they realized they could drive much more interest in baseball if they provided an official API that allowed fans to create exciting new apps and visualizations based on their data.

The Wall Street Journal recently said that “If journalists were the Fourth Estate, bloggers are becoming the Fifth Estate.” They’ve got it backwards. Bloggers aren’t creating a new Estate, they are making the Fourth Estate indistinguishable from the Third.

One Response to “The Digital Fourth Estate”

  1. Timothy B. Lee Says:

    Great post! People also seem to forget that a lot of news-makers want the media to cover them, and will go out of their way to make sure that media outlets have access to the information they need. For example, much of the business press is focused on product releases, mergers, personnel changes, etc. This is the sort of thing where companies jockey to receive more and better coverage. Obviously, it’s important that that reporters don’t just regurgitate what it says in the press release, but there’s certainly no reason to think newspapers are uniquely capable of reporting the basic information about what happened.

    The same point applies to sports: teams need media coverage of their events to build fan interest and excitement. Likewise, much of politics work this way: candidates need media coverage to get their message out. Right now these folks give preferential access to newspapers because they have large audiences, but if bloggers had the biggest audiences they’d get the same opportunities.

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