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Instant News – The Fall of the Fourth Estate


I had an epiphany while reading the Straits Times (the biggest broadsheet in Singapore). It wasn’t so much an epiphany as it was a general realisation as to why I stopped reading newspapers and magazines completely. Rather than usability being a factor, I realised that, for the most part, what I had read in a magazine had already been covered by an infinite number of online sources. What is the point of spending money when the same content was available for free and more importantly instantaneously?

The Four Tiers of News

In 2010 (and beyond), there are four tiers of news. Firstly, news is captured by the “average” public. Every phone today has a camera. Hence, the first on the scene is often the passer-by who has witnessed an “astonishing event”. The photo would usually be accompanied by a tweet on Twitter or a wall post on Facebook. Aside from a personal blog these are the de facto methods of announcing to the world what has just happened.

The news from the average Joe is augmented by corporations feeding news to the public. In the post-2010 media virtually everything is released first and foremost on the internet. Almost all corporations have accepted this and they seek to promote their product, feature or general news through digital media. There are a number of ways that the corporations go about this, with the most effective method being the operation of a blog. No company has perfected this art better than Google. Other more archaic methods include controlled “leaks” and interviews with prominent online journalists. Essentially, aside from an “uncontrolled” leak (such as the leak of the potential next generation iPhone) the fastest way to find out about the news from a corporation is to follow their blog.

The second tier is controlled primarily by the blogosphere. With thousands of blogs covering every aspect of life, virtually all news arising out of the first tier is immediately picked up and distributed by the second. As soon as Google publishes a new blog post promoting a new feature or someone takes a photo of a plane crashing into the Hudson River it is picked up by a blog. This often happens minutes after the first tier has completed their submission. For the most part there is little or no analysis. However, this is not the point of the second tier; it is merely to channel the news to a larger audience.

The third tier is mainly limited to major publications with an online presence and some blogs (such as TechCrunch) which have a fairly large reader base. These publications rarely jump on a story immediately after it is published. Instead they publish articles that appear a few hours after the event. This gives the reporters more time to properly analyse the content and provide some in-depth analysis as to why it is significant. This is possibly the most significant tier.

Finally, the fourth tier is limited largely to print media. Online publications have the flexibility of publishing a story as soon as it is written and at any time of the day. So, for publications with writers around the world there is a constant stream of news flowing from its website. Print media on the other hand is limited to a daily or weekly publication cycle (or some such variant depending on a lunar cycle). Even if the biggest story breaks minutes after a paper or magazine has gone to print there is little the editors can do, but wait until the next cycle. However, this often allows an even greater degree of contemplation, in contrast to the third tier.

I leave out televised news and opinion pieces as, to a large extent, they are not relevant. However, if either were to fall into a category, televised news would be between the first and second tier when events are covered live and in the third tier when experts are brought in for the purposes of analysis. Opinion pieces, such as this, are not predicated on the current news and are generally born out of the current state of affairs and hence for the purposes of categorization they would effectively fall into a very far removed fifth tier. These pieces are important for awareness, however less so if the purpose is mere consumption of current affairs.

In summary the four tiers are as follows:

1. Primary Source
2. Secondary Source
3. Analysis
4. Print Media

Speed is Paramount in the Digital Age

What the fourth tier has failed to recognise is that for the most part we are a society obsessed with information. Never before has so much information been created in such a small span of time. Indeed recently the United States Library of Congress announced their plan to digitise all "tweets" as a record of human history. Unfortunately, the fourth tier has failed to provide information at a speed which the internet generation requires.

An apt analogy is the use of digital video recorder (DVR). A DVR records a television programme to be viewed at the leisure of its owner. It is impossible to find specific slots of time to sit down and watch a television programme and the DVR saves us the headache of having to plan our day around a television show. Similarly, let's assume I had to catch a flight out of London a couple of weeks ago. I was completely disconnected from the internet and I showed up at the airport. I would have been told that flights were grounded because of a smouldering cloud of volcanic ash floating across Europe. Assuming I only read the traditional newspaper I may not have found out about the grounding of flights (of course this assumes that this was the first day of the grounding, before it was picked up by the newspapers). Essentially, by relying on print media I was locked into their cycle of daily release which prevented me from getting real-time information.

In contrast I could have gone online and readily found the information from either one of the other three tiers. For example, I could've followed the twitter hash-tag #ashtag and received up to the minute information from other passengers, the transport authorities, or even the airline itself. Similarly, the second and third tier would provide information on what was happening and what the alternatives were. In the space of a few hours I would be armed with all the possible information. In contrast waiting for the newspaper to arrive at my doorstep the next day would lead to complete ignorance on my part.

