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From Print to Pixels

American journalists navigate the  transition toward online reporting.

Not even two decades ago, tens of millions of Americans learned about current events by reading daily newspapers; weekly, monthly and quarterly magazines; and other widespread incarnations of ink-on-paper journalism. 

But circa 2014, the paradigm has shifted. Instead of picking up the local gazette, American readers often browse news apps on their phones; rather than flipping through the pages of a magazine, many gravitate toward websites like Google News and Yahoo News to learn about what’s going on. In fact, computers, tablets and smartphones have snagged much of the audience that traditional print media used to hold, offering consumers instant access to local, national and international news alike.

For journalists as well as readers, it’s been a momentous shift—one that carries with it great benefits, opportunities and challenges. 

Opening doors

“One huge advantage of online journalism is being able to publish the news at a faster rate,” says Katrina Rossos, an online journalist living in New Jersey. “With the majority of people connected to the Internet through computers, phones and tablets, readers expect to receive information as soon as it happens. With online journalism, breaking news stories can be updated as soon as new information becomes available.” 

Bill Leigh, a San Francisco consultant with nearly 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for print magazines, sees similarly dramatic changes throughout the world of journalism. “What we’re seeing now is a huge number of new online news sources, some really exciting writing happening in blogs and greater number of voices involved in immediate intellectual discourse,” he says, referencing the reader comments and discussion forums that often accompany online news. “There’s much more of an exchange of ideas happening in real time.”

Long before an article gets published online, digital media often plays a key role in the researching and development of  stories. “Journalists have access to a much wider range of sources,” says Bill Grueskin, a dean and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. “They’re no longer limited by the names and phone numbers that they might have in their directories.”

Thanks to the Internet, even the very act of sharing news stories has become remarkably easy. Traditionally, spreading news to a public audience required large amounts of money, warehouses and printing presses, broadcast licenses and antennae, Grueskin says. These days, anybody can start a website and publish articles, available to a global audience, in minutes. 

New technologies, new questions

Thanks to the Internet, fresh voices can be heard around the world, offering unique perspectives and knowledge related to current events. Yet, with so many online news sources, large and small, known and unknown, and all available at the touch of a key, how do readers decide which to trust? Similarly, how do reputable journalists differentiate themselves from those who may distort facts, spread political or corporate propaganda, or simply have, in Grueskin’s words, a personal ax to grind? 

For both questions, there isn’t necessarily a straightforward answer.

“It can be hard for consumers to know the quality of the news that they’re seeing on their smartphones or computer screens,” says Grueskin. “Right now, the burden falls on readers to suss out what’s relevant and what’s not.” The environment can be daunting, he says.

The growth of digital media has reshaped not just the ways that journalism is consumed and created, but also the field’s underlying business models—a phenomenon evidenced by the large   number of print publications that have shut down or moved to web-only editions, as well as the large number of new   online news sources that have risen, in recent years. 

“A lot of magazines and newspapers have struggled to find the right model for making money, even major publications like The New York Times,” says Leigh. “A lot of those publications used to earn large amounts of revenue from print advertising and classified ads, but because of all of the competition online, and even websites like Craigslist, much of that income has dropped.” 

Many publishers continue to experiment with hybrid print and online approaches, Rossos says, each searching for a balance of free and paid content, advertising and distribution, that allows them to continue to publish and succeed. Despite such business struggles, both Leigh and Rossos see print journalism continuing to find readers within the United States—though in a far more limited context than in pre-Internet days. 

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.