Digital Divide Report

by journojames on January 27, 2012

Originally published Nov. 30, 2010

The Digital Divide and Journalism’s Responsibilities

E-readers, websites, Kindles, and iPads are new electronic tools changing the landscape of journalism. These technological wonders are giving journalists the opportunity to offer news in more ways than ever before. However, many citizens are unable to consume important news and information through these new devices because they are either technologically illiterate or unable to afford the expensive computer hardware. Then, in the current Internet Age, do journalists have a responsibility to continue offering print news to those citizens who fall on the wrong side of this “digital divide”?

Simply put, the digital divide refers to the gap between those who use computers and the Internet and those who do not. It includes the imbalance both in physical access to technology and the resources and skills needed to effectively participate.[1]

There is a debate whether this divide is real or a myth. Some argue that it is perceived. They say that those people who do not have access to advanced technologies do manage to continue living life, and do not require technology to do so.[2] However, in a technologically advanced society like the United States, the digital divide is considered a reality by many scholars and professionals, who argue that it is a symptom of a larger and more complex problem — that of persistent poverty and inequality.[3]

“There is no question that there is a digital divide,” said L.A. Daily News Online Editor Steven Rosenberg. “It exists at several levels: socioeconomic, age, and cultural.”[4]

Recent data support Rosenberg’s claims. The current U.S. population is approximately 310 million people, according to the U.S. Census.[5] From that total, there are 137 million people (68 percent of American adults) who use the Internet at home, but there are 65 million people (32 percent American adults), who do not go online, and it is not always by choice.[6] Broken down further by economics, it is revealed that 95 percent of Americans in households earning at least $75,000 per year use the Internet at home; 70 percent of Americans in households earning less than $75,000 per year use the Internet; and 57 percent of Americans in households earning less than $30,000 per year use the Internet.[7] Broken down further along racial lines, 67 percent of whites, 56 percent of African-Americans, and less than 51 percent of foreign-born Latinos are broadband users.[8]

These numbers indicate that the digital divide is an issue that directly affects the poor. It is important from a newspaper perspective because what is at stake is the potential to improve everyday life for those on the margins of society — and on the wrong side of the divide — to achieve greater social equity and empowerment through news and information.

This complex issue, however, is further complicated by the fact that print newspapers are disappearing from newsstands. For instance, the 147-year-old Seattle P-I was the nation’s first major newspaper to ditch their print edition and go completely online in March of 2009. “More people are reading the paper than ever before but they’re doing it online,” said journalist Joel Connelly of the digital newspaper.[9] Also, Chairman and publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., said: “We will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.”.[10]

Australia based “futurist’ and best-selling author Ross Dawson, who writes extensively on social media and the Internet, put together a recent report titled “Newspaper Extinction Timeline” that revealed that U.S. newspapers, in their current print form, would start becoming irrelevant as early as 2017.[11] Dawson said that the framework took a number of global factors into consideration, including the increased cost performance of devices like mobile phones, tablets and e-readers; trends in advertising spend allocation; demographics; and government and consumer behaviors.[12] This, of course, is not a rock-solid prediction, and is based mainly on trends as they stand at the moment, but it does raise several questions.

One of many is: if the death clock is indeed ticking away for print newspapers, what happens to those who rely on that particular medium for all their news, information and services, like coupons and special advertisements?

Before that question can be answered, however, it begs a more pressing one: what are the obligations of journalists in serving the public, including those that are marginalized?

An answer may lie in doctrines written by journalists themselves. For instance, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), founded in 1922 as a nonprofit professional organization focusing on leadership development and journalism-related issues, created and revised a document in 1975 named “Statement of Principles” to help journalists preserve and promote core journalistic values.[13] In Article I of the “Principles,” it focuses on responsibility, stating: “The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time.[14]

In addition, in 1997, an organization then administered by the Committee of Concerned Journalists (PEJ), identified nine principles that underlie journalism. One of the principles states: “A commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization’s credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers. Commitment to citizens also means journalism should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society.”[15]

These are the highest ideals of journalism and what journalists strive for in their service, but when it comes to the actual product of news and newspapers, the reality of dollars and cents tends to rear its ugly head, and as a result, the responsibilities of journalists, in the aspect of service, seem to diminish and fade.

