The dark side of Internet journalism

No one can deny that the Internet is a life-changer. As a social networking tool, it is nonpareil. Many married couples would never would have met but for the Internet. Employers find employees and vice versa from around the globe — people whose paths never would have crossed but for the magic of cyberspace.

But the Internet has its downsides, and one of those is that it is causing the demise of American journalism—as we know it or have known it for centuries. The Internet is single-handedly responsible for the death of many well-known print journalism institutions, including the recent closings of The Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The print-based model for raising advertising revenue to support a large, independent journalism organization is outmoded. Cheaper, more widely available Internet advertising is taking over.

In a fascinating column for the Wall Street Journal Online, Democratic pollster Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne revealed the increasing impact of bloggers, who making their livings by blasting opinions (as opposed to facts) across cyberspace. They are the technology age’s equivalent of reporters and columnists, but without the degree of separation that used to protect readers and consumers from being targeted for commercial or political purposes, that old-fashioned edited newspapers and magazines used to (and to a limited extent, still do) provide.

The problem is, veracity is deleted and placed in the trash bin. Unverified opinion is taking its place. Well-written, fact-checked opinion has a storied place in journalism history. But off-the-cuff, on-the-take opinion does not.

Yet the Internet features much more of the latter than the former. Penn & Zalesne write: "One out of three young people reports blogging, but bloggers who do it for a living successfully are two percent of bloggers overall. It takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year. Bloggers can get $75 to $200 for a good post, and some even serve as "spokesbloggers" — paid by advertisers to blog about products. As a job with zero commuting, blogging could be one of the most environmentally friendly jobs around — but it can also be quite profitable. For sites at the top, the returns can be substantial … As bloggers have increased in numbers, the number of journalists has significantly declined. In Washington alone, there are now 79 percent fewer DC-based employees of major newspapers than there were just few years ago. At the same time, Washington is easily the most blogged-about city in America, if not the world."

The column goes on to say that the way to generate traffic to an Internet site is to make it as outrageous as possible. "Outrageous" on the Internet usually comes in one of two forms: 1. Pornography or, 2. Wildly unsubstantiated extreme opinions.

Unless you’re Ann Coulter or her polar opposite, no one notices your website. Funny, the closest I could come to her polar opposite would be Bill Maher, but even he is more fact-based than she. The fact that, as Penn discloses, some bloggers are making as much as $200,000 per year and many of them are doing so by shilling for companies or selling consumer goods is downright scary.

Consumers need a filter. They need to know if someone is saying something just to grab one’s attention, or because that person is being paid by an advertiser to say it.

I used to be friendly with a woman who quit a high-level job at a cable news organization because she insisted on the old "two source" rule. That rule, observed by all reputable news organizations, insisted that no one could publish or broadcast a source story, unless that story was confirmed by two independent sources.

The cable network wanted to air stories based on information from one source and she quit rather than comply. How old-fashioned of her!

Magnify that a million-fold and you can imagine the junk being peddled to American news consumers in the form of blogs. It is a shame the Internet has become the font of this form of change in American journalism.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)