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.