Read this article in Spanish here.

Freedom of expression is a basic human right and the founding value of ROOSTERGNN. In this Special Series, ROOSTERGNN explores the state of freedom of expression around the world. Follow the complete series here.

The fast-paced technological progression of the 21st century has changed the face of the media. Whether for good or for bad, news firms and journalists have been forced to accept the internet as a new means of communication. In an interview with ROOSTERGNN, Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, explained some of the current trends in journalism and the impact of the Internet in contemporary approaches.

What are the aims of the Nieman Journalism Lab?

The Nieman Lab was started in 2008 with the goal of trying to understand journalism innovation better by reporting on both old and new news organisations, independent and employed journalists, academics and technology firms, with a focus on how news is changing. The aim is to work out what is going on and share it with the community so we can all learn.

Being a small agency, you have managed to cultivate a strong and influential following, how have you done this?

We have been doing it for about 5 years and it has been successful through making smart choices. In 2008 we made a smart bet on Twitter which turned out positively, as most of our readers come from social networks. It also helped that we are covering a topic area in which people are active on social media and engage with the subject matter in a different way. When Nieman Lab was started there was a real void in reporting on journalism innovation. It was a time where there was a lot of debate on whether the Internet is good and bad, for example, but not a lot of reporting. The strategy all along has been to have a fundamental belief that the Internet is a good thing. There is no off switch and no way to get around it. We shouldn’t complain; we should recognise that new and amazing things are happening every day and everyone involved in the production of news can benefit from learning about that.

What are the current trends in journalism?

The Internet has had a huge impact in journalism in two ways. Firstly, it has disrupted the traditional business models of news agencies as they were largely built on scarcity of competition; there were only so many newspapers and television stations. These news agencies were able to make a lot of money and fund a lot of journalism. This has now changed; anyone can start something online as the cost of doing so is much lower and the methods of reaching an audience are different than what they used to be. The other side of this is that pre-Internet news organisations were designed within a certain economic structure, in a certain context, which has also changed and in doing so it has freed up innovation. Online news outlets think differently about the content they produce, the distribution and the audience. Organisations and outlets are also able to pursue niche audiences that were previously not economically feasible to pursue and are able to assemble audiences through social media. The old generation is trying to adapt and the new generation is trying to build. The Nieman Journalism Lab works at the intersection of the two approaches.

What effect has the Internet had in journalism in terms of quality and how has this impacted freedom of expression?

One thing that is obvious is that in the past you needed to go through some intermediary to get your story heard, such as convincing a newspaper or television station that the story was interesting. That’s less the case today as you can assemble the audience through social media or through self-publishing. From a freedom of expression point of view, many more people have direct access to publishing and to an audience. However, gathering people’s attention is still a hard job, whether you’re a news organisation or an individual who has something to say. The smart activists and journalists are using tools available to gain a reach that previously would have been inconceivable. There are technological issues also, from a freedom of expression point of view. Countries can shut off the Internet in times of conflict; it is a medium that is able to be regulated in a different ways to newspapers, such as China where there is such censorship and restrictions. There are methods to get around this, like using platforms which haven’t got the censors attention yet and it has become almost a cat-and-mouse game. Freedom of expression is available much more broadly but it still comes with a set of challenges.

As an active blogger from almost the beginning of the phenomenon, where do you think it fits into journalism?

Blogging as a form matters less that it used to. It can be a structural definition, but can also mean independent publishing that is outside traditional outlets. Every newspaper has blogs these days. A lot of what was put into blogs in the early 2000s has switched to social media partly because of the better sharing platform, even if the content platform may not be as strong. Fewer things are now identifiable as blogs. It used to be a unified idea, but now part of it is Twitter and Tumblr, and other such networks and platforms. Blogging won and in winning it self-destructed as one thing and became many different things.