Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Media Re:public – what’s broken in journalism, and can citizen media help fix it?

My friend and colleague Persephone Miel presented her recent research as part of the Media Re:public project, a research effort sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation to study the role of citizen media in the larger universe of news and journalism.

Persephone explains that this effort follows a 2005 conference at Berkman, organized by Rebecca MacKinnon (friend and co-founder of Global Voices) titled Blogging, Journalism and Credibility. The conclusion of that conference, she reminds us, was that “Bloggers versus journalists is dead.”

That said, Persephone’s skeptical about citizen media, coming from a long history of work in professional media, especially with Internews, a nonprofit that focuses on building and strengthening professional media. When she was invited to address the question of how citizen media is affecting news, she thought, “That sounds like ‘What’s the community gardening movement mean for world hunger?'” Her stance has softened somewhat, but she begins her presentation with a quote from Joseph Pulitzer:

If a newspaper is to be of real service to the public, it must have a big circulation, first because its news and comment must reach the largest possible number of people, second because circulation means advertising, and advertising means money, and money means independence.

Examining the media landscape, including both “old” (professional, corporate, offline) and “new” (amateur, online, blog-based) media, she offers seven insights for the future.

Old media are broken. They’ve been designed for a world of scarcity, and they’re now living in a world of abundance, a place where content is infinitely reproducable at low or no cost, and where anyone can create content. It’s not so much the journalism that’s broken, but a scarcity-based, ad-supported model that’s broken. Publishers wake up in the middle of the night asking, “How do I not end up like the record companies?”

Bloggers didn’t break old media. Actually, she argues, legacy media is doing pretty well. More people watch 60 minutes every week than read The Huffington Post in a month… and lots of content on Huffington Post is taken directly from the AP wires. Of the top 30 news sites on the web, only one is purely web-based (Slate) and none are what we’d traditionally consider citizen media.

Bloggers won’t fix old media. Participatory media are louder, faster, funnier, but not necessarily likely to fix the problems with professional media. As professional media does less and less “difficult” journalism – international and deep investigative work, in-depth reporting in certain areas – blogs aren’t necessarily picking up the slack.

There’s a million things we can try. We can experiment with networked reporting, with new editorial structures, with partnerships between professional and amateurs.

But we probably won’t. Legacy media is focused on the bottom line. Journalists are becoming more like bloggers, but often in bad ways. Civic-minded projects (like mine, I’m guessing) ignore how people really consume media. Amateur investigative journalism isn’t easy, and crowdsourcing is really hard to do well. We’d hope that public broadcasters would lead us into the promised land, but they apparently live in their own world.

Unless you help.

Cross-polinate so 1000 hybrid flowers bloom. We’ve got to try a wide variety of models and ask hard, rigorous questions about what we discover with these models to see what might work in the future.

Persephone sees five major challenges facing the media world in a citizen media age:

– Market failure. The disruption of the existing advertising business has caused newspapers to shift their original reporting. (For instance, we’re seeing far more local and hyperlocal reporting, and much less international and national news.)

– Market failure, part two. Web-native media aren’t addressing the gaps in reporting left by the retreat of traditional media.

– Making it up as we go along. We don’t really know what we’re doing, and we’re inventing without understanding the problems we’re trying to solve. As a result, our solutions aren’t meeting empirical needs.

– Credibility is more of an issue than ever. In both professional and amateur journalism, we’re looking for information that’s both credibile and comprehensive.

– Democracy is a relative term. The ease of access to publishing platforms isn’t changing the fact that certain publics are not well represented in the citizen media space.

Persephone throws in a warning that our obsession with measurement can be a bad thing in the media space. Newspaper companies are looking very closely at user behavior, and they’re profoundly aware of content that isn’t widely read or forwarded. They’re also very aware that advertising that looks like advertising is ignored by users – people are much more likely to value advertising that looks like content. Will this lead to a temptation to blur lines between content and advertising? (Persephone points to the Washington Post’s “International Spotlights” section, which looks a great deal like professional content but is wholly advertising-driven.)