What is on the front page of your newspaper? Generally speaking it is the most important event in the past day or week (or whatever cycle is being used for the purposes of publication). However, if you were to use a source from any of the other tiers, invariably the news would have already been covered many times over before the newspaper published the item (this was certainly the case when I read about the lost iPhone on Straits Times a full day after the story broke on Gizmodo). Unfortunately, using the current cycle there is absoloutely nothing the print media can do to ensure exclusivity when publishing a story.

The benefit of the print media is that it is backed by greater financial freedom allowing reporters to pursue in-depth pieces that would be impossible by an online blog. However, blogs are starting to rake in the cash and it is not unheard of for online publications to feature articles that go beyond mere “re-tweeting”. A recent example would be how Wired.com tracked down the individual who “sold” the “lost” iPhone to Gizmodo. This is clearly not on the same scale to a reporter going to Iraq to cover the news from the frontline, nevertheless the trend is shifting.

The relative lack of funds for online blogs ensures that there is little scope for stories to be covered in great detail or for there to be an expose. Save for situations such as where the "lost" iPhone was sold to Gizmodo, it is unlikely a blog will ever get a major scoop. Instead the entire blogosphere is at the whims of corporations who decide when and where to toss them scraps. Essentially, even though the blog may be quicker to jump on a story it is still most likely being controlled by the primary source (first tier). In contrast print journalists, in some cases, have the freedom to pursue leads to unravel much deeper stories. With the rise of the online blogs, what we are seeing is an increase in the breadth of news and a decrease in its depth.

Fortunately, this lack of depth is offset by the fact that there is now a greater variety of sources covering the same topic, so it is possible that different views will shine through and allow greater depth for the overall analysis. Of course if my only source of news was Gizmodo I would miss out on the discussions taking place on other blogs and publications over the ethics of their iPhone coup.

But, I digress. Tracking the path of the news through the four tiers is useful to look at how each meets the needs of different consumers. On Thursday, general elections were held in the United Kingdom. In this case the first tier or “primary sources” would be the numbers coming out the polling stations, arguably the tweets of those who reveal their voting choice and exit polls could also be a viable source. The second tier was quite interesting as a number of prominent publications, such as the BBC, were live blogging the results as they were announced. The third tier included, for the most part, the same publications giving analysis of the results. Finally, the fourth tier...well I am in Singapore and it is impossible to get my hands on a printed newspaper, but even if I wanted to why would I? If my intention was to find out who the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was I would have received ample information from the BBC’s live blog and its subsequent analysis. Indeed if I merely wanted to know the numbers, the live blogs are more than sufficient. In this situation those using the first three tiers would find out who the next Prime Minister of the UK was before those who waited to buy their morning paper.

Solutions

So, what can the fourth tier do to ensure that they remain relevant? In the opinion of this blogger paper is a dying tool for the dissemination of news. No matter what the print media does it cannot hope to match the speed at which news can be distributed online. Instead what the print media must invest in new technologies that allow their medium to survive but using different materials that unshackle them from a rigid distribution cycle.

Most publications have a website that often updates much faster than the actual printed version, however in most cases these online versions are either limited or require premium subscription. There is nothing wrong with this but the internet has become synonymous with the word "free" (both freedom and without cost). If I am unable to read the volcanic ash story on FT.com (which has a pay wall) I can just go over to BBC.com and find a similar story that gives me all the information I need. Going online is certainly the first step for the printed word. However, it is the model that is flawed. Newsweek is built on a system whereby at the end of each week an issue is released which analyses the stories of the past week. Let's assume the iPhone was found on a Monday, would I want to wait till the next Sunday to hear about the opinions of a couple of Newsweek correspondents? Clearly this magazine's system is flawed in the digital age and hence it is being put up for sale.

The printed media needs to become more like blogs. There are only a few publications that have handled the transition well. Time Magazine is a wonderful example of a publication that provides full access to its articles online, all of which are regularly updated throughout the day, and which puts out a weekly issue. This melding is ideal. Similarly, the venerable New York Times has a powerful website with a lot of content as well as a daily broadsheet. What is missing is the speed of the second tier. If I want to find out something quickly I don't go to NYTimes.com, instead I do a search on Google News to find the latest update on the story. This often leads me to more primary sources or secondary sources with real-time updates. The printed media needs to realise that speed is paramount when something breaks. Analysis is useful, but sometimes I just want to know the facts as quickly as possible.

There is no doubt that newspapers still serve a purpose, but it is certainly not to consume news.

NB: I know the Fourth Estate refers to the totality of the press and is not just limited to print media (although when the term was first coined there was arguably only print media) but for the sake of a catchy title please ignore this "mistake".
  1. Anonymous

    May 7, 2010 at 7:39 PM

    Wow... this is a LOOOONG article.

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