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More questions than answers

April 4, 2008

Media:Republic logoI was invited to a gathering of activists, academics and media practitioners by the Berkman Centre’s Media:Republic program in LA last weekend. Exhilarating to be in such exalted company but depressing to find them so anxious about the future of political engagement and so negative about big Media’s future.

The context of the meeting was to establish what we don’t understand about the emerging media landscape in order to inform the direction of future research programmes.

So, in the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld, what do we know that we don’t know?

How distributed can the production of meaning be?
An academic question from John Zittrain of Berkman but very much with real world concerns in mind. He’s worried about where the atomisation of media consumption and production will take society. In an elitist world, one in which communication channels (including media) are controlled by the few, then it is relatively easy to see how the politics of consensus and compromise can be pursued. But many felt that the new social technologies were creating new silos, reducing the quality of public discourse, accelerating disengagement from politics and, possibly, creatng the conditions for extremist politics.

How can we get the public to eat their broccoli?
Traditionally, nearly all media has followed a public service remit to some degree and mixed content with public policy relevance with the really popular stuff. So you get a smattering of Darfur in a diet of domestic news, celebrity and sports. But that only works when publishers control the medium.

I know I wasn’t the only one to squirm as David Weinberger, co-author of the seminal Cluetrain Manifesto, described how increasingly anachronistic the Big Media model of editors deciding what it was appropriate for readers to read was beginning to seem. What seemed to worry this group more than anything else was that if consumers control their ‘DailyMe’ — a personalised news service — then how will the public service stuff get through?

Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation gave some great context when he said, “More and more people are sharing experiences. That means there are fewer shared experiences. Journalism has prospered for centuries because it created shared experiences that I will call community.” He thought that journalists would prosper if they used new social technology to rebuild shared experiences.

What is the future for journalists?

The most interesting exchange I heard came in a session on the nature of journalism in 2013, in which Global Voices’ Solana Larson suggested that the BBC’s model of parachuting in white men to cover the rest of the world was looking increasingly anachronistic . She predicted that by 2013 that there would be no foreign correspondents in the sense of outsiders coming to make sense of a foreign country.

Richard Sambrook, Global Head of BBC News , rather disarmingly agreed, saying the future would be all about ‘authenticity’ — a notion that seemed to underpin much of the event’s discussions but not a word that I ever heard repeated.

At the same time there was a feeling that citizen media hadn’t really delivered on its promise of a couple of years ago. Ethan Zuckerman , a Berkman fellow and co-founder of Global Voices, who probably knows more about this than anyone else, summarized the situation as one in which bloggers took their cue from mainstream media and added that this was a global phenomenom not just true of the States.

Despite pessimism about Big Media’s future and the pefrormance of Citizen Media, a straw poll of those present showed near unanimity in the view that the future was bright for journalism. So how do you square this circle? There wasn’t a huge amount of discussion but the notion of ‘networked journalism’ with professionals working closely with amateurs and experts was one that was mentioned. And when someone said that the most interesting presentations of the meeting — BBC, Global Voices and ProPublica — were all from non-profit organisations, there was much sage nodding.

Is there a conflict between personalised online experiences and privacy?

Manuel Castells of the University of Southern California gave a much discussed speech in which he questioned whether our freedom was being commoditised in the sense that by giving service providers details of ourselves we get more personalised and therefore more useful services but we give up a certain amount of privacy.

Obviously, Facebook has brought these concerns to the fore. But there are myriad ways in which personal data is being captured and used (and sold). How long would it be before just using the phone would mean being subjected to a personalised 30 second advert, asked one speaker? (It’s already happening with one UK mobile phone carrier apparently.)

Public sector bias?

At times the lofty academic analysis left me feeling bamboozled but I found comfort in social media in the form of other participants’ Twitter and chatroom messages as they swapped virtual notes on what they liked and what confused them.

And now, several days later and after reviewing some of the more thoughtful blogs compiled by Media:Republic, I’m struck by the analysis of two fellow London-based attendees who both detected a defeatist attitude amongst the U.S. participants about the ability for commercial media to compete in this new world.

Neil McIntosh of the Guardian looked at the Los Angeles Times and wondered whether its failure to use the kind of presentational tricks used by European media to make news more palatable might be one explanation for its problems. Charlie Beckett of the thinktank Polis thinks an era of super-competition requires a smarter approach from mainstream media and advocates ‘networked journalism’ — the blending of professionals and amateurs/experts — to herald a more participatory form of journalism.

I like my compatriots’ optimism. I still worry that what I think is ‘good’ will turn out to be uneconomic in this new world.


It’s the Internet. Big media has no choice. The Internet is here to stay and it’s “scooping” it’s way along. In the past the news was controllable. Today, before you hear about it never mind read about it the web is overflowing with it. I wonder why I’m watching the news when every thing said is referenced to some site on the Internet.

There are a few things on the web that are hung in big media’s desire to control the news throat. I would give an example but I don’t want to get censored.


What does it say about the American value system, when people complain, denigrate and chastize medical professionals for high fees, yet, revere, worship and readily spend money supporting Hollywood and sports stars whose incomes dwarf any medical professional’s?
When your spouse or child falls ill with a life threatening disease, is it the Hollywood or sports star that is there to bring them back to good health and save their life?


Excellent article. Thanks.


“What does it say about the American value system, when people complain, denigrate and chastize medical professionals for high fees, yet, revere, worship and readily spend money supporting Hollywood and sports stars whose incomes dwarf any medical professional’s?”

excellent point, values have been distorted for a long time.


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