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The future of global online journalism

(Update: Alfred Hermida blogs Vivian Schiller’s 7 reasons to be cheerful about journalism at Reportr.net.)

The evolution of networked global communication infrastructures is disrupting and changing delivery of news and the way journalists work. While some publishers have been wringing hands and tearing hair over the collapse of the business model for news publishing, others in the industry get that news, and news authority, will always be relevant, that there will always be a need and a market for informed delivery of and interpretation of facts. I just spent two days (Friday and Saturday, April 1st and 2nd) at the University of Texas’ 12th Annual Global Symposium on Online Journalism, organized by brilliant, forward-looking Professor Rosental Alves. After stewing in the juices of the future of journalism for two days, I’d like to summarize what I think I was hearing.

The future of journalism and the future of Internet are intimately related. The Internet has catalyzed a democratization of knowledge, and is (in my opinion) a force beyond our control, though there are enough discussions about controlling it in some way that I’m seeing discussions of substance about how to resist that control (which are interesting, but out of scope for this post). The democratization of knowledge and the evolution of social tools on the Internet are the two aspects of intense interest on my part that have led me to seemingly diverse projects and discussions involving futurism, politics, evolving markets, participatory medicine, and online journalism. While to some I may seem all over the map, I see a consistency in all of these: they’re all part of an Internet-driven evolution. Politics, marketing, healthcare, and journalism are all experiencing disruption and difficulty as the global online information infrastructure becomes increasingly pervasive and sophisticated.

(Notes:

1. This might be a good place to quote P.D. Ouspensky: “In order to understand a thing, you must see it s connection with some bigger subject, or bigger whole, and the possible consequences of this connection. Understanding is always the understanding of a smaller problem in relation to a bigger problem.”

2. I don’t see “democratization of knowledge” as an inherently wonderful thing. While I’m dedicated to open and distributed knowledge systems, I recognize the relevant issues: “a little knowledge can be dangerous,” “in the wrong hands, knowledge can be dangerous,” etc. I’m also committed to participatory or democratic systems, but with the understanding that they have significant issues – democracy doesn’t scale well, doesn’t necessarily result in the best actions or decisions for all, can be little better than “mob rule,” etc. We have to be thoughtful about these things, and attend to the down sides.)

Internet forces have undermined business models for publishing and news delivery – enough’s been said about that. The UT conference I attended looks beyond that disruption and focuses on the new reality of technology-mediated news dissemination and a new more symmetrical relationship of news organization with news reader. Readers have similar access to the means of production as news organizations, and have the expectation of an environment where they can readily provide feedback on news, if not participate in gathering and disseminationg news stories. Bloggers and small independents are breaking stories and conducting deep investigation. Journalism is becoming a partnership of the news professionals with their more or less informed audiences.

Here are some thoughts and questions I’m having, inspired by the conference (and to some extent by the Future of Journalism track at SXSW Interactive that I helped curate).

  • Today’s newsroom is a high technology operation. The new journalist understands code, and there’s a new breed of developer (in the hacks hackers, program or be programmed mode) who understands journalism well enough to be an effective partner in application development. In this context, there’s an evolution from “shovelware” to apps that effectively leverage diverse platforms, especially mobile platforms.
  • Will the web and the browser continue to be primary platform for news delivery, or will mobile apps be more prominent and effective? Or (more likely) are we looking at an ecosystem where both will be adopted and used? The web has advantages, including ubiquity, existing infrastructure, linkability, bookmarking and social tech.
  • How important are aggregation and curation vs reporting? Are aggregators practicing journalism, or “making sense of the Internet.”
  • Many publications are integrating social media, becoming more conversational. How well can conversations scale? Does this have a democratizing effect?
  • Revolution in Egypt wasn’t driven by social media alone, but also (if not more so) by Egypt’s independent press.
  • How polarized are we, how do we become less polarized, what is the relationship of news to politicization and polarization, and is there a relationship between polarization and credibility?
  • What is the impact of moving from a workflow heavily based on editing to real-time publishing models?
  • What’s the relationship of news to engagement? How can you both engage and scale?
  • New concept: “newsfulness,” or likelihood of a device to be used for news access.
  • Is public journalism a public good? Does it make more sense for investigative news organizations to be nonprofit rather than for-profit?
  • How do news organizations use, and monetize, Twitter?
  • “Gatejumping” vs gatekeeping. Twitter allows early gatekeepers to jump the gates, deliver news directly and immediately.
  • Do online journalists have more autonomy than their offline counterparts?
  • Open APIs catalyze developer communities, potentially bring new revenue potential, speed up internal and external product development.
  • How do news organizations keep up with increasing R&D demands with decreasing budgets?
  • What is the impact of pay walls, and how well will they succeed? What makes paywalls viable: scale still matters, but brand is back. Users are depending more on brand authority, advertisers are getting back to basics.

Link to my tweets from the conference.

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