by Milverton Wallace
The new Corinthians: How the Web is socialising journalism
The momentum of change is with the new Corinthians. The open source ethos and method of work/production, which began in the periphery with collaborative software development, is moving to centre stage by way of the blogging revolution and open standards in web services. In tagging, syndication, ranking and bookmarking we have the rudiments of a peer-to-peer trust, reputation and recommendation system well suited to self-regulating collaborative networks.
James Cameron (1911-1985), arguably the greatest British journalist of the last 100 years, always insisted that journalism is a craft. Now “craft” implies pride in work, integrity in dealing with customers, rites of passage, and long years of training to acquire the requisite skills/knowledge.
But that was then. Today, journalism is a “profession”. Many aspiring hacks now need a university or other accredited “qualification”, and, except in the Anglo-American world, a government issued licence to “qualify” as a journalist. In some countries you’re compelled by regulations to belong to a recognised association and to obey its code of standards in order to practice and earn a living as a journalist.
The march towards professionalism began with the rise of the mass media in the latter part of the 19th century, a development made possible by the invention of the rotary printing press, cheap papermaking from wood pulp, and mass literacy.
Cheap mass circulation newspapers gave proprietors the kind of political influence they never had before. The press was becoming an increasingly powerful social force, a counter-balance to big business and the state. However, this power was fragile. Corporations and governments resisted the press’s self-appointed role of watchdog and muckraker. But the press barons fought back.
In response to state and corporate resistance to openness and disclosure of information, they raised the banner of “the public’s right to know” as a fundamental democratic freedom. To counter charges of irresponsible reporting, journalists developed rigorous techniques for gathering, distilling and presenting information; and, to standardise these procedures and wrap them in an ethical framework, a normative model for reporting, carved in stone, was crafted: impartiality, objectivity, accuracy, transparency.
Thus was Cameron’s craft gradually “professionalised”, and, in the process, turned into an exclusive club with a privileged membership.
Today, this carefully constructed edifice is crumbling as the read/write web blows away the need to be a member of any such club to be able to practise journalism. Arguments about who is or isn’t a journalist is a sideshow, a pre-occupation mostly of self-styled guardians of truth. The inexorable fact is that the genie is out of the bottle and a significant number of “unqualified” people are “doing journalism” without permission from anyone.
So, let us accept that the “authorities” can no longer decide who is or isn’t a journalist. We have no choice. But we need to ask some crucial questions: Who will now enforce the rules and codes? What is to become of them? Should we care? Do we still need them? Are they “fit for purpose” in the digital age?
Digital media, and in particular, it’s social offsprings – social media such as blogs, vlogs, wikis, IM; social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, Tagworld, Orkut etc., and social bookmarking services such as Furl, Del.icio.us, DIGG, StumbleUpon, MyWeb – have enabled the amateurisation of the media. The barbarians have entered the gates. Is the empire on the verge of collapse?
Nowadays, the word “amateur” is being deployed by media professionals to belittle the media-making efforts of bloggers and others who create media productions outside the journalism guilds. Such reporting is deemed “unreliable”, “biased”, “subjective”; they are “unaccountable”, the facts and the sources “unverifiable”.
All of this must be puzzling to historians of the modern mass media. Consider the first newspaper in English, a translation of a Dutch coranto, printed in Amsterdam in December 1620 and exported to England. It began with an apology, a typographical error, a number of lies and disinformation. The apology appeared in the first line of the publication: “The new tydings out of Italie are not yet com”. The error (in spelling) was in the date: “The 2. of Decemember”. The lies? The dates of many events were brought forward to make the news appear fresher than they were. The disinformation? Many news items in the Dutch edition which might have displeased the English government were not translated for the English edition out of fear that the authorities would seize or ban the publication. Verily, a very unprofessional beginning!
And who were the “reporters” for the early periodical press? Postmasters, clergymen, sheriffs, burghers, shipping clerks, court officials, merchants, travellers. In a word, “amateurs”!
So now we’ve come full circle: from 17th /18th century amateurism, to 19th/20th century professionalism and back to amateurism in the 21st century.
Here we use “amateur” in the noble, Corinthian sense – someone or an activity motivated by love. And therein lies the problem. Amateur ethics, motivated by love, crashes against professional ethics, driven by commercial gain. Can they be reconciled?
