Todd Vogts

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Online journalism dubbed Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate is online journalism, and it is becoming more dominant every day.

The press in the United States and abroad has long been referred to as the Fourth Estate. The term was seemingly coined by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle‘s 1841 book, “On Heroes and Hero Worship,” in which he discussed the three Estates of Parliament and wrote that “in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

He was putting the importance of the press higher than that of the Parliament members, and the idea of the press being important was born, as was the term the Fourth Estate.

But now a new Estate seems to be emerging. It is still tied to the traditional press, but it is encompassed in a total different sphere where ink and wood pulp don’t matter.

It is called the Fifth Estate, and it is the world of online journalism, which is comprised of bloggers, Web-only news outlets and any Web site embracing the “emerging landscape for news, information, community and citizenship . . . the future of news, a frame that sees that the freedoms and responsibilities of the First Amendment empower not just a professional caste of news gatherers and distributors, but potentially every citizen,” according to Poynter‘s Roy Peter Clark column on the subject.

Like Clark, I believe the Fourth Estate is still needed, but the Fifth Estate takes the work even further by not being tied down by tradition in its coverage. The Fifth Estate can do things traditional outlets simply cannot due to a general lack of understanding of how this new, online-orientated world works.

Traditional outlets won’t publish something until they have it solid and confirmed by multiple sources, which is great and maintains the sanctity and credibility of the organization. However, that is also a weakness for them because Fifth Estate Web sites aren’t gun shy. They publish and don’t blink if they have to correct it later. They run with what information they have and let the story evolve organically. This is an advantage for those types of outlets because society nowadays is all about getting what they want when they want it.

It’s an on-demand world. People are accepting of the fact that all the information might not be spot-on at first as long as they can get the information as it comes out in a rapid-fire fashion.

So who or what makes up the Fifth Estate?

Clark suggested the following:

Whom the Fifth Estate might comprise is as open-ended as many other parts of our culture these days, but as I imagine it, it could clearly include:

• Professional journalists from legacy news organizations.
• Freelance journalists, including magazine writers and book authors.
• Documentary film and video makers.
• Online journalists working for traditional and new journalism sites.
• Producers and programmers who aggregate, curate and disseminate the news.
• Journalism educators at every level and educators who use the news media, critique the news media or write about media.
• Former journalists who use their j-skills in the public interest or who serve -– whatever their new fields -– as advocates of good journalism and First Amendment rights.
• Bloggers, especially those whose work enhances journalism in the public interest.
• People who use social networking to form, inform and build communities.
• Nonprofit organizations that contribute resources to journalism in the public interest.
• Civic leaders who are trained to evaluate the news critically, and who advocate more and better journalism in their communities.
• Students and teachers working on news literacy projects.

I agree with Clark. These are great examples of what the Fifth Estate might be made of.

Of course, many people, especially ivory-tower-type journalists, have tried to make the case that citizen journalists, who are inherently a part of the Fifth Estate, are not important and the idea should be abolished.

That is flat wrong and ignorant, and the author of that notion, The Digital Journalist, should be heavily criticized for making such an asinine assertion because citizen journalists are filling in the gaps left open by more traditional media outlets.

I’m sure there are still some traditional journalists who won’t take the Fifth Estate seriously because the values and ethics between the two factions don’t line up. Of course, those traditional folks also probably still think the Internet is a fad, so how much credit should they be given?

Let’s look at the New York-based Web site Gawker and its founder Nick Denton. Here’s what he told his staff in an Oct. 7, 2009 e-mail:

“…there’s no way we’re going to slow our publishing schedule to that of a ponderous newspaper-style organization — where everything has to go through layers of edit and approval and checking and legal. If we did that, we’d be neither as authoritative as a newspaper nor as nimble as the smaller blogs that *do* indeed publish as soon as they get something.”

See, Gawker is one of the front-runners of the Fifth Estate, and it poses a real threat to traditional journalists.

It doesn’t plod along like a newspaper. It flies through the information stream with lightning-quick speed.

Poynter Ethics Group Leader Kelly McBride said the Fifth Estate is “creating new information (and) convening conversations about important topics. They are holding government accountable and they are contributing to the marketplace of ideas.”

And this is a huge threat because these types of outlets are getting bigger and more numerous, while traditional media outlets are floundering and teetering on the edge of ruin thanks to the decline of advertising revenues largely blamed on the Internet.

The Fifth Estate is also making inroads here in Kansas.

The Web site is called Kansas Free Press, and it is filled with opinion and news pieces put together by citizen journalists in Kansas. The site boasts more than 60 writers and contributors.

This is a cool project, one I’m considering looking into further, and it is further proof that the Fifth Estate is growing stronger every day.

Print organizations need to pay attention. These ventures may not totally remove paper from the news equation, but it will certainly diminish the desire of consumers to hold the product in their hands.

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2 Comments

  1. Agreed. (Except for the plug for the Kansas Free Press which looks mostly like a liberal opinion and slanted news blog, rather than general, two-sided statewide news and opinion.)

    • You might be right about the KFP deal. I haven’t had a lot of time to read through the pieces, but I still think it is a good idea. I just can’t judge if it is being carried out well or not.

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