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Online Journalists Optimistic About Revenue, Concerned About Quality

Journalists who work online are more optimistic about the future of their profession than are news people tied to more traditional media platforms, but at best their optimism is an uneasy one, according to a new survey of members of the Online News Association produced by the Association and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

These online news people also believe that the internet is changing the fundamental values of journalism — and more often than not for the worse.

Overall, the online journalists surveyed are less likely to think journalism is headed in the “wrong direction” than are journalists from legacy media. They are also more confident than they are pessimistic that online news will find a self-sustaining revenue model.

Contrary to current economic trends in the news industry, most report staff increases and are seeing their sites turn a profit — though this is still heavily influenced by how costs are accounted for.

But these economic hopes, while encouraging, are still largely pinned on web advertising, whose revenues in news began flattening out in 2008.

When it came to the impact of the internet on values, the most cited change was a loosening of standards and more carelessness in online news gathering.

Those journalists surveyed, who come largely from websites linked to legacy media, also believe the web is changing the fundamental values of the journalism — mostly for the worse. In particular, they are worried about declining accuracy, in part as the result of the emphasis that news organizations are putting on speed and breaking news online .

But not all of the changes were considered worrisome. Some journalists praised the growing diversity of voices, the potential of technology, and in some cases, even the move toward more overtly ideological points of view at news sites.

“I think there’s a huge potential in online journalism, but there’s also a lot of scary stuff out there … We have to try to not lose our way,” said one member who, as part of a three-person operation, does everything from handling tech problems to social media posts and original reporting.

“It’s a good feeling to work in a part of the industry that has hope for the future,” offered another.

These are some of the findings of a survey of nearly 300 members of the Online News Association (ONA), produced jointly with the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), which drafted the questionnaire. Princeton Survey Research Associates administered the survey.

The findings represent the first-ever survey of journalist members of ONA, the largest organized association of digital journalists. The majority of those surveyed work for websites tied to legacy media and most have more than 11 years experience in a newsroom setting.

We do not assume that these results represent the views of all people in new media, but 10-year-old ONA, with nearly 1,800 members, offers useful insights into how digital journalism is being practiced.

Among the findings:

  • A solid majority of those surveyed (57%) say the internet is “changing the fundamental values of journalism.” The biggest changes, the respondents said, were a loosening of standards (45%), more outside voices (31%) and an increased emphasis on speed (25%).
  • When asked what online journalism is “doing especially well these days,” more named aspects of technology like using advancements well (31%) or speed (30%) than named reporting skills such as improving storytelling (16%) or exploiting the potential for greater depth (12%).
  • Six in 10 (63%) of respondents ranked original reporting as the most important type of information they produce. This was more than four times as much as the second-most important information type: aggregated material from wires and other legacy outlets (13%).
  • For the most part, online journalists say they have been spared the kinds of staff cutbacks their legacy brethren experienced in 2008. Many (39%) reported staff increases compared with a year earlier. Another third said their staff numbers have remained the same. Less than a quarter (23%) saw staff decreases.
  • Despite current trends, most of these online journalists are pinning their hopes on the future on advertising. Roughly two-thirds of these online journalists predicted advertising would be the most important form of revenue at websites three years from now. Only a quarter of respondents named some other new revenue model.

Continue reading the full survey report at PEJ’s State of the News Media 2009.

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