Are ethics and integrity arising in web journalism?

The answer these four sites have determined is not business as usual. They have to do something about the lack of integrity and conscience in their work. People are less entertained by the salacious and are hungering for believable information.

We are interrupting our series about Linkedin to day to take a look at a new trend in journalism that’s arisen in the past few weeks: A concern about journalistic integrity.


Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone talks about that in the field, but where it’s come up as a trend is what is fascinating. In the past month, four popular click-bait sites that claim some sort of journalistic value have pulled back a bit and said, “maybe we are going too far with this content thing.”


First, Upworthy made an announcement that they are moving away from curating content and focusing on original material. This is more of a business decision than an editorial one. Upworthy became the fastest growing media company on the internet by merely grabbing interesting videos from the web, adding a breathless, over-the-top headline and getting people to click on it to grab their data. Google and Facebook algorithm changes, however, are killing their numbers because original content gets better search and display.  That means they will have to answer for their poorly crafted, inaccurate stories rather than point out that they had nothing to do with them.


Then the Huffington Post announced that they would no longer cover Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in their political section. Instead their coverage will go to the entertainment section. They believe doing that changes their responsibility for covering a grandstander. It’s a pretty piss-poor way of standing up for principle, but it is a start.


Prior to both announcements was the dust-up between activist, volunteer editors on Reddit over Ellen Pao’s staff decisions. I am not getting into any discussion here about whether Pao or the editors were right (I think it was all a great cock-up), but lost in the discussion was the reason for the changes instituted by Pao: the lack of integrity and honesty among a significant group of Reddit contributors. The intention was very good even if the execution was horrible. 


Finally, and the one I have been really enjoying, is the controversy at Gawker. In short, the epitome of online “yellow journalism” published a story about the CFO of a publishing company paying a gay porn star for a night in a Chicago hotel. Then, the CEO of Gawker, founder Nick Denton (who is also gay) wanted to pull the story, to the objections of the editorial staff. Instead of unilateral action, he took it to the board of directors, who by majority vote chose to take it down. The executive editors and several reporters resigned because the felt the action breached editorial discretion. 


Taken individually, each scenario is rather insignificant, but taken together and because they all happened within a matter of days, shows me something more is going on.


Back in the days of broadcast and print news, there were time and space constraints on the news. You only had so many seconds of time to do broadcast news band only so many column inches of space each issue inn print. Journalists spent considerable time personally and collectively deciding what was going to go into that days news budget and that required figuring out which stories were the most important to tell that day. Not everything got in. Even the motto of the New York Times was built around that process: “All the News that is Fit to Print.”


The advent of the Web 2.0 changed all of that. There are no time or space considerations in web content. You crank out as much as you want/can and then see who reads it. It doesn’t matter if it has value. That reality sent the quality of journalism into the toilet because there was so much indiscriminate crap on the web, and it created a journalist fringe that believed that it didn’t matter if it was important as long as it was true and the people would consume the content. 


As H.L. Mencken once observed, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” People did eat up the crap from Gawker, Huffpo, Reddit and Upworthy for a long time making those companies worth a lot of money. But the changes in the search algorithms boosting content that was original and reliable have cut into those money machines. Readers have gotten tired of the click-bait techniques and trust of the web mills is at an all time low. That has not gone unnoticed by the websites’ bean counters.


The answer these four sites have determined is not business as usual. They have to do something about the lack of integrity and conscience in their work. People are less entertained by the salacious and are hungering for believable information.


It was inevitable and it is a welcome change… as long as it catches on.