Tuesday, 29 April 2008

'SuperMedia': Can Charlie Beckett Save Journalism?

I was at a gathering the other day where the host asked for a show of hands: "How many of you read blogs?" The audience numbered about 30, including many worthy journalists. Four hands, including mine, went up. Twenty-six people glared at us as if we'd just confessed to an unhealthy infatuation with donkeys. "Blogs," they were thinking. "Ugh. How can you read those sleazy digital compendia of slime and vitriol?"

It's the sort of attitude that drives me crazy and makes me want to storm the battlements of the mainstream media, pitchfork in one hand, flaming torch in the other. Then I remember that sitting at a desk on the other side of the battlements is, um, me. I like me enough that I don't want to set me on fire.

Eight months ago I came to Oxford to study citizen journalism and while I've learned a lot I'm not sure I've decided anything. I'm disgusted by the sclerotic worshippers of journalism's "Golden Age" who see nothing but rack and ruin in digital technology. But I'm equally disgusted by the techno-evangelists who keep promising a glorious future automagically assembled from the "wisdom of the crowds."

A new book by the LSE's Charlie Beckett falls into neither camp, though I'm not sure it's a total success, either. "SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World" starts by sketching the tale of economic woe that faces the news media these days. Losing money (or not making as much as we once did), losing audience, losing respect--these are bad things. But they're counterbalanced by advances in technology that in some ways make journalists' jobs easier, make us able to reach more people. And these people--famously dubbed the "former audience" by proselytizer Dan Gillmor--want to get involved. Involving them is part of what Beckett calls "networked journalism." He writes:

Networked Journalism is a description and an aspiration. It reaffirms the value of the core functions of journalism. It celebrates the demand for journalism and its remarkable social utility. But it insists on a new process and fresh possibilities. It means a kind of journalism where the rigid distinctions of the past, between professional and amateur, producer and product, audience and participation, are deliberately broken down. It embraces permeability and multi-dimensionality. Networked Journalism is also a way of bridging the semantic divide between Old and New Media.

Beckett is vague on exactly how networked journalism can be applied. He admits he's more interested in "the dynamics than the details." Thus "SuperMedia" is more manifesto than instruction manual. Because of that, it's sometimes hard to assess the claims he makes for networked journalism. The phrase is invoked so often that it starts to sound like a miracle drug or an all-purpose stain remover. News media losing its way? Try networked journalism! Citizens don't care about politics? Try networked journalism!

I worry about some of the practical considerations of networked journalism: How, on deadline, can a reporter involve an audience? (Especially if, as Nick Davies claims in his new book, "Flat Earth News," that reporter is being pushed to produce ever more stories.) What's to stop elites from dominating the conversation once they're invited over the battlement's walls? Have we, as Adrian Monck might argue, mis-framed the problem entirely?

Still, Beckett has made a valuable contribution to the dialogue. The message I decided to take from "SuperMedia" was this one: Journalism has evolved over time. There is nothing wrong with it changing again. It's a message I wish those 26 people who didn't raise their hands would take to heart. (In the year 2008 it's journalistically irresponsible not to cast as wide a net as possible for information. And it's stupid not to spread your product as widely as you can, however you can.) As Beckett writes:

Networked Journalism is a return to some of the oldest virtues of journalism: connecting with the world beyond the newsroom; listening to people; giving people a voice in the media; responding to what the public tells you in a dialogue.

As for whether it will actually make a difference, that remains to be seen.


wiredog said...

sleazy digital compendia of slime and vitriol

So they think you're reading the Mos Eisley Cantina blog?

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Moderated blogs can reduce "slime and vitriol" if for no other reason than that habitual offenders do not like to wait for their comment to appear, but the moderator can turn into a censor, sometimes without knowing it.

B@B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SuburbanCorrespondent said...

I've been wondering for a while why the big papers should be suffering so at the hands of the digital revolution. I mean, even if print readership plummets, why can't the Post and the Times focus on their online sites instead? If the readers are online, what is to stop these newspapers from having good quality investigative journalism and reporting online instead of in print? What is the difference, really? So the advertising revenue comes from online ads instead of print ads - is that a bad thing?

There is still an audience for print news, it just isn't the at-home subscribers anymore. The people who read print are commuting, or eating at the local bagel shop, or sitting watching their kids at the park...in other words, they are in venues not compatible with online reading.

Of course, the Post would have to figure out how to develop an easy-to-read, searchable website first(wouldn't that be nice?)...but it can be done, if the NY Times site is any indication.

Charlie Beckett said...

Thanks for the review. You are right that I don't offer an instruction manual, partly because it would be out of date within weeks and partly because online is a better place to discuss how it works in practice. Try
www.newsassignment.net or www.onlinejournalismblog.com for two great sources on putting networked journalism into practice. Hi Dee - as for sitting on the fence - so what? Do you think this is a "yes" or "no" question? I am bored of the "Old versus New" Media argument. It's like being pro- or anti- the Gutenberg Press. Why does one have to reject all of journalism to embrace new media?

John Kelly said...

I hope I didn't make it sound as if I thought straddling these two poles was a bad thing. I agree with Charlie that it's not a yes-or-no question. The smart people--journalists, media owners, citizens--will figure out what works for them, applying it in smart ways, trying new things, rejecting what doesn't work, embracing what does. Unfortunately, there's a lot of mania out there right now, a worried sort of frenzy, with messianic techno-evangelists shouting, "Kill the paper!" and old-school journos chaining themselves to their Linotype machines. Neither mindset is helpful.

B@B said...

i vaguely remember my first day in the reuters newsroom at 85 Fleet Street where us newbies were introduced with a flourish to the "all-singing, all dancing, but more importantly, PAPER-FREE!!newsroom" - we'd never really seen one before so didn't know whether to hail this as progress. it soon became clear that there was a significant contingent of subs et al who mourned the passing of paper, carbons and typewriters and who spent the rest of their careers muttering into their pints about the decline of values. so i guess plus ca change etc. i was actually relieved that charlie's research seemed to underline that pro journalists, editors and the like will not be made redundant by the efforts of keen citizens but that filters and benchmarks will be needed more than ever to continue to sift out the inevitable chaff -

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