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Question: Is online media dumbing down journalism?

October 18th, 2007 · 5 Comments

Answer: Depends who you ask.

Last night, a group of media types filled a lecture theatre at UTS to examine this question. Speakers included Liz Jackson and Peter McEvoy from ABC, Dylan Welch from SMH Online and Catherine Lumby from the University of Sydney.

Having digested what they all had to say, let me summarise the 100 minutes worth of talking with a few points:

According to Welch, Journalism may be so broadly defined as to include the guy who runs down the street and tells you there’s a fire
According to McEvoy, a YouTube video of someone ‘coming out’ in an edited piece to camera is so powerful that it stands as evidence that online media isn’t necessarily dumbing down anything.
According to Jackson investigative journalism has been under threat since the move to 24 hour news cycles (think CNN) and online media represents more pressure on that aspect of journalism.

As an online journalist at a company that still prints newspapers, Dylan Welch seemed best positioned to talk about newpapers vs news websites, at least for Fairfax. He talked about the weekday audience for SMH online doubling the paper’s audience (ie. 500 000 online readers vs. 250 000 newspapers sold), but only achieving 5-10% of the newspaper’s ad revenue.

The ability to accurately measure exactly what articles are being read was also a focus of Welch’s presentation.

What has happened to newspapers could be summed up as follows: once upon a time newspapers were sold as three course meals, and no one really knew what was being eaten – the entré, the main or the dessert (or all three?). Now we can measure readers, it turns out most people are just interested in the dessert. So does that mean you just focus on desserts and stop making nutritious mains? Or does it mean you have to work harder to make the mains more appetising?

It seemed to me the room last night was full of people that just love to eat vegetables. They know how good vegetables are for them and they’ve acquired a taste. Now they’re nervous – if people are only eating dessert, what does that mean for the health of democracy? or ‘public discourse’? And more importantly, if we’re the only ones eating vegetables, who’s going to be paying for them?

Should I feel bad that I’ve ‘dumbed down’ an intellectual debate to the point where it is about vegetables vs. sweets? Because I don’t.

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Category: Communication and connection


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