With Old Media Gatekeepers Dying, What Will Take Their Place?

March 31st, 2009 5:32 PM

As the downward spiral of old media continues at an ever faster pace many have begun to wonder what's next. Well, PBS's MediaShift blog has been mulling it over in a series of posts. Their thoughts on the current and future state of news are quite insightful and certainly warrant dissection and discussion.

Stephen Strauss starts off by noting the recent downfall of many main stream newspapers, as reported on NB by yours truly, and the resulting end of the "tyranny of reporters". Strauss celebrates the downfall of old media because of increased flow of information it has caused:

In the old print/radio/television world there wasn't much else you could do. Space and time was limited and so many things had to be left out, ignored or radically reconfigured. In ways that I don't think we truly appreciated, the media -- or rather the limitations of the media -- was the message.
One of the most magisterial things the Internet is doing is undermining the previous writer/editor dictatorship. Suddenly, what used to be effectively a one-sided conversation in which the writer did all the talking has been turned into an agora in which a piece is dissected and often reconstructed by the readers -- and if we ever get there, listeners and viewers, too.

Strauss is nearly spot on here, old media provides us with their one-sided perspective on news but that isn't entirely due to space and time restrictions. I think that anybody who follows NewsBusters can tell you that liberal bias certainly affects the information that we receive from old main stream sources.

And, of course, while Strauss identifies new media as the source of greater information and therefor the bearer of a better informed age the same can be said in regards to media bias. With more media outlets equipped with more information than ever readers no longer have to rely on potentially biased and certainly imperfect reporters for the full story.

It is a victory, indeed, for all of us. Well, except maybe those reporters and media companies who, out of nostalgia for their glory days, refuse to adapt and inevitably die off.  However, ultimately, though media companies and individual reporters may suffer in the short term from their loss of control reporting the news is actually greatly enhanced through a freer flow of information.

Yet someone must sift through and focus this increased news flow lest we all be lost adrift in a sea of words. But with the previously mentioned downfall of the mainstream media and therefor their gatekeeper status who will fill that role? Mark Glaser, also of MediaShift, points to several internet giants for the answer:

There was a time when all you needed was a good record review in Rolling Stone or a stellar book review in the New York Times to get a boost in sales and popularity. But as those old gatekeepers lose their cachet in the digital age, a new set of gatekeepers has sprung up and they don't have bylines. These are the editors who pick featured artists and apps at the Apple iTunes store, who choose videos to spotlight on YouTube, and who highlight Suggested Users on Twitter.

But as these new media colossals influence the information intake of more and more people there is an important question we need to ask ourselves. Are they any better? Are they any less inclined to bias, be it political or other wise? Well, take Glaser's account of Twitter's editorial practices into account:

The most recent hubbub over the gatekeeping function started when Twitter began listing Suggested Users a couple months ago for newbies who weren't following anyone and didn't get how the service worked. By highlighting popular Twitter feeds from news organizations such as the New York Times and celebrities such as Britney Spears, Twitter hoped to hook new users. The problem? There was no explanation of how anyone made it onto such a list, and all the featured users started racking up huge numbers of followers.

And his account of Apple's back room dealing is perhaps even more troubling:

Meanwhile, Apple has become a force for digital music sales with its iTunes store, which now has films, TV shows, podcasts and apps. In each section of the store, there are featured slots for content and no explanations for how content gets featured.

music industry sources say that you can build relationships with Apple editors, just as you can with radio music directors, retail outlets and others along the old music distribution chain. That means it's difficult to tell what's going on in backroom negotations, where the music business has been notorious for its payola scandals.

And YouTube certainly hasn't been immune to these same editorial controversies either:

In the past, video giant YouTube was also criticized for making home page picks for videos without explaining the process behind the picks. In late 2006, many users complained that CBS videos were getting preferential treatment because of a business deal with YouTube. YouTube and CBS denied that at the time.

Not a pretty picture is it? Editorial decisions made in the dark without explanation are irresponsible at best and down right corrupt at worst. Especially when you think of the money involved with these choices. Consider this story about an application that was featured on Apple's iTunes:

And when Mike Campbell had his House Hunter app featured on iTunes, his sales went up astronomically. Campbell explained in a blog post that his sales were $101.63 the week before being featured, and were up to $2108.31 the first week it was featured. In both cases, the content owner did nothing to get featured, didn't contact Apple or know why they were featured.

The same can be said of someone who gains thousands of followers on Twitter or thousands of views on YouTube. And with thousands of dollars at risk with each of these editorial decisions it is imperative that these sites be clear in their reasoning.

The same could also be said of the potential political bias associated with these picks. Under the practices these companies currently employ Twitter could easily feature liberal members over conservative ones and YouTube could easily feature liberal leaning videos over conservative ones and iTunes could easily feature their liberal content over conservative content. And, worst of all, readers would be left wondering what was really going on as the editors aren't made public and neither are there reasons for doing what they do.

If there is to be any hope that new media will be more open and less biased than its predicesor then these companies must correct their ways. We need to root out the bias that plauges old media before it becomes the norm and currupts the news in new media. The future of news is being decided now and we must make it known that bias, back-room dealing, and irresponsibility will not be tolerated.