The Star-Ledger and tensions between old and new media

After the entire Star-Ledger editorial board opted to accept the paper's buyout offer, John Farmer, a 26-year veteran of the paper, was tasked with rebuilding its editorial page. Farmer, who has 50 years experience in the industry, is a safe choice and offers a measure of steadiness which might be welcome during this period of turbulence and transition.

On the flip side, those qualities could be less than optimal while the news business struggles to adapt to a rapidly changing media environment.

Last week, Star-Ledger reporter Kelly Heyboer conducted a video interview with the new editorial page editor on his first day on the job. The most interesting exchange came when Heyboer mentioned that "people can go on the Internet to get their opinions, to express their opinions," and asked Farmer how he felt about the fact that "a lot of people say there's no need for a newspaper editorial board or opinion pages anymore."

"I think a very strong case can be made for newspapers and the public need of them," responded Farmer. "The problem with information on the Internet is that it is unvetted, unedited, it's raw data in half the cases. As it was described by one executive, it can be 'a cesspool.'"

He continued: "The difference is, what appears in newspapers, in both the news and editorial sections, has been researched, carefully edited, usually through more than one hand. It's a dicey proposition and with all of that we still make mistakes. But we're a hell of a lot better than the Internet."

There's amusing irony in the fact that this response came in the form of an Internet-only web video, but more importantly, it fails to properly contextualize or acknowledge the richly diverse roles of online sources of information and the traditional news industry's place within that space. If the tone of the interview is representative of the industry at large, it might explain why some traditional news outlets have struggled to fully understand, accept and ultimately thrive in this newest medium.

This isn't meant to single out Farmer; rather, the comments provide a good opportunity to discuss the Internet and what its role is (or should be) in the context of news.

To begin with, the idea that one can be "a hell of a lot better than" the very medium used to deliver those words just doesn't make sense. A news organization can't be better than the Internet any more than it can be better than plasma TVs, iPods, the side of a blimp, or newsprint. The Internet is a medium, news organizations are not. It's comparing apples to oven mitts, or something like that.

The point Farmer might have been trying to make is that the work done by traditional news organizations is superior to that of new media news sites, citizen journalists/bloggers and other online content. This would be a better comparison, but even then it's still comparing apples to fruit salad. There's some apple in there, but there's also a lot of other different stuff, too.

If one were to judge the Internet by the quality of some of the comments on nj.com, the Star-Ledger's home online, and other forums (including this one), calling it a "cesspool" might be too generous a description. But that would be like dismissing Jim Lehrer because he shares the airwaves with blowhards like Bill O'Reilly. It's not fair to use the lowest common denominator to paint the rest with a broad brush. And considering that Farmer's own columns appear online, he would probably agree that the presence of garbage on the Internet doesn't preclude the existence of quality content as well.

But beyond that obvious point, the reality is that the Internet is a complex and diverse medium which continues to evolve. It's home to traditional news organizations that exist in multiple media, online-only news organizations (like this one), individual unedited blogs and opinion sites, social media tools, anonymous commenters, and everything in between and beyond. Each of these plays a role, and they should be individually judged on the quality of their content rather than how many editors they have or how much it costs for the information to reach its audience.

What might make some veterans of the traditional news media uncomfortable is the way that the sausage-making process of reporting the news is sometimes on display for all to see. Some blogs, for example, will use reader feedback as a quasi-distributed real-time resource to either research information or correct mistakes. It's a potentially ugly process made possible by the low barrier of entry to the Internet, and with varying degrees of success, accuracy is often sacrificed for speed.

A related point was made in a post on ReadWriteWeb in response to an AFP story claiming that the micro-blogging tool Twitter beat the media in reporting on the recent Chinese earthquake.

The real problem with saying things like "Twitter outshined the mainstream new" [sic] is that it implies that the two are in competition. They're not. Twitter is a tool. We've talked about it as a platform for information dissemination and we've talked about ways that journalists can use it. And that's really the rub: Journalists can use Twitter, they shouldn't feel threatened by it, as it would seem the AFP reporter does.

Though not always in direct competition, maybe the greatest advantage that smaller, online news entities (defined in a very broad sense) have over traditional, well-established outlets is their independence.

Successful news organizations rely on access for their stories, and that often results in cozy, accommodating relationships with the people they cover. Too often, the risk or threat of losing that access has resulted in the news media looking the other way or even functioning as a propaganda arm for those they should be covering with a critical eye.

For all their other faults, the masses that use the Internet are free from many of the burdens of self-censorship that can limit the effectiveness of traditional news outlets. That value should not be dismissed simply because the information is not presented in the most "proper" or traditional sense.

So while it's good to critically evaluate both the faults and advantages inherent in the various types of online sources of information — and yes, large amounts of it can accurately be described as a dirty "cesspool" — let's not throw out the fruit salad with the cesspool water.

Juan Melli is Politicker.com's associate editor. The Star-Ledger and tensions between old and new media