Is there actually a crisis in news and journalism? We must not ignore the historical perspective that locates the current problems in the media economy, as my previous post detailed, but Jeff Jarvis is right – if we start from the assumption that there is a crisis for all concerned we will ask the wrong questions, miss the great opportunities, and head off in the wrong direction.
It’s worth repeating what I think should be the guiding light for any discussion the new media economy: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.”
Following this means understanding journalism as information and newspapers as the means of distribution. As such, the death of the latter does not equate to the death of the former. Richard Stacey put it more bluntly – “hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.”
If we are focused on the nature of the information there are opportunities. If like many of the traditional media companies we are preoccupied with the means of distribution, then there is most certainly a crisis. How, then, can we think about the opportunities and what they mean for the structure of information in the new media economy?
The web changes everything
The revolution in the media economy has few certainties, but one thing is crystal clear when it comes to news coverage – the Internet is the only platform with an audience growing over time.
This growth comes from the new ways people consume information. While traditional sources such as newspapers, analogue TV and radio have declining audiences, the amount of time people spend reading, watching and listening is increasing. This is driven by the way – as American data shows – “people are relying more heavily…on platforms that can deliver news when audiences want it rather than at appointed times, a sign of a growing ‘on demand’ news culture. People increasingly want the news they want when they want it.” And satisfying that desire can only be achieved digitally.
The revolution, though, involves much more than making information available in a variety of accessible digital formats, as a recent German manifesto on the challenge of the web made clear. (Interestingly, this manifesto was a direct response to the Hamburg Declaration in which traditional news organisation sought to tame the internet through new intellectual property rights to restrict fair use, make people pay for quotes and withhold the ability to link to content).
The web revolution changes the structure of the information that is being provided, and it changes the relationship between the producer and the consumer of that information. As an article in the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted, “the Internet is a medium in the word’s truest sense. It is something that exists in the between. It is connective tissue.” And far from undermining the institutions of democracy, these transformations could be the basis for a more democratic culture.
How is the structure of news information being transformed?
Traditional media deal with news as an information relay. On a daily cycle reporters gather information, construct a story (as an article or an item) before a fixed deadline, then transmit this to readers/viewers/listeners who some time later passively consume the information.
Of course, modern newspapers and television stations compress this cycle with their web versions, electronic comment facilities or rolling news networks, but the overall idea of a story as a discrete thing produced by a deadline remains. As the CJR declared:
News organizations have had trouble adapting to the digital world because they operate under a broadcast sensibility. They produce discrete bits of content—finished products meant for passive consumption.
On-line media changes all that. Some have argued that the “atomic unit” of news media is changing. Marissa Mayer of Google told a US Senate inquiry on the future of journalism “the structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article.” This shift mirrored that in music when consumers moved from albums of music to individual downloads, and is driven by the fact that 80% of on-line users find their articles via search engines rather than through the home pages of particular sites.
The web’s challenge to traditional information structures might be more radical than a move from newspaper to article. The atomic unit might be no longer fixed in space as the article, the item, the page or the publication – it could be something that evolves over time via the post, the tweet, the link as a flow or wave of iterations that together produce a story that – like the world it is reporting on – is never finalised.
The changing nature of temporality means that a plural and inherently more democratic approach to news information is now possible. As Charlie Beckett argues, “with the death of the deadline comes multi-dimensional narratives.” Rather than the tired old formula of “he said, she said” journalism we can have competing perspective at the heart of every story.
This means journalism becomes a process rather than a product, and the developing topic rather than the finished story is the new fundament of reporting. As Jeff Jarvis argues, this requires much more than having a list of links to other people’s stuff at the bottom of an on-line article:
Instead, I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something… It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.
There are some small but important practicalities that can achieve this – such as media organizations treating stories as topics under a permanent URL, which Google’s Mayer recommended as a way of constructing a “living story.” With the recent introduction of Fast Flip, a new user interface (UI) for news that aggregates individual articles and web pages via subjects, Google is leading innovation in this area. As Scott Karp argues, this demonstrates once again how traditional media companies are failing to address challenges – new formats for presenting news – that should clearly by their concern:
Most publishers are focused on how to charge for news. But there’s very little talk about how to innovate the packaging of news, much less a new UI for news. There’s very little talk about how people consume news on the web, about the value of aggregating articles from multiple sources, about solving consumers’ problems rather than publishers’ problems.
Most importantly, rethinking the ‘atomic unit’ of information goes beyond any technological issue and changes the nature of reporting.
What does this mean for journalists and editors?
One of the fears flowing from the ‘death of newspapers’ and shift to on-line news platforms is that our capacity to sift important information from unsourced trivia will be lost. In typical fashion, commentators see the end of one thing (stories by authoritative reporters) leading inexorably to its polar opposite (rumours by amateur gossips). It’s dreadfully easy to come up with examples of trash on the Internet and argue that it is therefore an unreliable medium. But, apart from the fact that the traditional news outlets produce more than their fair share of rubbish, there is nothing automatic or inevitable about digital media dumbing down standards of inquiry or reporting. As Taylor Owens and David Eaves make clear in their excellent review of the relationship between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media (Missing The Link), the rise of blogging is a boon for good journalism, in part because of the way it makes fact-checking an open source phenomenon that draws on the wisdom of the crowd.
The new structures of distribution affect the structures of information, but they do so by changing rather than eliminating the role of the journalist and editor. This is because the number of people who can write and publish without being filtered out by the mainstream media (as in this blog) is increasing all the time. But even for full-time journalists and editors in established news organisations a change is coming, and understanding their role as being a “curator” is what marks this change.
Instead of thinking as journalists and editors as the privileged insiders revealing secrets in a one-way relationship to their audience, they become those whose experience and knowledge allows them to give context and order to an ever-developing topic. Mindy McAdams has listed seven different practices that might make up this process of curation. In addition to these will be commitment to real openness, in terms of encouraging a real-time dialogue with feedback from the audience, ensuring transparency about sources (without compromising confidents), and tapping into the power and wisdom of readers through “crowd sourcing” exercises (such as The Guardian’s encouragement of its readers to sort through the raw data of politician’s expense claims).
The role of transparency in this new structure of information is vital. Showing how you get the story, and linking to others who have different but relevant aspects of the topic, is the best way to establish credibility and legitimacy for this mode of reporting. Indeed, David Weinberger has gone as far to claim “transparency is the new objectivity.” In the past, media accuracy was achieved by a handful of editors and fact-checkers who verified data, but with thousands of interactive readers function as open source reviewers, this accuracy can only be enhanced through thoughtful curation.
What might a new media organisation look like?
These ideas can guide the structure of a new media organisation, and if we summarise the points above and blend in the thoughts of Emily Bell and Chris Brogan, with a dash of Jeff Jarvis, we get the following pointers:
A final thought about how to fund it
Funding new media organisations remains, so to speak, the million-dollar question. But think about this slide from the Daily Telegraph’s digital editor Edward Roussel, presented at a CUNY conference last November:
It underlines the point from my previous post that if we think about funding in terms of paying for editorial content rather than the entirety of traditional media organisations, where the bulk of the cost goes on printing and distribution, we start with a much smaller need. If an existing news organisation like the New York Times was to be reshaped for a purely digital future, there would still be a major shake-up and much heartbreak, but it wouldn’t be the much-prophesied ‘end of journalism’. Because we are in a revolutionary moment no one knows how the media economy will shake down, but the outcome can be positive for the process of journalism.
Photo credit: Carol Mitchell/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license