Journalists love nothing better than to navel gaze about the future of newspapers and the mainstream media in the Age of Social Media. Some journalists even see social media as threatening their long-term career prospects. It’s probably inevitable given the struggle newspapers are having turning a profit in the face of ubiquitous free online content, hence the Anti-Christ Murdoch’s mooted move to paywalls.
The recent Andrew Olle Media Lecture by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger generated a flurry of such navel-gazing. Jonathan Holmes, Alan Kohler and Annabel Crabb were among the more notable journalistic contributors.
There were occasional glimmers of insight buried in this morass of self-indulgent self-analysis, but not many. For example, Alan Kohler observed:
The lowest paid jobs in society are those that anyone can do, but can’t be bothered or don’t have the time, like cleaning or driving. The danger for plain reporting is that it will be increasingly seen in that light – as a service that anyone can do but can’t be bothered or haven’t the time.
No-one is going to pay much for that, if anything, and advertisers have already discovered that they are in the driver’s seat with online media because there is a glut of inventory and it’s all measurable and accountable, unlike newspaper advertising.
To survive, therefore, journalism must add value – specifically it must impart meaning. It must do what its customers cannot do themselves, which is to explain what events mean, not just report them.
That observation gives rise to an obvious but important insight. As blog readers know, explaining what events mean is exactly what good bloggers do, and often much more meaningfully than MSM journalists. To an extent one might even regard it as an unfair contest, because the blogosphere includes eminent academic and professional economists, philosophers, sociologists, scientists, statisticians, lawyers and contributors covering many other disciplines. Sometimes, however, bloggers’ expert knowledge exceeds our ability to express ourselves succinctly and in terms accessible to a general audience. That’s a point to which I’ll return a little later.
In this post I want to explore two other insights that I think are relevant to the future of journalism and newspapers, and then make some specific suggestions.
The first insight flows from a realisation that Massachusetts Institute of Technology had some years ago that there was no need for it to hide its academic teaching and research materials behind password-protected barriers. That realisation led to the MITOPENCOOURSEWARE site. In fact, exposing the richness of its academic intellectual property provided a range of marketing and other benefits. MIT was inspired to open its content to public online access by the realisation that what it actually sells is academic or professional accreditation. Even if other institutions and providers appropriate, adapt or even plagiarise MIT’s intellectual property, that doesn’t allow them to compete effectively with MIT as a world-leading higher education accrediting authority. MIT, and to varying extents any reputable university, fulfills a fundamental gate-keeping and certification role that is actually enhanced rather than undermined by making its intellectual products freely available to the public online.
Quality newspapers, and even their tabloid brethren in a more downmarket sense, fulfill a similar gatekeeping role in relation to news and general interest content. In an Internet era where we’re drowning in self-published blog and other content, much of it dross but with occasional buried nuggets of excellent writing, publication in an online newspaper site (or ABC’s The Drum or Unleashed) provides at least some measure of quality assurance that your time spent reading an article won’t be utterly wasted. That proposition is also one that I think is extremely relevant to the future of newspapers in the Age of Social Media.
The second insight I want to share is the notion of “spreadable media” recently coined by MIT academic Henry Jenkins:
HJ: The concept of spreadable media rests on the distinction between distribution (the top-down spread of media content as captured in the broadcast paradigm) and circulation (a hybrid system where content spreads as a result of a series of informal transactions between commercial and noncommercial participants.) Spreadable media is media which travels across media platforms at least in part because the people take it in their own hands and share it with their social networks.
This kind of informal circulation may be solicited or at least accepted by media producers as part of the normal way of doing business or it may take forms which get labeled piracy. Either way, the widespread circulation of media content through the conscious actions of dispersed networks of consumer/participants tends to create greater visibility and awareness as the content travels in unpredicted directions and encounters people who are potentially interested in further engagements with the people who produced it. …
NU: Let’s talk specifically about what spreadable media might mean for news. What are your thoughts on the way the news industry might make sense of this concept?
HJ: A central idea animating the book is “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” There is a constant tension at this moment of media transition between wanting to lock down content and meter access on the one hand (a model based on “stickiness”) and wanting to empower consumers to help spread the word (a model based on “spreadability.”) We can see that tension in terms of the desire to gate access to news content and the mechanisms of spreading which characterize Twitter and blogs. Journalists have long embraced a central idea in this book — that content represents a resource which community use to talk amongst themselves. Journalists need to know how they fit into those circuits. …
NU: Are bloggers an example of people experimenting with media spreadability? What do we do for news organizations who want to bring all of that user engagement and monetize it?
HJ: We’ve long known that news stories generate conversations that people cut out news articles to put on bulletin boards and refrigerators, that we clip news stories and send them to friends. This happened in a pre-digital world and it happens now with more speed and scope thanks to the affordances of digital networking tools.
Blogs originated as a tool for sharing links; Twitter is now used extensively to share links with other consumers. News sites which prevent the sharing of such content amongst readers may look like ways to protect the commercial interest of that content, but in fact, they kill it, destroying its value as a cultural resource within networked communities, and insuring that the public will look elsewhere for news that can be spread. …
NU: If you had to project, what might this mean for user-generated content? And what happens when we start putting paywalls up on sites?
HJ: In the case of news, we might think about many different types of user-generated content. Often, we are talking about the citizen as reporter (especially in the case of hyperlocal news), producing content which can be uploaded to news sites. We might also think about the citizen as editor, determining which news matters to their community and passing it along in a more targeted way to their friends. We might think about the citizen as commentator, who responds to the news through what they write on their blogs or updates. We might think of these media as amplifying their role as consumers, allowing them to more fully express demands for what should get more coverage, as occurred in the #cnnfail debates after the Iranian elections.
