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Chapter 5: Implications for media and journalism
The Internet has grown in a way distinctly different from any medium before it. As a result, it's difficult to predict how the Net will change mainstream media and to what magnitude. To say that media will undergo a "paradigm shift" might be an understatement.
Consider that today 1 billion computers are connected to the Internet, most dialing in through telephone lines. By the end of 2010, Intel predicts that more than 1.5 billion computers will be connected via high-speed broadband and another 2.5 billion phones will have more processing power than today's PCs.1
Yet, only one-tenth of the world's population, or 600 million people, can access the Internet today. What will happen when many of the rest join in seeking others with whom to collaborate and share information?
That's a revolution already underway, but it's one that's easy to miss. It's quiet. Revolutions on the Net happen at the edges, not at the center.
Economist J. Bradford Long explains: "As the action spreads from producers (the few) to users (the many), it becomes much, much harder to get an overview of the revolutionary things occurring. We have anecdotes of brilliant new uses and applications, but do they add up to an enduring boom or just a few isolated pops that make good copy?"2
And that is the problem facing media companies, the entertainment industry and even governments. How do you put together the pieces of a puzzle without knowing what the final picture looks like? First, you find the edges.
While we may not be able predict how the media landscape will shift, there are places we can begin looking for change and their likely impacts.
Democratization of mediaA.J. Liebling once said, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."3 Now, millions do.
Those who believe the democratization of media will have little effect on big media often point to the "zine" business. In the late '80s and early '90s, desktop publishing allowed many small, independent publications to spring up. To some degree, the magazine business became more democratized with the addition of more viewpoints. But those publications generally expanded the reach of magazines without toppling the more established titles. In the same way, some see little evidence that micromedia will displace established media today.
An important distinction to remember is that the economics of production and distribution in the magazine business, while less costly than before, were still substantial — keeping the number of new competitors to a handful. Moreover, competing with magazines that had larger circulation usually required considerable marketing budgets and years to build a large subscriber base.
On the Web, the barriers to entry are next to nothing. The costs associated with distributing content online are so low that anyone can join and experiment with the democratization of media.
And that experiment is quickly moving into the mainstream. Recently America Online announced it would get into the weblog game, putting simple and powerful publishing tools into the hands of more than 30 million members. Millions will own a press, making everyone a potential media outlet. With the ability to publish words and pictures even via their cell phone, citizens have the potential to observe and report more immediately than traditional media outlets do.
Challenges to the media's hegemonyA democratized media challenges the notion of the institutional press as the exclusive, privileged, trusted, informed intermediary of the news.
According to a recent Sports Illustrated story, "there is little doubt that fan websites are breaking — and making — news and dramatically reshaping the relationship between college coaches and the public.
"Mainstream news media, SI included, monitor website message boards to take the public's pulse and, in some cases, look for news tips."4
Are respected news operations such as SI likely to be eliminated as one of the primary intermediaries of sports news any time soon? That's unlikely, but Web communities and even search engines are becoming valued outlets of news, which guide and direct their readers to information of interest. The role these sites play — as filters, simplifiers and clarifiers of news — is adding a new intermediary layer. They might not be the ultimate authority, but the new intermediaries — forums, weblogs, search engines, hoax-debunking sites — are helping audiences sort through the abundance of information available today.5
Many newspapers and TV stations have had years to establish the trust of their audiences. Yet participatory news sites, with their transparent and more intimate nature, are attracting legions of fans who contribute and collaborate with one another. In addition, recent surveys suggest people are beginning to place more trust in online sources and are seeking increasingly diverse news sources and perspectives.6
Credibility becomes redefinedWhat are the implications of a distributed, collective pool of knowledge on credibility? Arguably, the stakes go up. Online communities require transparency of sources and reporting methods. Experts emerge through the recognition of their online peers rather than by anointment by the mass media.
For example, Glenn Fleishman, a freelance journalist in Seattle, has become one of the world's leading experts on wireless technology. He uses his weblog to both report on the latest developments in wi-fi and to interact with readers who might point him to a new wrinkle in the fast-moving field.7
In a digital medium, reputations form through a synthesis of consistency, accuracy and frequent comparison by the reader.
Says author Howard Rheingold: "I think people who are dedicated to establishing a reputation for getting the story right and getting it first don't necessarily have to work for The Washington Post or The New York Times."8
Individuals, institutions, the government and even reporters use the Web to maintain a record of their encounters with other media. The Department of Defense routinely posts transcripts of interviews with the Secretary of Defense and other high-ranking officials.
The motivation for self-publishing interviews appear to be twofold: To ensure that their words aren't misconstrued or misreported by the news media and to publish a complete public record of what the person being interviewed is saying.