The opposing principles characterising the amateur and professional worldviews may be summarised thus:
Play for love
Play to develop team spirit,
Cooperation, org skills
Fair play, the game’s the thing
Play for pay
Winning is everything
Play only to win
Zero sum game, win at all cost
However, the differences between 17th century amateur reporters and 21st century citizen journalists go beyond stark polarities. The former were contributors to the new media of their age but over whose operation, growth and development they had no influence or control; their 21st century counterparts, on the other hand, are contributors to a new media which they themselves are creating. What started out as people’s desire for unfiltered, independent self-expression is threatening to overthrow the old order in the world of media. How
The old media model was/is based on assembling disparate and varied information – news reports, share prices, weather reports, crosswords, classified ads, sports scores, horoscopes etc. and selling this ensemble to readers. Today that cornucopia is being unbundled: content is cut loose from the formal wrapper, messages from their media container. (Note the dire fate of newspaper classified ads, financial information, product reviews, real estate and job ads as they become Craiglisted and Monsterised).
This unbundling has serious implications for the economic foundation of the media business as we’ve known it. For the journalists employed in these institutions, two critical changes, among many, stand out: their roles as gatekeepers between you and the world outside your window is irrevocably undermined and the line between themselves as producers of “tydings” and the former audience as consumers has become blurred.
There’s a big misconception among professional journalists that the new media is about news. Wrong. It’s about self-expression, it’s about participating in defining and shaping the information/communication environments in which we live. The various forms of digital media – blogging, podcasting, social bookmarking and networking etc – are merely the means and the channels for achieving this. An entire generation – call them the digital natives or the new Corinthians – is creating an open, collaborative, networked communications infrastructure in opposition to the closed, top down, hierarchical traditional media organisations which have dominated the media universe since the 19t century.
Demanding that these digital natives adhere to old methods of discovering and learning about the world won’t do. They’re crafting their own methods, thank you very much. Ten years ago Slashdot, Kuro5hin and others pioneered peer-to-peer coverage of technology. Stories gained credibility through the trust and reputation of peers. Digg has added collaborative filtering via powerful algorithms; Del.icio.us lets you organise the world via shared social taxonomies. Even some of the backend functions of the news business have been socialised: Wikipedia for reference, Answers.com for expert sources, Flickr for pictures.
All these new ways of understanding, making and managing media are only a specific case of the mass participatory culture made possible by digital technology. All of a sudden, unprecedented numbers of people can express themselves and connect with each other on a global scale. And here’s a salient feature of this mass participation: it’s organised activity without a central organisation. More precisely, it’s a self-organised collaborative endeavour in which people combine their ideas, knowledge, talents, skills without an hierarchy controlling and co-ordinating their activities.
Confronted by a disruptive technology, process or service, the disrupted party has only a limited number of responses: they can ignore it – not a viable choice for survival; they can try to destroy it – this is the “kill the messenger” option which may destroy the messenger (e.g. Napster) but fail to kill the message (i.e. file sharing); they can posit competitive offerings – but note the fate of newspaper “facsimile editions” versus RSS; or they can co-opt or embrace the new – note media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s “Damascene conversion” and his subsequent moves in the digital media space.
It is hard for a mature, long-dominant culture to make radical changes to its ideology and practice. And that’s why many newspaper groups still cling to the command and control model even as their businesses head for the butchers4 and their customers “head into the cemetery”. Bold and adventurous though he is, Rupert Murdoch has only chosen co-optation (buying the number one social networking service MySpace); however, full embrace of the new world is a revolutionary step, a rupture in the old order. Anyone doubting the difficulty of such a move need only look at the upheavals and dislocations being experienced by the UK’s Telegraph Groups as it re-engineers it news gathering/reporting processes towards a networked journalism model.
The momentum of change is with the new Corinthians. The open source ethos and method of work/production, which began in the periphery with collaborative software development, is moving to centre stage by way of the blogging revolution and open standards in web services. In tagging, syndication, ranking and bookmarking we have the rudiments of a peer-to-peer trust, reputation and recommendation system well suited to self-regulating collaborative networks. These could be taken as analogous, but not identical to, the “checks and balances” of traditional journalism, but we shouldn’t belabour the points of difference too much.
In mainstream media “editorial authority” is concentrated in the hands of a single, all-powerful person whereas in social media it is distributed among many voices. This could be seen as a weakness and critics point to it as the Achilles heel of Web journalism. Yet in many instances, the networked world, e.g. the blogosphere, has proven to be much better (and quicker) at correcting errors, falsity, lies and distortions than the mainstream media.
As the number of people who participate in open, collaborative, networked communications increases, the veracity of messages will improve and the need for corporate gatekeepers and standards-setters will decrease. Will we all become Corinthians then?
[copyright 2006 Milverton Wallace]
1) See http://tinyurl.com/ykdalv
2) Mitchell Stephens, A History of News. Wadsworth Publishing. 1996.
3) “Speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors”
4) Vin Crosbie, “A Date with the Butcher” (http://tinyurl.com/ljjh3)
5) “Buffett: Newspapers are ‘a business in permanent decline’ “
6) Tim O’Reilly, “The Architecture of Participation”
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