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Indigo Coffee House, Cambridge

The Cathedral and the Coffee House

The emergence of conversational media in the networked world

Bill Thompson.

The end of news

News journalism as it was practiced in the latter half of the twentieth century is over. We are leaving the era in which expert generalists could reasonably claim to shape opinion, inform the masses or speak for the people. For those seeking news online the reporters and writers who research stories and feed them into an editorial process that filtered, selected, fact-checked and finally published are no longer the only source of information and analysis, and are certainly no longer the most trusted. Soon this will be true for every citizen of the Western industrialised world, and as the network grows and spreads existing news media will be overrun just as surely as an adventitious species replaces the native, less competitive, inhabitants of an ecosystem.

For practitioners in the mainstream media, particularly those commentators whose livelihoods rely on the existence of profitable media companies willing to pay high salaries for their output, this is a crisis as significant in its ramifications as the end of the Cold War or the threat of political instability as a result of global warming.

Yet most of the current audience, those who buy newspapers or magazines, watch television or listen to the radio, seem relatively unperturbed, happy to turn to YouTube, Wikipedia and their favourite bloggers for what little information about the world around them they require to sustain daily life. They may visit the websites of the large media players like the BBC, The Guardian or the New York Times, but this makes up only part of the daily news diet.

At conferences, in editorial meetings, on company boards and in the bars, pubs and airport departure lounges where journalists and those who run media companies still congregate the conversation is usually about ways in which the media can change in order to cope with the onslaught of new voices, new models and new ways of doing ‘news’.

What these conversations fail to acknowledge is that the choice is no longer up to the current practitioners. The world has already changed, and yesterday’s news providers occupy a different space in the informational ecosystem than before. This is no longer a situation over which they have substantial control or influence — that point passed a good five years ago when the net went mainstream in the West, the Web became the world’s largest repository of information, Google figured out how to make a good-enough index and the new generation of online publishing tools based on the blog model started to emerge.

If The Guardian or the BBC or the New York Times were going to shape today’s environment they should have been there in 2001. Now all they can realistically do is acknowledge the shift and decide how to deal with it. Their power to influence events is extremely limited, and they are beginning to realise this. A newly connected New York Times tries to re-enter the conversation by allowing readers to Digg stories or post them to Facebook, while the desire to be at the centre of community still dominates the thinking of even the most progressive players, leaving them out of the loop. We may not expect The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee to lower herself to the level of commenting on other people’s blogs, but not even media pundit Roy Greenslade seems to have realised that the conversation could be happening elsewhere.

The decline of trust in what mainstream media outlets are delivering today, coupled with the rapid emergence of new sources of apparently trustworthy information, means that every current provider of news and views must find a way to survive within the new informational ecosystem.

It is more than likely that some form of journalism and news media will persist in the new media age. The current era of blog populism and social networking sites is a transitional stage, marking the end of old ways of thinking as much as the emergence of stable new models, and we should not assume it provides us with a good basis for predicting the future of journalism.

The days of monolithic corporations providing an authorised view of the news, setting the agenda and accepting no challenge from other points of view are already gone, and there is no need to mourn their passing. Yet people’s desire and need for information about the events of the day has not vanished, and their wish to see such information placed in the public domain so that it can be the basis of the ongoing democratic conversation remains, even if it would never be expressed as such.

There is a desire to know what is going on, one which is largely only shown in the response to the exposure of states of affairs which call for ‘something’ to be done, like famines in remote countries, corruption or deceit in local politics, hidden epidemics and unnoticed immigrants. This can probably be met by journalists whose job is to report, analyse and comment within a framework of editorial integrity and professional codes of conduct even in a world of citizen journalists and witness-generated reportage.

If they are to reinvent themselves and reassert their values in the networked world then the first step must be a clear-headed assessment of what went wrong and why the emergence of the net has been so catastrophic for today’s players. Hubris certainly played a part, as most established media outlets ignored the disruptive potential of the internet during the mid 1990’s when it was already clear that it fundamentally challenged their business model if not their grasp on their audiences. However it is not clear that they could have done anything about the more fundamental problem, which is that the age of one-way media is over.

The Cathedral of News

Modern mass media, whether print or broadcast or online, is built around the same information processing model as the Catholic church in the medieval age, and the nearest analogy to a newspaper, news magazine or TV news show is a gothic cathedral, with a team of acolytes working to embed the message in the stone, the stained glass and, above all, the word of the priest speaking from the pulpit.

