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News in the age of WikiLeaks

Writing for the Globe and Mail, Don Tapscott And Anthony D. Williams, authors of Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, maintain that new media are threatening journalism, with the continuing collapse of newspapers in the US and Canada – they count 70 in the past decade — a warning of more to come, and magazines are suffering as well, being bled white by scarcity of advertising.

Tappscott and Williams observe that people will not pay for online news as a commodity. What with Twitter, a constellation of blogs, WikiLeaks and social networks, consumers can get the news without buying a paper or online subscriptions. Consequently, they contend that the Internet has destroyed the business model for print, with hard-copy publications doomed to wither away. This has huge implications for journalism, such as how to defend traditional journalistic values like "objectivity, quality and truth?" More practically, how will journalists make a living, and what will replace the traditional filters for accuracy, balance and journalistic standards? With no one seemingly accountable for the truth, who can we trust?

They make it all sound very bleak, and factual aspects can't be gainsaid, but having knocked around the journalism world since the early 1970s, I'm constrained to observe that vaunted journalistic values like objectivity, balance, and lack of bias tend to be more idealistic myth and conceit rather than an objective reality in the real world, too often camouflaging editorialising of the news and advocacy journalism behind a smokescreen of proclaimed professional ethics. What I mean is that in researching and writing any story, reporters make subjective decisions about who to interview, which quotes to use, and what the angle will be. Absolute freedom from bias is impossible. The best that can be achieved is a modicum of fairness.

In his book SaturdayNight Lives: Selected Diaries, former SaturdayNight magazine editor John Fraser, a reporter for the Globe and Mail for 17 years, delivered a withering critique of the objectivity cult -- calling it "one of the vainest goals a humble craft ever set itself."

"There is no such thing as a strictly objective story," declares Fraser. "It isn’t possible. Everything - from the structure of an article to the choice of facts is filtered through a particular outlook and a prejudiced mind.... The most you can hope for... is relative honesty. And the very best (ie: the most honest) journalists always let their readers know their specific prejudices and the general nature of the intellectual equipment through which they distill their stories." He adds that reporting should the the “last safe redoubt of the generalist,” and that all claims to a higher calling are “bunk.”

Fraser says the two basic traits distinguishing good journalists are “curiosity and a desire to communicate," and I don't imagine that bloggers and Web writers are short on those attributes, which bodes well for the future of information dissemination and analysis, although cold comfort to traditional media interests.

Tappscott and Williams agree that journalism will survive, just not in its present form, and the key for those who try to make a living at it will be obliged to "develop new business models, offer distinctive value and not get too hung up on trying to defend a legacy business being killed by the digital age."