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Media landscape grows more murky

I find myself confused by today’s media landscape. It’s harder than ever to figure out what is a media company, what is a technology company and who is a journalist.

I thought about this last week after AOL announced it had acquired the Huffington Post. As a frequent HuffPost blogger and an even more frequent reader, I always thought of it as an online newspaper of sorts, complete with sections such as a front page, business, sports, technology and travel.

Although AOL has long had editorial content on its site and previously purchased editorial sites, including Engadget and TechCrunch, I still think of AOL as a technology company. That was certainly true back in the day, when millions of people used it as their onramp to the dial-up Internet. But it’s still true when you consider the popularity of their products such as AOL Mail and AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM.

In stories about the acquisition, some analysts talked about the value in the many comments Huffington Posts readers make in response to blog posts and news stories. Some posts generate thousands of user comments. In that sense, HuffPost is like an interest-driven social network. Comments aren’t just electronic versions of the old “letter to the editor,” but conversations between users as comments beget other comments.

There is nothing new about tech companies offering news. AOL rival Yahoo has long been a source of news and information for millions of users, though most of it is aggregated from other sources, such as wire services and partner news operations. Even Microsoft, via MSN, is a major news source and a former partner, with NBC, in the MSNBC cable news outlet. Until recently, NBC was owned by General Electric, but other than collecting revenue, it wasn’t clear whether there was any synergy. It’s now owned by Comcast, where there is arguably too much synergy, which is why government regulators insisted on some conditions before approving the deal.

I’m not sure whether Google and Facebook are media companies. Google doesn’t generate news stories, but Google News is a major conduit for accessing news from other sites. The algorithms it uses to decide which stories are important have an enormous impact on how many people view a particular story. In a robotic way, Google is a gatekeeper, like the front-page editor of a newspaper.

Facebook’s primary mission is to enable others to share their stories — newsy or otherwise. But the company last year launched Facebook Live, which webcasts videos that, according to the site, are supposed to be about Facebook and its “features, partners & employees.” But if you look at some of the recent programs, the interviewees include major newsmakers, such as former White House adviser Larry Summers and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Facebook executive Randi Zuckerberg recently traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she interviewed numerous luminaries and journalists like ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, who chatted with Zuckerberg about events in Egypt.

And then there’s the flip side. News organizations such as the Mercury News, the New York Times and my part-time employer CBS Radio News are developing technology products like iPhone apps, and thereby entering the business of software development.

There are other issues besides technology. I consider bloggers to be journalists, but worry that some don’t subscribe to the same ethical standards (such as disclosure of conflicts of interest) as most traditional journalists. Still, there is no law that says you have to work for a big news organization to be a journalist, and many bloggers do a great job of adding to our media diet.

And finally, there is the issue of WikiLeaks, which founder Julian Assange refers to as a journalistic organization. I’m not arguing that WikiLeaks hasn’t provided valuable information and I’m certainly not suggesting that Assange be tried for espionage, as some lawmakers have demanded. But I question whether an organization that makes raw data dumps available to the public is the same as a journalistic organization that adds value by sorting through and excerpting information to provide relevant facts and analysis. I would certainly consider WikiLeaks as to be a valuable source of information to journalists, just as Daniel Ellsberg was a valuable source to the New York Times when it published portions of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971.

Confusing or not, the media landscape is changing and those of us who make our living in it and depend on it for information will have to change along with it. My hope is that we maintain our enduring values while adjusting to the winds of change.

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