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Is digital news good for us?

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Just the other day (Saturday, as a matter of fact) the three leading news stories posted at Vice News Canada were, in order:

1. How to save mummies from the Egyptian revolution
2. Guinea bans bat meat to stop the spread of Ebola
3. 2013 was a big year for executions

Why is this important? None of it is news, as news is traditionally defined. But it leads the day on one of the fastest growing news outlets in the world. And the implications for us, the consumers of news, are profound.

We were warned about this trend almost 30 years ago by Neil Postman, the American cultural critic who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argued that television, particularly TV news, was treating serious issues as entertainment, demeaning political discourse and emphasizing image over ideas. He warned: "When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is defined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture-death is a clear possibility."

I'm afraid that is exactly what has happened.

Take Vice, which got its start as a small magazine launched in Montreal in 1994 by Suroosh Alvi, Shane Smith and Gavin McInnes. Aided by government funding, it carried local arts and cultural news and was intended to provide a community service. Today, it is a multi-platform world-wide news service, buoyed by a $70 million investment from Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox corporation.

Don't get me wrong. Vice does report serious news too. It experiments with new story-telling methods. But it specializes in quirky news in much the same way as Murdoch's tabloid newspapers in Britain and elsewhere celebrate the bizarre. The stuff that attracts eyeballs. The stuff you read to congratulate yourself that it didn't happen to you.

Get ready for more of this.

The so-called native digital news media are growing at a furious rate, according to the influential State of the News Media report from Pew Research Center in the U.S. As an example, VICE now staffs 35 foreign news bureaus. Compare that to the Toronto Star, which only has one.

As mainstream media cut back, digital media are filling the gaps -- mainly in areas like foreign reporting, investigative reporting, and local reporting.

The casualty is what might be called accountability journalism, the kind of reporting that forces those in power to account for their actions and creates better citizenship. That is why I quoted Neil Postman earlier. Local television news, which is cutting back staff along with the rest of traditional media, has begun feeding us pablum -- A Pew Research analysis of local TV news content in late 2012 and early 2013, compared with a snapshot sample in 2005, found the airtime devoted to weather, traffic and sports had risen from 32 percent of the local newscast studied to 40 percent -- a 25 per cent increase.

True, some of the digital news sites are doing admirable jobs filling the gaps in coverage left by more traditional news media outlets -- examples include ProPublica in investigative journalism, the Bleacher Report in sports coverage, and, in Canada, iPolitics in national political coverage. Smaller sites have dug down into specific communities and covered the news that mainstream dailies no longer have the resources for.

Here are some of the highlights from the Pew Research findings:

At some of the digital natives, the rate of hiring has been explosive. Since the fall of 2013, there has been a dramatic migration of high-profile journalists to digital news ventures. In October, Yahoo hired high-profile New York Times tech columnist David Pogue, who was followed a month later by Times political writer Matt Bai. In late October, former Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts became chief content officer at Mashable's growing news operation. Two years ago, BuzzFeed had about a half dozen editorial employees. Now it has at least 170. Three years ago, Bleacher Report had no paid writers; now there are about 50. The rapidly expanding global Vice Media operation has already hired 48 more staffers in the U.S. this year alone, bringing its worldwide staff to over 1,000.

Many of the native digital news organizations are small, nonprofit and young. Of the 438 smaller sites examined, more than half (241) have three full-time staffers or less. It is also clear that the nonprofit business model is an attractive option for many of these outlets. Nearly 30 per cent (120) of the smaller outlets that Pew surveyed came into existence since 2010.

Among the larger digital outlets, a number are investing substantially in global coverage. Huffington Post wants to grow its reach to 15 countries from 11 this year; Vice has 35 overseas bureaus; BuzzFeed hired a foreign editor to oversee its expansion into such places as Mumbai, Mexico City, Berlin and Tokyo.

Digital news organizations are hiring a mix of legacy and non-legacy journalists, with a clear emphasis on new storytelling skills. The Investigative News Network estimates that at least 80 per cent of the journalists working at its 92 outlets are from legacy jobs. At ProPublica, 25 of its 41 staffers are legacy transfers. But increasingly, editors of digital natives say they are hiring younger staffers with better digital instincts and skills. "The training of traditional journalism is not perfectly suited to what digital audiences are looking to read," says Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney.

The loss of legacy media jobs in recent years has been concentrated in the print sector. The American Society of Newspaper Editors counted 38,000 full-time newsroom jobs in 2012, down from more than 54,000 a decade earlier. No one keeps count in Canada, but cutbacks are happening every year at the bigger newspapers and the loss of jobs has affected coverage. The Ad Age Data Bank, which tracks all U.S. magazine industry jobs, said 26 per cent of magazine jobs were lost in the past decade.

For all the expansion, it is far from clear there is a digital news business model to sustain these outlets. Huffington Post has 575 editorial employees, but is still only "flirting with profitability" according to analyst Ken Doctor. Global Post, which recently signed NBC as a content partner, has never operated in the black. Asked if the explosion of hiring suggests that digital news has figured out a successful business model to sustain those jobs, one veteran industry observer responded simply: "No. That's the irony."

What is significant about this trend is that few if any of these digital news operations were launched by legacy media -- a sad commentary on the death-wish mentality that seems to be prevalent in traditional newsrooms.

Guess we will all have to just wait and see what kind of news media we will end up with.

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