The center of gravity has shifted

The center of gravity has shifted.

Never pick a fight with the man who buys ink by the barrel and newsprint by the ton.

That saying once summed up the power of the press. That power has never been absolute, but it has always been formidable. What chance did a mayor or congressman have against a determined newspaper – barrels of ink and tons of newsprint?

But the World Wide Web has changed all that.

Now, any individual can produce a web site and look as big as the New York Times. More importantly, the web has given individuals a forum and a voice they never had – a voice that can differ with, add to or oppose traditional news organizations.

And more and more individuals, and organizations, are taking advantage of that power.

That’s the point of Katharine Seelye’s excellent article in the New York Times this week about those who use the Internet to respond to what is in the news media. (Seelye’s article begins with only half of the ink-newsprint saying that is at the first of this piece.)

This tool has been particularly valuable to those who believe that reporters and editors have omitted information in their reports. Seelye points to a number of instances where sources have published email exchanges between them and reporters to establish what they believe is the full record of a report.

Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts – taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations – and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries implications for the future of journalism. (Emphasis added.)

Seelye also deals with the power of weblogs in her report, and she makes an important point about blogs and how they differ from traditional journalism. A news story may have a life of one day and then disappear off a news organization’s web site after a week or two, but bloggers’ discussions about it can go on for much longer – and can ultimately be more influential.

. . . the power of blogs is exponential; blog posts can be linked and replicated instantly across the Web, creating a snowball effect that often breaks through to the mainstream media. Moreover, blogs have a longer shelf life than most traditional news media articles. A newspaper reporter’s original article is likely to disappear from the free Web site after a few days and become inaccessible unless purchased from the newspaper’s archives, while the blogger’s version of events remains available forever.

None of this is particularly surprising to those of us who have been taking a close look at the web for a while. It does seem to surprise some journalists, however, who for years made it a point to deny the existence or the potential power of the web.

As Seelye aptly phrases it in her report, “the center of gravity has shifted.” Whereas, once the reporter and editor could control the information and discussion about a topic – and even shut it off when they felt like it – they can no longer do that. Sources have been given a voice, and journalists must now pay closer attention to the relationship that has emerged.

Jim Stovall (Posted Jan. 3, 2006)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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