June 13 11am. Reading up yesterday and pondering the journalistic rush to monetize content, I found some refreshingly frank language from former Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll about the crisis of journalism. Setting the stage for Coll at the May 26 U.S. Senate Hearing on the future of journalism was former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, who spoke of the evisceration of newspaper journalism in the 1990’s by profit-hungry Wall Street and of journalism’s subsequent further erosion by the Internet and the global economic crisis. In his testimony, Coll said that journalism will develop new and adequate business models, but
How long it may take for . . . [viable] business models to emerge is simply unknown. It could be five years; it could be fifteen; it is unlikely to be twenty-five. In the meantime, we face the prospect of a lost generation of American journalism and the collapse of its civic function – and at a time when the country is facing a grave economic crisis; inflective changes in government activity in response to that crisis; and a complex international scene where American power, lives and treasure are at risk. [bold italics mine]
What Should Congress Do?
In this narrative of the crisis of journalism lies a definition of the public interest that should frame and galvanize Congressional attention. At issue here is a sudden disruptive, shock-producing transition from journalism’s old, dying order to a rising, new one. Congress should consider how it might review and reshape the policies it already oversees to reinforce a stronger bridge from the old order to the new one – a bridge constructed to serve the public interest.
Coll made several recommendations to Congress about this bridge, but none of these, he said, would solve journalism’s root problem even if enacted. The root problem, he said, centers on the inability of print journalism to serve the public interest in a digital age. And here a question arises that Coll didn’t address: have cash-strapped journalists, in their rush to monetize content (at the expense of online content aggregators and/or end users), lost sight of journalism’s long-term civic responsibility to the public interest? This seems to me to be the case. Yet logically preceding this question is a simple insight: the drive to monetize content (increasingly at the expense of the end-user) is, to begin with, a non-starter or a dead-end even as a business proposition.
Why? The reason is hidden in plain view. It’s staring us in the face. The advent of interactive media technologies ensures – guarantees – that Americans will no longer be passive readers or viewers of the news. They will be active and transformative users of it. In the future, the value of content – what users are willing to pay for content – will be a function of the ability of content users to use content proactively in ways that meet their needs, the needs of their communities and the needs of the country as a whole.
In the age of print journalism, journalism’s civic functi0n was relatively simple. It centered on its responsibility to inform citizens (a watchdog function was added as citizens saw the need for investigative journalism). It is common knowledge that in a future driven by real-time interactive technologies, citizens will no longer passively receive information, they will actively use it to interact, constructively or otherwise, with government. Journalism’s civic function will therefore be more complex, more delicate. Journalism will have the responsibility of facilitating the most beneficial possible outcomes of the new, real-time interactions among citizens (e.g. between Democrats and Republicans) and between citizens and government. Journalism won’t merely inform citizens about the actions of their governments, as in the past, it will undertake to impartially mediate the relationships among citizens and between citizens and government.
THEREFORE journalism’s best and most profitable future is intrinsically civic. It lies in a successful transition from an informing medium to a mediating medium. It lies in journalism’s ability
- To empower and enable all Americans – citizens and politicians – to use news information wisely at local, state and national levels so as to improve the lives of citizens, communities and the nation as a whole.
- To help Americans use the news to solve problems, resolve conflicts and maximize opportunities.
- To empower citizens and elected leaders to be responsive and accountable to each other (as President Obama and John McCain keep telling us).
These digital-age journalistic axioms “are so self-evident that no explanation can make them plainer.” These are the fighting words of Thomas Jefferson, writing three years before his death in 1826 about the right of one generation not to be bound “the laws or contracts” of a preceding generation. As Jefferson said in this letter, “the world belongs to the living, not the dead.”
So then: why are media companies even talking about monetizing content? Forget content! It’s time to invent and monetize mediating journalistic platforms that are worthy of American democracy and the amazing interactive communications technologies we’ve just invented.
