Sep 21, 2012 · 7 minutes

I've seen so many looks of pity when I inform people that I'm a journalist. They know that my industry is "dying". Stories of newspapers and magazines firing staff and shutting up shop are flowing in at a steady rate and it's all the Internet's fault. I follow all these stories of doom and I've seen first-hand the budget cuts and shrinkages that are hurting the industry. But in spite of all that, I still believe the Internet is ultimately changing journalism for the better.

At PandoMonthly in New York on Wednesday night, Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti told Sarah Lacy that the whole Internet shakedown might actually work out great for top-tier news publications because they can benefit from being the sources to which all Tweets trace back. All of a sudden, the whole world is their readership. But, said Peretti, that same dynamic likely won’t work out so well for second-tier publications that depend partly on syndicated news for their existence. Just as the Internet opens up audiences for the media leaders, it narrows it down for the local-level players.

Peretti's observation speaks to a weird, conflicted time in journalism in which we can’t quite figure out whether the death of news is imminent or if the Internet is going to elevate it to a higher place. For a bunch of reasons, many highlighted by recent developments, I favor the latter.

There's no doubt that this Internet-instigated reorganization of the news industry is painful and is going to result in the shutdown of many more newspapers and the loss of thousands more jobs. The loss of classifieds to Craigslist, coupled with the diminishing returns from advertising models that are increasingly moving off the page and onto websites, will continue to hurt traditional media outlets. News budgets will get smaller; editorial teams will have to do more with less; news orgs will invest less and less in content. That evidence, all of it very real, is often trundled out by pundits who say that the digital era has crippled the news industry and consequently compromises a functioning democracy.

And yeah, I’m bored of hearing all that too. But what I find interesting is something that’s not so often discussed: the “Internet” – and I’m cognizant of just how vague a construct that is – is actually delivering on its promise to improve journalism itself, even as it downsizes some aspects of its production or replication.

In an essay published yesterday, Greg Beato of Reason continues the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts evisceration of Jonah Lehrer by pointing out yet more cases in which the previously celebrated young journalist has plagiarized or misconstrued material presented in his books. Lehrer had been able to get away with his misdeeds for so long, Beato notes, in part because news organizations and publishers have cut back on fact-checking departments in order to save money.

But Beato’s main point is that Lehrer was exposed by the effective outsourcing of fact-checking that is powered by the Internet and the crowds. Even though it isn’t happening as much before publication as it used to, fact-checking has become more transparent and more widespread. Now, such fact-checking happens after stories go to print, largely thanks to tools like Google search, online books, and YouTube.

“Now, a single reader in his home office can do in 15 minutes what it might have taken the New Yorker’s entire squadron of legendary fact-checkers days to accomplish in, say, 1992,” writes Beato.

He also marvels at today’s information environment:

In December 2001, when Ken Layne famously declared, “It’s 2001, and we can Fact Check your ass,” hundreds of news media outlets had come online and it was becoming increasingly easy to see how they all cribbed from each other, how reporters at the same press conference quoted the same sources in slightly different ways, etc. And yet we were still in the Dark Ages then. Google Books didn’t exist. YouTube didn’t exist. Amazon’s Look Inside! feature was just a couple months old. Most newspaper archives were still extremely expensive to access. In those days, journalists gaming the facts still benefited from the relative opacity of information.
We are, Beato asserts, in the Golden Age of fact-checking. It’s hard to disagree. To see the likes of Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria outed for their indiscretions has been nothing short of remarkable. Just think: How many plagiarizes and hucksters got away with peddling crap in the days before the the Internet made this kind of crowdsourced scrutiny easy? I bet we would be shocked to find out.

I would also extend Beato’s “Golden Age” thesis a little. Journalism has never had an official governing body that enforces standards and monitors ethics, and so the codes of the industry have traditionally been enforced on an institution-by-institution basis, rippling unevenly and sometimes inconsistently among universities, news organizations, and publications such as the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter.* I’ve worked for a variety of news organizations now, and have done a post-grad journalism degree at a university, all of which have had slightly differing standards on ethics and practices, such as quote-checking, fact-checking, what to do with a comma, and how to negotiate the terms of use surrounding those three contentious words: “off the record”.

However, those conversations are now taking place publicly and vigorously on Twitter, and even if it’s only among the media elites, these conversations are taking place for the benefit of the industry. Those discussions – whether it’s Glenn Greenwald railing against Michael Lewis letting the President vet his quotes or Jay Rosen discussing delusions of media bias – remind journalists of their obligations and responsibilities, and keep us honest at a time in which taking shortcuts has become so much easier and so much more tempting.

The discussion on Twitter was probably a contributor to – although by no means solely responsible for – the New York Times’ just-announced decision to ban its reporters from agreeing to “quote approval” by sources. It would be easy to overstate Twitter’s importance in that turn of events, especially because the decision apparently came after much internal soul-searching in the wake of a series of stories reported by the paper itself. But because it involved so many high-profile voices, including New York Times reporters, the Twitter chatter would no doubt have had at least some influence in the ultimate outcome. It helped lift the debate from the pages of newspapers and blogs, and shunt it out of the editorial meeting rooms.

Twitter has also showed its importance in a new age of journalism by acting as a venue for real-time referees to call out inaccuracies, inconsistencies, or lies during live news events. That important new role was most obviously in evidence during the Republican National Convention, when Paul Ryan delivered a speech that contained numerous lies, which were duly called out, broadcasted, and re-tweeted ad nauseum by the Twitterati. So Twitter has proved that it can not only serve as a tool for amplifying important ethical discussions, but it can also quickly disseminate information that acts in the service of democracy.

Of course, Twitter can also be misused and manipulated for malicious ends or propaganda, but because of sheer force of numbers and cross-border access to information in real time, we’ve got a better shot than ever before to detect bullshit and scrabble towards an approximation of the truth.

So, I’m going to sit with Greg Beato in the “Golden Age” camp, and push it even further. The news industry is contracting and contorting, and that is largely due to the advent and evolution of the Internet. But in other ways, it is also getting sharper, involving more voices, and finding better ways to tell stories. And that’s thanks to the Internet, too.

Even the problem that Peretti cited – that second-tier publications suffer as a result of increasingly easy access to original news sources – should ultimately have a positive impact on the practice of journalism. Those sites, instead of being allowed to rely on wire copy and syndicated content, will be forced to create more original and localized content for their audiences, and will thus add to rather than merely duplicate the quality information in our media universe. (Granted, that's only if they can figure out a way to stay afloat.)

A lot of folks in media fear that it is a dying industry, but I don’t buy it. It’s a changing industry, and while that change is immensely painful in terms of jobs and money, it is ultimately better for the practice of journalism. In the long run, that will help educate a more informed society, which improves democracy.

The news industry’s biggest problems, in other words, come down not so much to the apparent abundance of plagiarists, how the craft is being taught in schools, or to its undermining by social media, but to money and business models. And despite those challenges, I can’t help but be optimistic about its future.

* In my initial copy, I referred to these publications as "navel gazing". Someone took exception to this description and called it "random snark". On reflection, it does seem a bit harsh and distracts from my main point, so I've taken it out.