“People tend to understand that a business has a right to stop doing things that lose money, and my guess is that in our capitalist society very few people would imagine an ethical code that requires businesses to lose money,” said Tom Stites of the Banyan Project, an organization that aims to strengthen democracy through high-quality, Web-based journalism, serving less-than-affluent everyday citizens.[16]

Randy Harvey, Associate Editor of the L.A. Times agreed. “You can’t argue that businesses have an ethical obligation to stay in business if they don’t have a revenue model that works. That wouldn’t be just for print newspapers and magazines,” he said. “You might have the only medical clinic in a low-income neighborhood. But if the clinic can’t pay its bills, it will close, no matter how much service it might be providing for the community. It’s the same with print media. If there is not enough revenue to keep the presses running, they will close.”[17]

In underserved areas like south central Los Angeles, almost 50 percent of people with incomes lower than $25,000 rely on local newspapers as their main source of news, according to research by the Norman Lear Center at USC.[18]

The journalists at the Los Angeles Wave, a community newspaper that was founded in 1912 and continues to serve neighborhoods that include Compton, Inglewood, and Watts, have a unique understanding of how important print journalism is to a particular area, especially where more than half of the residents do not have access to the Internet and many diverse cultures are alienated from computer websites and traditional media.[19]

“There’s a language barrier,” said Don Wanlass, news editor for the Los Angeles Wave. “There are a lot of recent immigrants from Mexico and South America. They don’t speak English and they fear government intrusion. They’re also willing to believe anything anybody tells them, and sometimes the rumors on the street aren’t always accurate.”[20]

For these reasons, among others, local and specialized print newspapers remain the most important source of information for lower-income communities, but they, too, may soon have to fold, like the Wave, which is facing troubling financial difficulties in this changing landscape of journalism.[21]

The question still remains: what will happen to those on the wrong side of the digital divide? From an optimistic view, there are signs that the digital divide may be slowly but surely closing. According to a recent Pew Research study, it found that African Americans “lead the way” over whites and Hispanics in connecting to the Internet through mobile handheld devices, and ranked first when it came to wireless data application usage.[22]

Also, according to Martin Langeveld, a former newspaper publisher who’s now engaged in the Web news business and who writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, said: “All the digital adoption curves tend toward 80 percent. That’s far more than the current penetration levels of printed newspapers, and that last 20 percent is clearly hard-core non-digital adopters, for whatever reasons. Broadband is skewed toward higher income, with penetration among lower income groups about 40 percent — but newspaper readership in those groups is probably even lower. So, there’s a digital divide of sorts, but not one where significant numbers of people who actually want digital access and would use it to consume news content are unable to do so.”[23]

There is also the prevailing notion by those journalists interviewed in this research that the old reliable and traditional media — television and radio — would still be available and become the most popular alternative for news if and when print newspapers disappear.

In addition, funding from private companies, foundations and government programs could also help underserved communities deal with the eventual disappearance of print news. For instance, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization that promotes the advancement of journalism in smaller, local neighborhoods, recently provided $760,000 for mobile computer outposts in some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable neighborhood libraries as part of a national initiative to improve Internet access and expand digital literacy skills.[24]

L.A. Daily News Online Editor Steven Rosenberg offered the possibility of some newspaper in the not-too-distant future making the bold move of providing an affordable portable digital newspaper in the form of an e-reader, similar to an iPad or a Kindle-like device, with every home subscription.[25] If this could be an option, perhaps the likelihood of technology allowing newspapers to be sent directly to television sets could also be a reasonable possibility.