Her research suggests four responses to these circumstances.

– We need deeper and more nuanced understanding of how news consumption is changing. (More research. Always something research organizations like the Berkman Center like to suggest as a future direction.)

– We need to consolidate collective expertise to strenthen media entities serving new niches.

– We should prioritize investment in institutions that build bridges between information and publics.

– We should focus public service journalism on underrepresented populations and issues.

With that, she opens the subject for discussion.

A representative of Open Media Boston explains that he’s trying to do exactly what Persephone proposes here – media focused on underserved communities, with an emphasis on journalistic values and a susicion of corporate support. Persephone wonders whether such media will find an audience.

An audience member who works with NPR raises The Daily Show as an example of how media can engage new audiences on important topics. Persephone draws a parallel to The Gothamist, which does “meta-coverage” on a wide variety of New York City issues, pointing to coverage in mainstream media and using local reporters to flesh out stories.

Chris, one of our new fellows, argues that what The Daily Show does is actually pretty difficult – the show maintains a huge set of Tivo recorders and relies on tools like Lexis/Nexis to produce this content. He calls for open tools to allow for video search to allow everyone to build content like that produced by Jon Stewart and his crew.

There are several questions and conversations about objectivity. Should we worry about the death of objectivity in a digital age? What’s wrong with getting news from advocates of particular issues if they’re doing a responsible job of reporting? Persephone’s less worried about this than some other problems, arguing that an emphasis on transparency and fairness is showing itself in some new media as well as in old media.

I offered my predictable “supply and demand” rant – if media outlets are better at measuring audience sentiment and if audiences aren’t demanding deep or international coverage, how are we ever going to make the case for quality journalism online? Persephone arguest that we need to reinvent audience research. What we’re getting is more and more refined versions of the last story that captured eyeballs, much in the way Hollywood turns out sequels of successful movies. What we don’t get is information on what people might be interested in if it was presented to them, or presented in an interesting way.

Much of the discussion ends up focusing on the idea of a “surgeon general” who determines what people should and should not be paying attention to. I think my understanding of this term is basically that it’s another way of saying “gatekeeper” – someone who’s making decisions about what someone should read – though we may be discussing this in terms of an algorithm, instead of an individual. I tried to make the point that I’m less interested in a surgeon general than in transparency, letting people make a decision about what newspaper to read based on how much interntional news they have, rather than ordering people to consume 30% international a week.

It was a lively debate, and it’s clear that Persephone’s research opens up at least as many questions as it puts to rest, which is often the mark of extremely important new work.

3 Responses to “Media Re:public – what’s broken in journalism, and can citizen media help fix it?”

  1. EZ – You manage to make my talk sound more focused than it was! Great having you there for the discussion. FYI I threw the Pulitzer quote in there originally planning to mention that I spent 12 years spreading the gospel around the world, especially in Russia and other former Soviet places that ad-supported media was the best model for independent journalism, but now feel I was wrong!

    Pulitzer also the epitome of everything that is both wrong and right with US commercial news media. Made his money printing crap then established the prize that arguably has had a significant impact on the existence of quality reporting in US.

    I think your book and my paper face a similar challenge in how to “study” absence rather than presence and talk about what we think should exist. Always grateful for your input.

  2. Lateef says:

    Great post. Persephone, I am particularly motivated to spend resources on your suggestion for a focus on disenfranchised and/or ‘underrepresented’ communities. I think that this sort of grass roots involvement will set up a strong foundation for the next generation of public media; especially, with the gaps growing between rich & poor as well as the technical divide.

  3. Laura Lindamood says:

    Thanks for this fantastic summary – I’m eager to see Persephone’s finished research. I’m very interested in the idea of re-thinking audience research, because it does seem (depressingly so) that many people don’t demand quality news, or seek out the sources that do it well.

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