This model emerged along with the profession of journalism in the eighteenth century and has survived vast technological, political and societal change in the last two hundred years. One reason for its survival was that it relied on the perceived or real scarcity of channels through which to reach large audiences. The barriers to entry were very high, and in a mass embrace of cognitive dissonance most of the audience came to believe that if someone was clever or powerful or rich enough to gain access to one of these scarce channels they must, merely by virtue of their ability to address the masses, have something important to say. Walter Kronkite, Robin Day, Jeremy Paxman, Anna Ford and the rest were believed to merit attention because they had managed to climb into the pulpit, and only those who deserved it would ever be allowed to do such a thing.

Early websites, filled with static pages which brooked no argument and offered no space for discussion, no opportunity for links or trackbacks and no way to challenge the views offered, were just the latest version of pulpit media, using the screen as a one-way channel to the audience just as print or radio or television had done for so long.

Today the cathedral doors have been forced open, the pulpit torn down and the carefully wrought stained glass windows smashed. The priest’s voice cannot be heard above the hubbub of voices shouting out from the pews, and the gospel is only one view among many. In a world where anyone can speak and be heard, thanks to blogs, social network tools and the public Internet, the mere fact of publication or broadcast is no longer enough to merit trust or attention.

The long decline of Christianity can be traced, in part, to the spread of the ability to read and the translation of the gospels into the vernacular. The church was no longer the only place that the story was being told, and people found that the skill which unlocked the Bible also unlocked other sources of knowledge and made other points of view available.

Today the cathedrals of the mass media are empty because the people have a new skill, one that goes beyond the ability simply to read and understand what others are saying. Now they can speak as well as listen, and this new form of literacy is the real wellspring of the revolution in news journalism that we are currently experiencing.

We have abandoned the cathedral, and moved away from the burning wreckage to congregate in a nearby coffee house, where entry is free to anyone who can afford the price of a drink. In the coffee house anyone can speak, and instead of the clearly enunciated and carefully considered tones of the priest echoing off the stone columns and over the heads of the congregation the conversation is open to all. Credibility comes not from occupancy of the pulpit but from one’s actions, from what is said and done today, what was said and done yesterday. In the age of conversational media, the voice from the pulpit can barely be heard over the hubbub, and anything said can immediately be challenged, questioned, taken out of context, criticised, dissected and absorbed into the zeitgeist.

Once news journalism becomes a conversation rather than a matter of issuing communiqués from a position of superior access it requires a very different set of skills from its practitioners– or rather, additional skills over and above the traditional ones of listening, judging, balancing, questioning, evaluating and story-telling. We have seen, most notably in the way that Guardian and Observer journalists are attempting to engage with their former audience on the Comment Is Free blog, that this is not always easy. Some of the great and good seem wholly unsuited for a world in which comments on their work appear with equal prominence on the newspaper site, like squeaky-voiced actors forced to appear in talking movies.

A bigger problem faces the commercial side of the business. Building conversational structures around the work of journalists and commentators, making money from providing them with a place to operate and a channel through which to speak, bears little relationship to the old established practice of holding talented journalists in tow with contracts, printing or broadcasting their words or stories and persuading those with a commercial message to preach to hitch their advertising to your rolling wagon. In the new media world the old media certainties are gone, and the ways of making money or telling stories are no longer theirs to control or even shape. A blogger with an AdSense account can make a modest living, but providing the revenue flows needed to sustain a print and online newspaper is incredibly hard.

The new environment

The new new media are not being built from nothing, and the emergence of conversational media is happening in a world of mature media outlets, with complex and sophisticated interconnections and dependencies. This is not a new ecosystem colonising a lava field, with the adventitious plants breaking down the previously barren rock to provide nourishment and space for the later arrivals. Rather we are seeing significant speciation and adjustments to changing nutrient levels in a mature ecosystem, brought on by external factors.

The cloud blotting out the sun, killing the plant-life of advertising revenue and damaging the reproductive potential of the big column-writing carnivores is, of course, the Internet itself. Craigslist has reduced sunlight levels in the classified world, blogging is making the pond water cloudy with algae and keeping the oxygen of readership from those who seek it so desperately, and new forms of investigative life are scuttling in the undergrowth, recently evolved from news reporters but clutching camera phones and laptops.

In this world the existing players are faced with a choice. Newspaper readership is in decline, but may bottom out at a level that allows a slimmer business to continue to make enough money out of splashing ink on dead trees, and there are world markets to explore, especially in India and China where the network is not yet widely available and newsprint is still a convenient way of providing information to people. Scheduled television shows delivered to flickering screens in the corner could attract enough of an aging audience to satisfy advertisers, especially if Google and BSkyB find a way to target the adverts more effectively and stave of complete collapse. Newspaper and television could, like crocodiles, step out of the limelight, find a niche and avoid evolutionary pressure. After all, the crocodile has changed relatively little in 60 million years, even if it has had to live in the mud and watch the mammals take over almost every ecological niche going, to the point where one particularly aggressive ape is on the verge of wiping out its habitats.

