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High-tech media, old-style issues

iPads and other technology may save media, but old-media standards are being left behind.

April 04, 2010|By Victor Navasky and Evan Lerner

Magazines, like the rest of the media, are thought to be in trouble. This is especially bad news for the conversation on which democracy depends. For magazines are the place where news is put in perspective, analyzed, considered in context and in depth.

But we write at a moment of technological hope, as some of the more affluent magazine publishers have prepared their inaugural issues for Apple's iPad, which went on sale this weekend. They are betting that it will do for digital content what the iPod and iTunes did for digital music: replace messy free content gotten on the sly with easily accessible, paid editorial content in full-color electronic magazine format.

But even if the iPad turns out to be magazines' hoped-for savior, if it brings along the values (or lack of values) currently characteristic of much of the new media, a question looms: At what cost?

Proponents of the new technology argue -- persuasively, we think -- that iPad-like devices will permit an interactivity that, properly deployed, could advance the continuing conversation (political, cultural, commercial) on which our open society is predicated. But as John Perry Barlow, lyricist for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, once observed, "We are immigrants in the land of our children."

Nowhere is this truer than in the country of online. In the world of magazines and their websites, nobody knows what anyone else is doing, or how and whether the new media are incorporating the journalistic standards of the old. As a result, they all seem to be making it up as they go along.

Last summer, with the help of a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Columbia Journalism Review undertook the first survey of the relationship between magazines and their websites. We asked magazine and website editors to compare standards and practices in new and old media. With 667 respondents (out of a sample of about 3,000) we found some of the findings, if not unexpected, nevertheless depressing.

About half of the respondents said that copy-editing standards for their websites were looser than for their print editions. An additional 11% said that online content wasn't copy-edited at all. The numbers for fact checking were even more troubling: 40% said that web standards were looser than print, and 17% said that they did no fact checking whatsoever online. And a little more than half of the respondents said they correct factual errors on their websites without notifying readers of the errors.

In the online world, speed is the name of the game. Websites are interested in maximizing traffic because advertising is predicated on the number of viewers a website attracts. (When asked whether editors take traffic into account when determining website editorial content, about half said yes.)

This raises the question: Is online content held to the same standards as its print equivalents? Given the prevailing business model, in which advertising is the principal revenue source for the vast majority of magazine websites, our answer is no.

If the future of the information highway is digital, then it behooves us to be concerned with the rules of the road. And if there is a trade-off between speed and standards, then we must come to terms with the question of whether there ought to be any speed limits and, if so, how are they to be determined?

Although old-media types might hope new-media technology can be combined with old-media standards, there is probably no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Forsaking all of the positive standards associated with publishing on the Web -- the dynamism, connectivity and community-building that is its calling card -- would be a step backward.

But even assuming that the iPad and new technologies enhance magazine content, unless the matter of already lax online standards is addressed, it and other new technologies may further compound the problem. Historically there's been a firewall between advertising and editorial content. Online, however, where advertising is based on traffic, and traffic is thought to depend on the speedy posting of new content, we're seeing a gradual breakdown of this wall as journalistic standards become even more flexible to allow for greater and greater speed.

If the magazine industry's iPad experiment is to be successful, it will need to integrate the trustworthiness of the old with the creative potential of the new.

Whatever the future of print, the main future of the media will be digital. Anyone who cares about the future of our democratic society, let alone the future of print in general and magazines and/or iPads in particular, should take up the challenge of debating and discussing -- and, we would add, codifying -- the values, standards and practices that ought to prevail online.

Victor Navasky is the chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review and a professor of magazine journalism at Columbia University. Evan Lerner is the editor of ScienceBlogs.com

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