Even well-intentioned journalists may misinterpret an interviewee's meaning. Annotating provides the interviewee the opportunity to give his or her comments the kind of nuance, heft, context and thoughtfulness that might be left on the cutting-room floor in a news outlet's notoriously shrunken news hole.
One of the better examples of user-generated content actively challenging the media's credibility is product reviews. While mainstream readers might not actively seek news reports or political opinions from amateurs, many are willing to consult reviews contributed by strangers before they make a purchase.
Commerce sites like Amazon or product review sites such as Epinions.com or Edmunds.com put a great deal of emphasis on user-generated reviews and discussions. Many manufacturing companies like Subaru have taken notice and actively monitor discussion boards to understand what online communities think about their products.9
The rise of new experts and watchdogsNews organizations have spent much time and effort trying to position their journalists as more than impartial observers. They have in many ways tried to present them as experts in a field or interpreters of events. This approach in a print or broadcast model makes perfect sense.
Online, the world of opinion and expert commentary is not restricted to the privileged. But forward-looking media companies don't view that development as a threat. News organizations still have the resources to become known as the definitive authority on various subjects. They will have to make way, however, for readers who want pick up the tools of journalism to contribute to a more informed citizenry and a more robust democracy.
For example, the news media and consumer non-profits no longer have a monopoly on serving as a watchdog on government and private industry. Individuals and citizen groups are stepping in to fill the void they believe has been created by lapses in coverage by big media.
One of the more ambitious attempts is the Government Information Awareness (GIA) project by the MIT Media Lab, created in response to the government's Total Information Awareness project, which aims to collect personal information on citizens and foreigners and analyze it to preempt terrorist activities.
In a sense, GIA hopes to be Big Brother's Big Brother: "To allow citizens to submit intelligence about government-related issues, while maintaining their anonymity. To allow members of the government a chance to participate in the process."10
The Center for Responsive Politics' Opensecrets.org site tracks campaign contributions and corporate connections of government officials, from the president's administration to every member of Congress.
Citizens are also taking up a media watchdog role when it comes to chronicling perceived evidence of the news media's political bias, censorship or reporting inaccuracies.
Controversies surrounding the invasion of Iraq have fueled the launch of many sites. Mainstream media has been criticized for under-reporting both coalition force and Iraqi civilian casualties.11 In response, two sites — Iraq Coalition Casualty Count and Iraq Body Count — have attempted to establish independent databases that tabulate deaths by reviewing military and news reports.12 Each provides greater detail and accuracy than currently found in mainstream news reports. The sites also provide a transparency of sources and methodology rarely found in other media.
The Memory Hole, run by Russ Kick, is an example of a watchdog site that attempts to preserve and share information that has been removed from other sites on the Web or is difficult to find.13
FAIR.org scrutinizes media practices that "marginalize the public interest."14 Established in 1986, the organization highlights neglected news stories, opposes efforts at censorship and defends First Amendment precepts.
In a similar vein, the Tyndall Report monitors the three major U.S. television networks' nightly newscasts and the time devoted to each story.15
In England, where the BBC is funded by public tax monies, groups like bbcwatch.com have sprung up to make sure the broadcast organization stays true to its charter, which pledges journalism that is impartial and comprehensive.
In the wake of corporate scandals and greater influence-peddling in Washington, grassroots organizations are also turning a watchful eye toward corporate responsibility. CommercialAlert.org, a 4-year-old consumer organization in Portland, Ore., tries "to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy."
Media organization and cultureThree incidents in the spring of 2003 point to the disruptive effects that the Internet has begun to sow in newsrooms — a disruption that threatens the status quo of news organization culture and policy.
• In April 2003, The Hartford Courant required a travel editor and former columnist, Denis Horgan, to stop posting commentary to his weblog.16
• A month earlier, CNN reporter Kevin Sites was told to discontinue posting to his blog, which featured first-hand accounts of the war in Iraq. According to a CNN spokesperson, "CNN.com prefers to take a more structured approach to presenting the news. ... We do not blog."17
• Similarly, Time magazine editors instructed reporter Joshua Kucera to stop posting reports from Kurdistan to his weblog.
The resistance in media organizations to these newer forms of expression is not surprising. But such incidents, which are likely to multiply, raise questions about the nature of the relationship between journalists and their employers.
Is a journalist, by virtue of his or her newsroom employment and access to newsmakers, not permitted to express a personal opinion outside of the office? Do media companies own an employee's free time? Do such prohibitions apply only to working journalists or to newsroom executives as well?
A chief concern on the part of news organizations is one of liability. Allowing reporters to write when off the clock might expose a company to a lawsuit. In addition, news outlets may perceive a reporter's weblog as competition, since it potentially draws eyeballs away from a media company's advertisers.
