The past decade has brought about a continuous conversation spinning around the crisis of traditional print journalism in the wake of rapid technological advancements in communications. Most working in journalism have been worrying what will become of the sector and whether it is possible to be gradually replaced by tech-savvy youngsters producing content for flashy websites with monosyllabic names. Others, such as Megan Garber, a Journalist for the Atlantic, have suggested that “we are going forward to the past” because the non-hierarchical, often bottom-up nature of communication via the internet resembles the oral communication traditions we used to practice prior to the age of printing. Perhaps this point is a little bit out there, in terms of the actual conserns of journalists and the public, but it does remind us that more complex dimensions of the debate are usually left out. Still, there are some benefits brought to journalists by increasing technological interconnectedness, which are difficult to dismiss. For instance, nowadays, journalists are closer to the experiences and opinions of their readership than ever before, having the possibility to contact eyewitnesses at the epicentre of events, or monitor the location and interests of their readership in a matter of seconds.
The term “Networked Journalism” was developed in its current form by Professor Charlie Beckett in 2008. In a book he published at the time, “SuperMedia, Saving Journalism so it can save the world” he described the phenomenon as consisting of “amateur and professional [becoming] complementary and increasingly interchangeable parts of [the journalistic] process” (page 72). Indeed, in the period between 2008 and 2015, the very nature of news production has been transformed by similar currents of change. Unlike the relatively dormant version of traditional media output, such as paper newspapers and magazines, digital news is no longer fixed, but is “living, evolving, limitless, relentless”. In other words, the production of news has become a continuous process, not necessarily leading to a final result. Let us proceed by outlining some of the principal ways in which Networked Journalism has transformed the current media landscape. These are, by influencing the relationship between journalists and citizens and by affecting the authenticity and reliability of news. The main line of argument will be, that Networked Journalism does matter, because its impact on the journalistic profession as a whole has been positive to a great extent, and that it has the potential to solve some of the problems of traditional journalism.
The first way in which Networked Journalism has impacted on the journalistic profession is that it has paved the way for more efficient communication between individuals in society and journalist. For instance, if a journalist needs to speak to eyewitnesses or people who have been at the epicentre a story, he or she is covering; it is much easier to contact them now than before the existence of the internet. Also, contact can be initiated in the reverse order, with the citizen sending material to news organisations, as enabled by platforms such as the BBC’s Have Your Say. Better connectivity between audiences and journalists, provides a greater pool of fresh ideas and helps combat “churnalism”, a term used by the award-winning investigative journalist Nick Davies in his book “Flat Earth News” to critique the lack of originality in newspaper journalism in Britain, as many stories are re-published after minor alterations, due to the constrains of tight deadlines. Furthermore, on more specialized topics readers often know more than journalists themselves, which means that their involvement in the composition of news material can improve its quality. Further examples of the interactivity brought about by the internet are blogs and comment sections in online newspaper platforms which allow readers to participate in the debate, by expressing their opinion underneath articles. All of the above, point in the direction of a revitalised dialogue and cooperation between professionals and amateurs that has the potential to circumvent the traditional constrains of time and distance, which were faced by journalists in the past.
Secondly, due to this better connectivity between journalists and citizens or audiences, the breath of news analysis is much wider. Furthermore, with the added element of local voices, the authenticity of their articles increases, as they offer a greater palette and nuances of opinion. I would argue that in general, this allows for more interesting and in-depth journalism, because through group work, ethnocentric biases are diluted. For example, if readers are presented with a cold narrative of the drug war in Mexico, without any pictures or interviews with locals, they are less likely to feel empathy or receive a well-rounded account of the situation. Alternatively, if stories are combined with content generated by users, this adds to their authenticity and allows readers to draw parallels between their own life experiences and those of the locals who have been granted visibility. There are of course counter arguments, stating that the local voices that are heard or the pictures that are shown are still largely selective and that the authenticity of a piece depends mostly on the experience and ethical values of the professional journalists themselves. However, these assume that the professional journalist is the leading party in his collaborative project with the amateur, which is not always the case.
Thirdly, I would argue that Networked Journalism produces more reliable news because it usually requires a form of citizen-produced evidence that accompanies the text, such as photographs, opinion polls, interviews and more. This means that professionals, who aspire to practice Networked Journalism, cannot rely on desk research alone, when they produce an analytical piece, they must also seek active engagement with the outside world and include empirical evidence to back up their claims. Moreover, it becomes even more important to convince readers of the validity of one’s arguments when audiences are exposed to an over-saturated media environment. Networked Journalism, or networking, in this case, is primarily a tool through which journalists can unearth evidence through which to make their claims seem more reliable, or which they can use as a starting point for further research. This point is especially salient if we agree with Jarvis that journalism is a service the primary aim of which should be to achieve “an informed public”. Nevertheless, there are examples when sources provided by citizens or alternative news agencies are intentionally misleading or even photo – shopped. A good example is the case of the recent Ukrainian crisis, during which a lot of disinformation material and photo shopped photographs, were spread by Russian news agencies and were occasionally picked up by international media as genuine.
In an interview for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, Thomas Pettitt argued that before the internet revolution there was a hierarchy of reliability, in which printed books were assumed to be most reliable, newspapers less so and the spoken word was at the bottom of the scale. However, it seems that these traditional norms of hierarchy have been broken down by Networked Journalism because it relies on a sharing of responsibility between journalists and the public. Indeed, if citizens are part of the news production process, there is greater transparency and they are more likely to trust the media. Thus, it seems that through involving a wider range of actors, Networked Journalism can significantly strengthen the perceived reliability of media outlets.
To conclude, it appears that Networked Journalism has significantly altered traditional patterns of news making in journalism. It has facilitated easier and more efficient communication between audiences and journalists, helping them achieve more authentic accounts of events despite time and distance constraints. Also, it has increased the perceived reliability of news, by encouraging journalists to include more interactive and multiplatform material as evidence supporting their analysis. Ultimately, Networked journalism matters, because it embodies the inevitable evolution of the journalistic profession, as it adapts to the digital age of information dissemination and consumption.