The landscape of American journalism is quickly shifting with technological advancements spearheading the transformation of the industry. This revolution seems to be full of powerful promise with endless possibilities, but it is also creating undesirable and unintended effects, like the digital divide, and according to some researchers, the possible extinction of the print newspaper. The population that has the most to lose amid these changes is the low-income community, especially when it comes to receiving news and information needed to appropriately function in society. But, the research found in this case asserts that journalists — specifically, those who run newspapers — are not obligated to provide their service just to assist an underserved community if it undermines the profitability of their business.

It is a tough reality to accept, but those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, who usually find themselves on the wrong side of many social fault lines, must somehow find a way to adapt in getting their news from something other than print newspapers or risk getting left further behind in this unforgiving Internet Age.


[1] Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide>

[2] Schweikart, Larry, “Race Culture, and the Digital Divide,” The Freeman, <http://thefreemanonline.org/featured/race-culture-and-the-digital-divide/> (May 2002)

[3] Mehra, Bahrat, “New Media and Society,” 2004, p. 781

[4] Interview with Steven Rosenberg, L.A. Daily News Online Editor, November 8, 2010

[5] U.S. Census <http://www.census.gov/>

[6] Jansen, Jim, “Use of the Internet in Higher Income Households,” Pew Center Research, <http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Better-off-households/Overview.aspx> (November 24, 2010)

[7] Smith, Aaron, “Home Broadband 2010,” Pew Center Research, <http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010Home-Broadband-2010.aspx> (August 11, 2010)

[8] Smith, Aaron, “Technology Trends Among People of Color,” Pew Center Research, <http://www.pewinternet.org/Commentary/2010/September/Technology-Trends-Among-Peole-of-Color.aspx> (September 17, 2010)

[9] BBC News, “Seattle Paper Moves Online Only,” <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7947226.stm> (March 16, 2009)

[10] Blodget, Henry, “Sulzberger Concedes…,” Business Insider The Wire, <http://www.businessinsider.com/sulzberger-we-will-stop-printing-the-new-york-times-2010-9> (September 8, 2010)

[11] Dawson, Ross, “Newspaper Extinction Timeline,” <http://www.futureexploration.net/Newspaper_Extinction_Timeline.pdf> (November 2010)

[12] Perera, Ayeshea, “Digital Divide…,” LiveMint.com, <http://blog.livemint.com/featured/digital-divide-newspapers-to-start-dying-out-by-2017/> (November 2, 2010)

[13] ASNE, <http://asne.org/about.aspx>

[14] ASNE, “Statement of Principles,” <http://asne.org/kiosk/archive/principl.htm>

[15] PEJ, “Principles of Journalism,” Journalism.org, <http://journalism.org/resources/principles>

[16] Interview with Tom Stites, Founder of Banyan Project, November 19, 2010

[17] Interview with Randy Harvey, L.A. Times Associate Editor, November 9, 2010

[18] Henry, Emily, “Growing Pains…” The Online Journalism Review, <http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/emilyhenry/200906/1754/> (June 24, 2009)

[19] Henry, Emily, “Growing Pains…”

[20] Henry, Emily, “Growing Pains…”

[21] Vaughan, Kristin, “Wave Newspapers Go Bankrupt,” BNET, <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1365/is_10_35/ai_n14735843/> (May 2005)

[22] Sutphen, Stephen, “New Study…,” TheGrio.com, <http://www.thegrio.com/opinion/new-study-show-blacks-closing-digital-divide-with-whites.php> (August 20, 2010)

[23] Interview with Martin Langeveld, Nieman Journalism Lab, November 24, 2010

[24] Knight Foundation, “Underserved Philadelphia Neighborhoods…” <http://www.knightfoundation.org/news/press_room/knight_press_releases/detail.dot?id=371373> (October 21, 2010)

[25] Interview with Steven Rosenberg

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