Yet, as media companies gear more of their operations to an online audience that expects a more interactive dynamic, things will have to change. The collaborative and fast-paced nature of online news will require new policies, technologies, organizational structures and workflows.
The assembly-line nature of broadcast and print media is not well-suited to developing content for smaller, more targeted audiences. Content will likely be published in a more continuous manner by teams or communities acting as an extention of the enterprise. Eventually, licensing and copyright policies will need to be reexamined to come into harmony with a collaborative audience model.
Moreover, measuring and managing the success of such collaborative ventures might be a challenge and force some rethinking about how such projects are gauged within the larger organization.
Some news sites are experimenting on a small scale by co-opting successful participatory media models. MSNBC.com's Weblog Central section hosts a variety of analysts and columnists such as Instapundit.com's Glenn Reynolds and Eric Alterman of The Nation.
Some of the more ambitious efforts have come from the United Kingdom. Whereas many larger news sites keep links to other sites to a minimum, Britain's The Guardian18 maintains many weblogs that guide readers to the best of the Web, including other news sites.
The BBC has announced plans to make its entire archives available for non-commercial use. Called the BBC Creative Archive, it will offer more than 80 years of radio and broadcast programs free to anyone.
The BBC's director general, Greg Dyke, said the decision was made based on their sense of where the Internet was heading: "I believe that we are about to move into a second phase of the digital revolution, a phase which will be more about public than private value; about free, not pay services; about inclusivity, not exclusion.
"In particular, it will be about how public money can be combined with new digital technologies to transform everyone's lives."19
When some media outlets start making participatory media work effectively, media companies that dig in their heels and resist such changes may be seen as not only old-fashioned but out of touch.
Journalism and the media workforceAssuming that issues related to newsroom culture can be overcome, there are more hurdles facing the media.
Along with a rethinking of journalism's role in the online medium, new skills and attitudes will be required. Staffs will need to be motivated to collaborate with colleagues, strangers, sources and readers. After years of working their way up the professional ladder, some reporters will undoubtedly need to discover a newfound respect for their readers. Arrogance and aloofness are deadly qualities in a collaborative environment.
To be successful, reporters will need to be more than skilled writers. They will have to hone their skills in growing communities around specific topics of interest.
"That's one of the great challenges to us as news gatherers and journalists," said Joan Connell, executive producer for opinion and community at MSNBC.com. "How do we discover information and share it in creative ways with people? Give them the information they need to make the choices in their lives as citizens."20
MSNBC.com believes that the editing process brings a higher degree of journalistic integrity to the news equation, and that's one factor that sets news organizations apart from personal weblogs.
"One of the values that we place on our own weblogs is that we edit our webloggers. Out there in the blogosphere, often it goes from the mind of the blogger to the mind of the reader, and there's no backup. ...I would submit that that editing function really is the factor that makes it journalism."21
Universities will also need to shape their journalism curricula to help students prepare for working in this new media ecosystem and the fast-changing tools needed.
A larger unknown for investigative reporters will be the impact of the Internet on sources. Now that we live on the cusp of a world in which everyone has the potential to be a reporter and a source, will that affect the behavior of sources when they are approached by mainstream journalists?
Advertising and marketingClay Shirky believes that mass media are dead. In his essay "RIP the Consumer 1900-1999," he suggests that mass media depend on two important characteristics of the audience: size and silence.22
According to recent Nielsen ratings reports, the TV audience continues to become more fragmented, with new channels continuing to proliferate. (Nightly network news viewership dropped in half from 1993 to 2002.23) Today, an unqualified ratings champion is a fraction of what it was several years ago. Audiences, while still fairly large, are diminishing in size.
To Shirky, silence means that the audience remains passive. The Internet has helped to fracture mass media by empowering the audience to take a more active role when interacting with media.
"The Internet heralds the disappearance of the consumer altogether," Shirky writes, "because the Internet destroys the noisy advertiser/silent consumer relationship that the mass media relies upon. The rise of the Internet undermines the existence of the consumer because it undermines the role of mass media. In the age of the Internet, no one is a passive consumer anymore because everyone is a media outlet."24
There are a number of challenges facing media companies in the long run, if Shirky's argument is valid.
First, traditional media may need to rethink how to measure economic success. One option is to explore avenues for targeted, personalized advertising aimed at individuals or small identifiable groups. Another is to consider the possibility of moving away from an advertising-supported business model and toward subscriptions and other pay-for-content models. Real-time data about readership and viewership might lead to new pricing rules where fixed pricing is replaced by real-time market adjustments.
In addition, media companies will likely have to devise new ways to present audiences to advertisers. Typically, standard demographics are the measure of an audience. It may be that more creative and descriptive measures of audiences, based around psychographic characteristics, will be devised.
