Earlier today I did a brief drop in phone interview on CPAC’s Goldhawk Live. The topic was “Have social media and technology changed the way Canadians get news?” and Christoper Waddell, the Director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Chris Dornan, Director of Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger School of Public Affairs were Goldhawk’s panel of experts.
Watching the program prior to being brought in I couldn’t help but feel I live on a different planet from many who talk about the media. Ultimately, the debate was characterized by a reactive, negative view on the part of the mainstream media supporters. To them, threats are everywhere. The future is bleak, and everything, especially democratic institutions and civilization itself teeter on the edge. Meanwhile social media advocates such as myself are characterized as delusional techno-utopians. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Indeed, both sides share a lot in common. What distinguishes though, is that while traditionalists are doom and gloom, we are almost defined by the sense of the possible. New things, new ideas, new approaches are becoming available every day. Yes, there will be new problems, but there will also be new possibilities and, at least, we can invent and innovate.
I’m just soooooo tired of the doom and gloom. It really makes one want to give up on the main stream media (like many, many, many people under 30 have). But, we can’t. We’ve got to save these guys from themselves – the institutions and the brands matter (I think). So, in that pursuit, let’s tackle the beast head on, again.
Last, night the worse offender was Goldhawk, who tapped into every myth that surrounds this debate. Let’s review them one by one.
Myth 1: The average blog is not very good – so how can we rely on blogs for media?
For this myth, I’m going to first pull a little from Missing the Link, now about to be published as a chapter in a journalism textbook called “The New Journalist”:
The qualitative error made by print journalists is to assume that they are competing against the average quality of online content. There may be 1.5 million posts a day, but as anyone whose read a friend’s blog knows, even the average quality of this content is poor. But this has lulled the industry into a false sense of confidence. As Paul Graham describes: “In the old world of ‘channels’ (e.g. newspapers) it meant something to talk about average quality, because that’s what everyone was getting whether they liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. Consequently, print media isn’t competing against the average quality of online writing, they’re competing against the best writing online…Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality are missing an important point. No one reads the average blog.”
You know what though, I’m going to build on that. Goldhawk keeps talking about the average blog or average twitterer (which of course, no one follows, we all follow big names, like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly). But you know what? They keep comparing the average blog to the best newspapers. The fact is, even the average newspaper sucks. The Globe represents the apex of the newspaper industry in Canada, not the average, so stop using it as an example. To get the average, go into any mid-sized town and grab a newspaper. It won’t be interesting. Especially to you – an outsider. It will have stories that will appeal to a narrow audience, and even then, many of these will not be particularly well written. More importantly still, there will little, and likely no, investigative journalism – that thing that allegedly separates blogs from newspapers. Indeed, even here in Vancouver, a large city, it is frightening how many times press releases get marginally touched up and then released as “a story.” This is the system that we are afraid of losing?
Myth 2: How will people sort good from low quality news?
I always love this myth. In short, it presumes that the one thing the internet has been fantastic at developing – filters – simple won’t evolve in a part of the media ecosystem (news) where people desperately want them. At best, this is naive. At worse, it is insulting. Filters will develop. They already have. Twitter is my favourite news filter – I probably get more news via it than any other source. Google is another. Nothing gets you to a post or article about a subject you are interested in like a good (old-fashioned?) google search. And yes, there is also going to be a market for branded content – people will look for that as short cut for figuring out what to read. But please people are smarter than you think at finding news sources.
Myth 3: People lack media savvy to know good from low quality news.
I love the elitist contempt the media industry sometimes has towards its readers. But, okay, let’s say this is true. Then the newspapers and mainstream media have only themselves to blame. If people don’t know what good news is, it is because they’ve never seen it (and by and large, they haven’t). The most devastating critique on this myth is actually delivered by one of my favourite newspaper men: Kenneth Whyte is his must listen-to Dalton Camp Lecture on journalism. In it Whyte talks about how, in the late 19th and early 20th century NYC had dozens and dozens of newspapers that fought for readership and people were media savvy, shifting from paper to paper depending on quality and perspective. That all changed with consolidation and a shift from paying for content to advertising for content. Advertisers want staid, plain, boring newspapers with big audiences. This means newspapers play to the lowest common denominator and are market oriented to be boring. It also leaves them beholden to corporate interests (when was the last time the Vancouver Sun really did a critical analysis of the housing industry – it’s biggest advertisement source?). If people are not media savvy it is, in part, because the media ecosystem demands so little of them. I suspect that social media can and will change this. Big newspapers may be what we know, but they may not be good for citizenship or democracy.
Myth 4: There will be no good (and certainly no investigative) journalism with mainstream media.
Possible. I think the investigative journalism concern is legitimate. That said, I’m also not convinced there is a ton of investigative journalism going on. There may also be more going on in the blogs than we might know. It could be that these stories a) don’t get prominence and b) even when they do, often newspapers don’t cite blogs, and so a story first broken by a blog may not be attributed. But investigative journalism comes in different shapes and sizes. As I wrote in one of my more viewed posts, The Death of Journalism:
I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.
I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.
And finally, Myth 5: People only read stories that confirm their biases.
Rather than Goldhawk it was Christopher Waddell who kept bringing this point up. This problem, sometimes referred to as “the echo chamber” effect is often cited as a reason why online media is “bad.” I’d love to know Waddell’s sources (I’m confident he has some – he is very sharp). I’ve just not seen any myself. Indeed, Andrew Potter recently sent me a link to “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline.” What is it? A peer reviewed study that found no evidence the Internet is becoming more ideologically segregated. And the comparison is itself deeply flawed. How many conservatives read the Globe? How many liberals read the National Post? I love the idea that somehow main stream media doesn’t ideologically segregate an audience. Hasn’t any looked at Fox or MSNBC recently?
Ultimately, it is hard to watch (or participate) in these shows without attributing all sorts of motivations to those involved. I keep feeling like people are defending the status quo and trying to justify their role in the news ecosystem. To be fair, it is a frightening time to be in media.
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
And I refuse to lie. It sucks to be a newscaster or a journalist or a columnist. Especially if you are older. Forget about the institutions (they’ve already been changing) but the culture of newsmedia, which many employed in the field cling strongly to, is evolving and changing. That is a painful process, especially to those who have dedicated their life to it. But that old world was far from perfect. Yes, the new world will have problems, but they will be new problems, and there may yet be solutions to them, what I do know is that there aren’t solutions to the old problems in the old system and frankly, I’m tired of those old problems. So let’s get on with it. Be critical, but please, stop spreading the myths and the fear mongering.