For the next 48 hours, I’m in LA, where it’s sunny, warm and basically impossible to park your car… which is only a problem because you need a car to get anywhere. I think I’d trade 20 farenheight degrees for functional public transit.
I’m at the USC Annenberg Center, attending a conference cohosted by Annenberg and the Berkman Center. The conference is the brainchild of my friend and colleague Persephone Miel, who is managing the Media Re:pubic project, a careful, close look at the benefits and limitations of citizen media.
That’s more or less the subject of this event – a skeptical look at participatory media and its impact on the rest of the media landscape. Ernie Wilson, the new dean of the Annenberg Center, sets the stage by encouraging us to be “extremely positive and extremely skeptical.” He wonders whether we’ve seen evidence yet that social media and related phenomena are leading to the outcomes we care about – more to the point, it’s extremely unclear that increased connectivity correlates to increased democracy. (He references Open Networks, Closed Regimes, a book that looks closely at the affect of internet access on China.)
Wilson invites us to consider four epistemic communities: traditional print media, the emerging digital media community, the public broadcasting community and commercial media. What do each of these communities think about the changes in the media landscape and democracy?
The print journalists, he tells us, argue, “Newspapers are the bedrock of democracy. Newspapers are dying. American democracy is in grave danger.” The digital media folks are a bit more optimistic, pointing out that digital media is creating new ways to connect, making it possible for new forms of democratic relationships to emerge. The public broadcasting folks are insistent that non-commercial media space is essential to democracy’s survival. And the commercial folks often think, “Democracy is a good thing, in principle… but I’m too busy to think about democracy – let me think about what I need to pay attention to,” the need to run a sustainable business.
Wilson tells us that all these views are inaccurate, and that all are right. The challenge we face is figuring out what each of us does about it.
Elspeth Revere is one of the people who needs to figure out what to do about it. She’s the head of the General Program at the MacArthur Foundation, the program that supports media work. Traditionally, MacArthur has funded public media. But the foundation is very interested how digital media has shifted the landscape.
MacArthur has funded research on intellectual property, and has recently focused on “digital natives”, people who understand technologies in a deeper, more fundamental way because they’re literally growing up with them. She and others are studying questions of credibility and believability online, wondering how one decides to seek out believable information online. And MacArthur is fascinated with the idea of individuals as media producers, and questions of who isn’t choosing to produce media.
With Berkman, MacArthur is trying to figure out this new media landscape – Miel’s work on Media Re:Public is funded by MacArthur, and John Palfrey of the Berkman Center notes that it’s very forward-looking for MacArthur to be investigating these questions in public, rather than behind closed foundation doors.
Our “keynote speaker” – or resident provocateur – is Richard Sambrook, the director of BBC’s global news division, responsible for a set of properties which includes BBC’s World Service, probably the world’s most important news broadcaster in terms of pure reach. He’s an excellent blogger, sharing insights gleaned from BBC’s media monitoring services as well as his perspectives on traditional and new media.
Sambrook’s talk is titled, “How Participatory Media Has and Hasn’t Changed the News”, and he begins by rolling the clock back to the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility conference held by Berkman (organized by Rebecca MacKinnon). He reminds us that Jay Rosen declared, “Blogging versus journalism is over, and the forces of denial are in retreat” – a proof that a good soundbyte never dies. “It’s remarkable how different the world was in 2005″ – since then, we’ve seen social networks have a major impact on the digital world, and seen a text-based web get significantly more dynamic with video and audio.
This change has led to a change in the way of thinking at media companies. “The phase of denial is over – the future is moving online.” There are now over 100 podcasts available on the BBC. There are blogs on the Washington post, though they rarely link out. The Guardian just won an award fo TV journalism. But very little of this innovation is participatory.
That said, there’s great enthusiasm around citizen journalism and user-generated content. “It’s become a marketing tool – you must talk about being open to contributions from the public.” He offers a framework for citizen media:
- Sharing of experience. We’re seeing reports from the ground in Tibet or Burma. This is a pretty old idea, though – news networks have always always interviewed eyewitnesses.
- Sharing opinion. Blogs are very good at this, but mainstream media has been quite poor at incorporating it. It’s actually something mainstream media has done in the past, using phone-ins, but somehow, it hasn’t happened well with blogs.
- Sharing of discovery. News breaks on the net, sometimes, and can be picked up by mainstream media.
- Sharing of expertise, which points to more sophisticated models of networked journalism.
Sambrook reminds us that “participation is a minority sport” – despite excitement over this medium, most people are passive consumers, not participants. He tells us about a BBC project, a river trip in Bangladesh, designed to focus on communities that may be eliminated due to climate change. The stories were translated into 17 languages for broadcast on audio and video. Photos from the trip were seen by at least 50,000 people on Twitter. But only 26 people ended up following the trip via Twitter. This might serve as a reality check for cyberenthusiasts… which include Sambrook, who’s a regular Twitter user.
Part of the problem is figuring out what the right combination of technologies are. He references a Namibian journalist, who helped him understand the relationship between radio and telephones in her country. “The most popular radio program in Namibia are the death notices.” People broadcast news of deaths and funeral announcements, “using the radio like a telephone.” It makes sense, because funerals are the most important social obligations, ways for people to network and build ties with one another.
All media finds itself in a state of revolution right now. You used to be able to sell a record by getting a song on the air, getting a video on MTV, then shipping discs to stores. Now, record companies have to execute 25 steps at the same time – ringtones, downloads, music blogs. “It’s just what happens. And there’s something similar in journalism – it’s fragmenting.”
Providers of journalism are transforming themselves. The Guardan is transforming from a newspaper to a global digital content platform… without really working out the revenue model. The paper’s boss has declared a strategy of “invest… and hope.”
This hope can be in the face of some difficult numbers. A senior manager at the New York Times argues that “demand has never been greater” for quality journalism, pointing to the 17 million people who use the Times website every month. But while NewYorkTimes.com turns a profit of about $100 million a year, it’s nowhere near what’s required to run the Times newsroom.
The BBC is looking for new forms of community involvement, inviting people who watch Newsnight to help set the day’s new agenda. And he’s optimistic that individuals and companies will be “the new creatives” – a group innovating especially around video journalism. The caution is that most of this innovation has been pretty un-newsworthy so far. “There’s Seesmic, a video blogging service, where you can see Loic Le Meur three times a day tell you how wonderful his life is.” The technology is great stuff, but people have to step away from their webcams and into the real world. Once people are streaming video from mobile phones at places where news is taking place, the equation will change radically.
Another form of public participation is likely to be as curators. He points out that DJ’s are now as respected as musicians, choosing the appropriate content for the correct time. This may start hapening on the web as the semantic web becomes a reality, allowing people to find the information they want, when they want it, and remix it into their own curated collections.
He leaves us with a series of questions:
- How do we invite participation so that media becomes more of a public dialog?
- What are the new metrics we use to measure attention in a new media universe?
- Can big media really adjust to this new world of increased acces, new competition and new business models? Can they do it without losing their social purpose?