Such changes cannot happen without expecting a change in the relationship between businesses and their customers. While many news sites have experimented with personalization as a means to identify more targeted advertising opportunities,25 they have only fleetingly experimented with new ways to allow consumers to interact with advertisers.
Citizens as stakeholders in the journalistic processIncreasingly, audiences are becoming stakeholders in the news process. Rather than passively accepting news coverage decided upon by a handful of editors, they fire off emails, post criticism of perceived editorial shortcomings on weblogs and in forums, and support or fund an independent editorial enterprise.
In June 2000 the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund launched Women's eNews, a news service run by a small staff of professional journalists who work with a national network of free-lance writers. Devoted to coverage of women's issues, the site became a fully independent operation in early 2002. In July 2003 it won four journalism awards from the National Federation of Press Women and continues to probe issues often overlooked by the mainstream media.26
Occasionally, readers will dig into their own pockets to finance a journalism effort they find worthwhile. Freelance journalist Christopher Allbritton received $14,334 from 320 people who funded his trip to Iraq to report his first-hand observations of the war zone. He filed daily dispatches on his Web site, Back-to-Iraq.com, about the fall of Tikrit and reported on the region's ethnic tensions.27
A freelance journalist from Maine, David Appel, asked readers of his weblog to pony up to let him pursue an investigative story. After receiving more than $200, Appel investigated a sugar lobbying group's attempt to get Congress to kill funding for the World Health Organization, whose policies had offended corporate sugar interests.28
While war reporting and investigative reporting remain the province of trained journalists, more often citizens are taking up the tools of journalism to write about favorite topics. Columnist J.D. Lasica calls these do-it-yourself entries "random acts of journalism," as when Jessica Rios, a 22-year-old woman in Los Angeles, attended a Coldplay concert and wrote a review of their performance on her weblog.29
The author Howard Rheingold is representative of a new kind of reader who spends more time with favorite weblogs and collaborative media than with traditional media. "The things I'm interested in, from pop culture to wireless policy to copyright, you have to go to the fanatics," he said.30 And those fanatics are more easily found in niche online media.
In the next chapter we explore the potential practical benefits of integrating participatory journalism into mainstream news operations.
1. Michael J. Miller, "Rejecting the Tech Doomsayers," PC Magazine, June 25, 2003.
2. J. Bradford DeLong, "Don't Worry About Deflation," Wired, August 2003.
3. Simpson's Contemporary Quotations, compiled by James B. Simpson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988).
4. Tim Layden, "Caught in the Net," Sports Illustrated, May 19, 2003, p. 46.
5. Harry Beckwith's book What Clients Love has an excellent essay on this subject called "Option and Information Overload," p. 45-50. (Warner Books, Inc., 2003).
6. Pew Internet & American Life Project, The Internet and the Iraq war: How online Americans have use the Internet to learn war news, understand events, and promote their views, April 1, 2003.
7. See Glenn Fleishman's weblog, Wi-Fi Networking News.
8. J.D. Lasica, "Where Net Luminaries Turn For News," Online Journalism Review, Oct. 24, 2002.
9. EContent, "Brain Trust: Mining the Community Mind," October 2001.
10. Government Information Awareness
11. Editor & Publisher, "Media Underplays U.S. Death Toll in Iraq," July 17, 2003.
12. Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, Iraq Body Count
13. The Memory Hole
14. FAIR's web site
15. Tyndall Report
16. Carl Sullivan, "Hartford Paper Tells Employee to Kill Blog," Editor & Publisher Online, April 24, 2003.
17. Susan Mernit, "Kevin Sites and the Blogging Controversy," Online Journalism Review, April 3, 2003.
18. Guardian Unlimited weblog.
19. "Dyke to open up BBC archive," BBC News, Aug. 24, 2003.
20. Terence Smith, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, April 28, 2003.
22. Clay Shirky, "RIP THE CONSUMER, 1900-1999," published on his Web site, Shirky.com, May 2000.
23. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Public's News Habits Little Changed by September 11," June 9, 2002.
25. J.D. Lasica, "The Second Coming of Personalized News," Online Journalism Review, April 2, 2002.
26. Women's eNews, "Women's eNews Wins Four Journalism Prizes," July 29, 2003.
27. Spencer Ante, "Have Web Site, Will Investigate," Business Week, July 28, 2003.
28. David Appell, "Sugar and Independent Journalism," Quark Soup weblog, May 14, 2003.
29. J.D. Lasica, "Random acts of journalism," New Media Musings weblog, March 12, 2003.
30. J.D. Lasica, "Where Net Luminaries Turn For News," Online Journalism Review, Oct. 24, 2002.