Right now, we dump all of this into a box called “citizen journalism,” which is in its own way as misleading as categories like “viral media.” We might start from the fact that journalists are themselves citizens, or that these groups are doing many things through their sharing of news, only some of which should be understood as producing journalism. Focusing on citizen journalism results in an oppositional framing of blogging as competing with professional news production. Spreadable media would push us to think about journalists and bloggers as each making a range of contributions through their participation in a larger civic ecology. …
In summary, there are at least four key insights that I think hold an important master key to envisioning the future of newspapers in the Age of Social Media:
- Kohler’s insight that journalists must “explain what events mean, not just report them”;
- The fact that the blogosphere is full of amateur enthusiasts (in the good sense) who are often much better fitted to explain what events mean than journalists themselves, but who need various forms of help to communicate effectively with a mass audience;
- The fact, drawn from MIT’s insight, that the MSM’s key role is as a gatekeeper and quality assurance certifier;
- Henry Jenkins’ insight that Web 2.0 privileges technologies and business strategies that promote “spreadability”.
So what does it all mean? The master key in my view is Jenkins’ insight of seeing “journalists and bloggers as each making a range of contributions through their participation in a larger civic ecology”.
As some readers may have noticed, I’ve recently recommenced systematic scanning of the blogosphere for a Twitter-based revival of Troppo’s old Missing Link feature. As always, I’ve been astounded both by the extraordinary richness and diversity of ozblogosphere content and also by just how much time it takes to find the decent material amongst all the opinionated drivel. Most potential blog readers just don’t have the time or patience, and either revert to the MSM after a brief blogosphere flirtation or settle on a small number of favourite blogs and accept that they will miss out on occasional precious nuggets at sites they seldom if ever check. Missing Link, both my Twitter version and Don Arthur’s much classier weekly effort, is designed to address that problem because we do the patient browsing for our time-poor readers.
However, another development that I hoped might emerge from the Missing Link initiative was that some enterprising MSM executive might realise its potential and pick it up. The blogosphere is an amazingly rich repository of potentially very valuable online content ripe for MSM exploitation (in the positive sense).
For-profit business models like that of Crikey, which has in the past recruited paid writers from blogger ranks and has actively recruited a cabal of capable bloggers and offered them blogging digs on the Crikey site, have in a very limited way sought to exploit the blogosphere resource. Not-for-profit models like Online Opinion are also relevant but also relatively passive in waiting for contributors to offer content rather than actively seeking and soliciting it. Similarly, ABC’s Unleashed section offers an additional avenue of publication for bloggers. However, like MSM op-ed pages which also frequently publish unsolicited amateur contributions from university and thinktank academics, it too is very much a passive endeavour. They don’t go out and search for content or talent and their laziness means they miss out on much of the best material.
Some of this material badly needs editing to shorten posts, simplify compound sentences and remove impenetrable academic jargon. In other cases the fragmentary germ of a great idea needs to be expanded and explained more clearly and engagingly. This potential editing contribution is just one of the synergies that the MSM can offer bloggers. The other main one is a much larger general audience than most of us could ever achieve for ourselves. Few bloggers regularly write articles that merit a large audience, but when they do the MSM should have the talent-spotting systems and nouse to pick it up and publish it. Every newspaper should have an in-house Missing Link service just as pro football clubs have talent spotters continually roaming around the junior leagues.
The other specific idea I want to suggest from the above insights is that MSM outlets should seek to foster active collaborative partnerships or teams between professional journalists, bloggers and engaged blog readers and commenters with a view to reviving true investigative journalism. As far as I can see investigative journalism has just about died as a result of the pressure on profits imposed by free online content and social media. However, we might also be the key to its revival, by facilitating labour-intensive investigations without the high cost of having every routine footslogging aspect undertaken by a salaried journalist. Many bloggers and comment box contributors are demon fact checkers. Why not enlist them as active collaborators under the supervision of a couple of professional journalists? They could ferret around online and physical databases and archives in a co-ordinated way as part of a newspaper investigation into major issues of public importance. Just as lots of people happily donate their time to crowd-sourced initiatives like Wikipedia and create an amazingly powerful resource from their collective amateur endeavours, I strongly suspect many bloggers would willingly donate their time even to a newspaper aiming at private profit, as long as the aim of the specific investigative project was one with which they identified. Even more so if the newspaper developed a mechanism whereby “citizen journalist” contributors were remunerated with some minor percentage of the advertising revenue generated by a page to which they had contributed either as a writer or researcher.
Those are just two ideas whereby journalists and bloggers could make a “range of contributions through their participation in a larger civic ecology”. No doubt some journalists would see the whole idea of engaging actively with bloggers as demeaning. Others might perceive a threat to their careers if greedy media proprietors decide to adopt an outsourced model for amateur content generation as a cost-saving measure enabling the number of paid journalists to be reduced. I suspect, however, that the opportunities generated by this larger civic ecology are much greater than the threats.
PS Jason Wilson, Barry Saunders and Axel Bruns have an excellent article examining the sort of “pro-am” journalism model that I’m exploring in this post. It reflects on their experiences with a research project which ran the www.Youdecide2007.org site in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election (presumably the funding didn’t run to keeping the site in existence after the project concluded, which is a pity).