Online Journalism: Pros and Cons of Digital Disruption

Recent news events have shone a spotlight on how technology affects the 24-hour news cycle, from inaccurate tweets spreading as fact to citizens becoming de facto journalists through instant social media sharing.

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, more than 370 exhausted media executives, journalists and scholars took time out from the nonstop media coverage to attend the 14th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), April 19 and 20. Much of the two-day conference focused on social media in the context of the bombing, as well as digital disruption. And it became a trending topic (#ISOJ) on Twitter.

Here are some highlights.

Creating a Dialogue

Andy Carvin, a Bostonian and senior strategist on NPR's social media desk, and School of Journalism senior lecturer Robert Quigley, spoke about how reporters don't always get the story right during catastrophic breaking news.

"These are the moments the public expects us to do our jobs and do them well," Carvin said. "In recent decades, though, we've put ourselves in a bind by creating news cycles that are faster and faster and faster. Speed is often the scourge of accuracy."

Robert Quigley, senior lecturer at UT
Robert Quigley, senior lecturer at UT's School of Journalism, interviews Andy Carvin, NPR social media strategist. [Photos by Erika Rich for the Knight Center.] 

In 24-hour broadcast news, for example, Carvin said dead air seems to be a greater fear than inaccuracy. And social media has made it easier to spread inaccuracies.

"Before, we had the luxury of scrutinizing information privately," Carvin said. "That era is over. Today, almost everyone has a device. We're no longer the media, the sole arbiters of what gets across."

Carvin added that it is important for journalists to have conversations with the public on social media and to be transparent about what they know. Instead of ignoring rumors, journalists should actively address them, challenge people to scrutinize them and help them understand what it means to confirm something.

People need to stop writing "confirm" in front of their Tweets unless they are 100 percent positive. For example, the Friday after the bombing, Carvin (@carvin) identified a Twitter account as a Boston bombing suspect's account. But because he was only 95 percent sure of its accuracy, he was transparent about the uncertainty.

Digital Disruption as a Growth Opportunity

While the disruption caused by new digital technologies may require media organizations to be particularly mindful of transparency, Clark Gilbert believes the technology changes spur growth and positive change.

Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News Publishing Company, presents at the International Symposium on Online Journalism
Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News Publishing Company, presents at the International Symposium on Online Journalism. 

"Most disruptions create new net growth, but the incumbent firms are blinded from that," said Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News Publishing Company "And all they can see is the area of displacement." Instead of focusing on how digital technologies are disrupting the traditional news industry, Gilbert said media leaders must see the unique value of digital disruption.

A separate disruptive business must possess the following characteristics: a separate physical location; separate profit and loss statements; a separate direct sales team; separate content; separate product and technology teams; and a separate management structure, Gilbert said. At the same time, the separate disruptive organization needs to collaborate with the legacy organization.

Gilbert's legacy organization (Deseret News Publishing Company) and disruptive organization (Deseret Digital Media) form temporary "capabilities exchange" teams to balance the two organization's goals. For example, one capabilities exchange team set up a framework for Deseret News' featured homepage stories. The first two stories are always from the legacy news or enterprise team, while the next three stories can be from anywhere and are determined by number of projected page views.

Visit the conference site for more coverage and video recaps.

The International Symposium on Online Journalism was hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the College of Communication's School of Journalism, and sponsored by the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Scripps Howard Foundation, and The Dallas Morning News. Univision News offered simultaneous translation to Spanish.