The great opportunity for journalists today is to design and implement the mediating , solution-oriented platforms that will enable all Americans, citizens and politicians, to put to good use the new and vastly enhanced (because problem-solving) value of news information.
America, as President Obama keeps telling us, must become a nation of problem-solvers in order to survive. It’s that simple. Yet frightened journalists and media execs are so blinded by the headlights of their near-term financial woes – and so tied to outmoded, somewhat elitist journalistic mindsets – that they have yet to see the new and incredibly more beneficial role that solution-oriented journalism will play – has already begun to play – in giving all Americans an informed voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
Evidence for this blindness? Here’s what I learned about five important meetings of journalists – four in Chicago, one in Washington, three down and two to come – that powerfully depict, for my money, the frozen mindset of American journalism. Thanks to the diligent Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader for doing most of detective work for me.
- The Feb 22 Chicago Journalism Town Hall on which Whet Moser and Michael Miner, both of the Chicago Reader, gave excellent accounts.
- The May 6 “Future of Journalism: Communications, technology and the Internet“ held in Washington D.C. by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and transportation Here’s the full CNBC telecast. The hearing was chaired by Sen John Kerry. with testimony from Google V.P. Marissa Mayer (** needlessly self-serving), Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen (**** some crucial points, especially about universal access) and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon (**** invaluable history of Wall Street’s 1990’s emasculation of newsmedia), former Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll (***** a strong voice, quoted above, for a journalistic paradigm in the public interest), Dallas Morning News Publisher/CEO James Maroney (* old media mindset, help save me!) and Ariana Huffington (** “we aggregators aren’t the problem” a little self-serving, she’s had much better days).
- The May 28 meeting in Chicago of two dozen newspaper execs sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America. This is fairly alarmingFormer Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief James Warren, now blogging at the Atlantic Monthly, has an insightful piece on this important and somewhat covert meeting. Rick Edmonds at Poynter Online summarizes the 31 page report prepared for this meeting by the American Press Institute (check out the huge dollar sign). Mike Miner writes that the API report “calls on papers to shift ‘from an advertising-centered to an audience-centered enterprise,’ and the sooner the better.” He also wrote about the May 28 meeting at the tail end of his May 28 blog post. Finally, Zach Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab discusses Steve Brill’s possibly successful pitch at the meeting to bring editors into Journalism Online, his planned platform for reader-monetized newspaper content.
- The Saturday June 13 2009 Chicago Media Future Conference at Columbia College. Mike Miner discusses it here. At this site, we’ve already discussed it here. I’ll be attending, perhaps advancing a civic media platform developed back in 1997 on the far West Side Austin neighborhood and called the West Side Drug Area Shutdown Project, or Shutdown Project for short.
- The Sept 21-23 2009 Chicago Convergence proposes to give area “creative industries” the chance to collaborate about new ventures in technology, interactive media, social change and the arts; digital expressions of ideas with global scale.”
A final thought from Alberto Ibarguen of the Knight Foundation, testifying at the May 6 U. S. Senate hearing:
[The] question is not, of course, how to save the newspaper and broadcast news industries. It is a matter of ensuring that the information needs of communities in a democracy are met to a sufficient degree that the people might, as Jack Knight put it, be informed so they might “determine their own true interests.”
I confess to great qualms about the role of government in this arena.
At the moment, I confess to sharing Ibarguen’s doubts, and to having doubts as well about the journalistic vision of most all members of the news media. Thank God for Rick Telander’s column on the Olympics and Chicago politics in today’s Sun-Times. Best piece I’ve seen since Royko.
To close on a note of optimism: I do believe that in the long run no journalistic monetization platform of any kind will endure unless it gives all Americans an informed voice in the decisions that affect their lives at local, state and national levels. That’s the basic promise of our democracy and the basic promise of a free press as well. Think about it: today, for the first time in American history, journalists command the interactive technologies needed to fulfill both promises.