As Journalism Weakens, the Fifth Estate Strengthens

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The weak economy and the evolution of Internet media have done more to shake up traditional journalism than any other events in the past 60 years. Online news is now surpassing almost every media form in the United States with the exception of local TV, according to Pew. And in 2010, forty seven percent of Americans read news on their phones! As the traditional print, cable and broadcast media weaken, online content creators, the Fifth Estate as dubbed by Stephen Cooper in 2006 strengthens.

This has not been a pretty evolution to watch. The journalism field has yet to successfully adjust to the new economic realities of shrinking print ad budgets and online media consumption. Perhaps the greatest test of the new economic realities will be the NY Times paywall for their most loyal readers. In the interim, individual voices alone or in aggregate are stepping up to fill the void left by a shrinking Fourth Estate (a centuries old term for the press).

What does this mean for information consumption? So far, it has created a degradation of content with a smaller and increasingly inexperienced journalism corps that attempts to do much more with less resources. Yet several trends indicate the tide may be turning with a focus on creating stronger hybrid journalists and Fifth Estate voices.

Media companies are now investing in new tablet based start-ups and purchasing higher quality social channels like the Huffington Post. Further, next generation trade journals are moving online with the likes of POLITICO now rivaling the Washington Post. While some of these properties are social in nature and feature bloggers, they function more like hybridized journals. Only the best content is featured on the top layers, creating an expectation of quality.

More interesting are the pools of Fifth Estate bloggers and citizen journalists that use a variety of social media tools, including mobile phones, to report from the field. They are filling the void left by reduced journalist staffs. There is no better example than the job that citizen journalists have done in the Middle East, most recently in Benghazi, Libya.

Of course, citizen journalism of this sort creates questions about credibility and information quality. In many ways, the “Twitter (or Facebook) breaking the news first meme” has jumped the shark several times due to inaccuracies. This has in turn validated the need for fact verification and has contributed to a growing decline in peer trust. It seems as the Fifth Estate grows its weak underbelly of opinion and shoddy reporting has been exposed.

Creating a Stronger Fifth Estate

Ben the War Journalist

Ben, the War Journalist by Andrew Mason

Andy Carvin’s well discussed effort highlighting the many brave people protesting and fighting for freedom in the Middle East blends the best of the new and the old. An employee of NPR, Carvin retweets and highlights news bits that trickle out on Twitter via his various sources and hashtag searches. But rather than blindly retweeting information, Carvin sources and triangulates data via his networks to ensure information quality.

In many ways, Carvin shares stories in a timely way while incorporating journalistic questioning. This method is creating a new paradigm for speed and validation. Yet not all people have these kinds of journalism skills.

Creating a wider field of hybrid journalists, or at least spreading the principles of journalism throughout our society via education and training remains the great challenge and key to an increased level of quality information from the Fifth Estate. Here are several organizations that actively develop citizen journalists:

  • Small World News is teaching citizens in the Middle East how to use mobile and social to report
  • Internews funds training and infrastructure projects across the globe for better media. Increasingly, their efforts focus on citizen journalists
  • AllVoices and Global Voices provide portals where citizen journalists can socialize their content
  • The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity provides investigative reporters and non-profit organizations training and support to pursue journalistic endeavors

Additional movements within corporate and nonprofit organizations have internal content producers increasingly called corporate journalists. While objectivity may be compromised from the onset, this career paid Fifth Estate member sheds a new more fact-based light on the term content marketing. And as former journalist and now corporate social media pro Ike Pigott likes to say, the trend provides a welcome return to a deserved salary for information producing skills.

What is clear is that the Fifth Estate is evolving with increased attention focused on quality information. How the media and these new voices evolve together remains to be seen. In the current online world the old and needed journalist mastheads and new roving citizen reporters are intrinsically tied. Watching them continue to influence and blend into each other will be an unfolding and captivating story.

What do you think of citizen journalism/media and its evolution?


  • Such a great post. And this is a fascinating evolution. As someone who grew up relying on “trusted” news sources, knowing that you have to vet information before believing and/or sharing is a critical part of the information consumption process these days. Much training is needed for content creators and there is a great need for quality information produced by trusted sources. Have you read Matthew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur? Assuming so, and he touches on a similar subject.

    As you know, the Internet isn’t going away. Figuring out how to more effectively use it as a reliable information channel is something that all of us should be focused on.

    Thanks for a great read, Geoff!

    • It’s scary how spot on Keen was with the Amateur. Unfortunately, the book was so out there with its reactionary view that it became a bit poo-pooed and lost influence. Never the less it had its place.

      We also need to train readers and our youth on how to discern information. It’s a critical skill set for the future. As the bard said, “All that glisters is not gold.”

    • And thank you for your support and readership! I really appreciate it!

  • Great thoughts, Geoff. I’ve asked before for us to consider if this evolution is actually a Fifth Estate or an empowered third? We now have journalism of the people, by the people, for the people and we should not confuse journalism with the publishing that has traditionally propagated it. It is becoming more evident that our need for journalism’s Gatekeeper role is no longer as intense as our need for it’s Watchdog role.

    • It’s certainly interesting to see how th emedia has been exposed… As have been bloggers. Our humanity, the humanity of the mob and the gatekeepers has been exposed.

  • Another great post on journalism, Geoff! As a student of print journalism, I appreciate that the skill set of information gathering and content generation is evolving. While citizen journalism runs the risk of spreading gossip and fallacy, it’s good to see that there are organizations out there helping people with the means to report news to do so with greater accuracy.

    • Thanks, Krista. I hope they can accelerate the adoption of social media best practices and help us all create better content. We need these skills badly.

      • right you are. but unfortunately this is not the only thing we need so much. at first sight all the people think that nowadays journalism has nothing to stop it from developing. they think that everything can be found and everything can be published and etc.. but they dont know for how much they are mistaking…

  • The degradation of content exists in traditional media, too. Shrinking ad revenue has forced publishers to print advertorials and promoted editorial content in place of the kind of high-quality content most of us value.

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