The alternative is to embrace change and take a lesson from the astonishingly successful reptiles whose 100 million year reign came to an end as the world’s climate shifted. The mammals may have colonised the earth, but the dinosaurs grew wings and feathers, lightened their bones and soared into the sky..

It is not too late for the big media companies to emulate them, to embrace the future and, like the dinosaurs, find a role in the world to come.

Appendix: Some thoughts on new journalism

There is a zeroth law of thermodynamics, which states that ‘if two thermodynamic systems A and B are in thermal equilibrium, and B and C are also in thermal equilibrium, then A and C are in thermal equilibrium’.

The term zeroth law was coined by Ralph Fowler and is used because in many ways this natural law is more fundamental than any of the others. However, the need to state it explicitly as a law was not perceived until the first third of the 20th century, long after the first three laws were already widely in use and named as such.

Something similar has happened to journalism. Once we wrote the first draft of history, but now this task falls to others and reporters are writing the zeroth draft. We have to learn to live in this world. Not only does it mean that we have to work faster, it also means that Dan Gillmor is right when he notes that ‘in a craft that’s shifting from lecture to conversation, the publication (or broadcast or whatever) is not The End. It is somewhere in the middle of an emergent system in which we all can keep learning, and teaching.’

Our zeroth draft is merely the starting point, the mulch which feeds those who will come after, use, reuse and (surely) abuse what we have stated and argued. The story is not the end, and the way in which we write and present the story no longer needs to pretend that it is.

This means that the testimony of the citizen reporter, the eyewitness, the accidentally present audience, can stand with news reports and initial analyses as an equal record, as likely to be incorrect but as important a source for those who will come after. The reporters who wrote that Jean Charles de Menezes had leapt over a barrier and run onto a tube train wearing a bulky jacket with wires protruding were no less wrong that the eyewitnesses who told them these once-believed but clearly imagined stories, so why should we privilege their versions today? And if not later, then why at the time?

What is citizen journalism?

Citizen journalism is an ugly construct for several reasons, not least of which is that it implies that we professional journalists are not also citizens.

Serious journalism, the sort that requires the resources of a large company, significant investment of time and money, as well as skills which are only acquired through years on the job, is still needed. The sort of journalism that involves digging, fighting with those who want to obstruct the story, going against the interests of those in power and generally doing what is needed to get the story out, will always be vital in any open society where, because human nature is what it is, some things are done corruptly and in secret.

But it has always been the case that the starting point for such an investigation may be the work of an unskilled observer. In the past this would begin with a letter or a phone call to a journalist, who might smell something in the tale being told and begin to look at it. Now it is more likely to be an email, but we also have to accept that many of those who in the past would have turned to the press to uncover more details will now blog what they have seen or noticed or experienced. It is up to us as reporters to be aware of what is being said, to follow up and work on the background, and to do the things which only we can manage.

It’s not all journalism

When we talk about the cathedral versus the coffee house we must be careful not to include every video uploaded to YouTube, blog posting on Typepad or diary entry on Livejournal in our analysis. Not all writing is journalism, and not all online content is either. We must beware the category error of assuming that everyone who writes online does so in order to reach a wide audience or be part of the ongoing conversation that we call the news media. Many do so, of course, and even if we should exclude from our analysis those online channels which are about personal expression or aimed at friends, family and real or imagined lovers, we should not go the other way and refuse to admit any who wish to join the conversation.

In a café anyone can come in, pay for their latte and sit at a table. They can talk to their friends, and be overheard, and we do not exclude them as ‘patrons’ just because they are ill-informed or biased or simply boring and badly-spoken. So it is with journalism: the defining characteristic of journalism, the one essential quality, is that it is intended for publication, aimed at an audience. Ideally, of course, it should be non-fiction, but we cannot be too prescriptive. It should be accurate, well-researched, properly-grounded, factual, timely and objective too, but those are at best guidelines for distinguishing good journalism from bad, and not enough to say something isn’t journalism at all.

The crisis of old new news

The New Journalism of Wolfe and Kesey and Hersh was about new voices and new modes of expression. Radical and ground-breaking though it was in the 1960’s it was easily assimilated into the existing structures, and while it provided those who liked to read with more variety, the journalists themselves were, like most punk bands, just as enthusiastic about making a deal with the publishers as they were about preserving their authentic voice or bringing down the system.

The new new journalism is different. It cannot be assimilated, because existing structures of news reporting and comment are completely incapable of absorbing the range and number of voices. It cannot be dismissed because it exists independently of the existing structures and voices. And so it must be accommodated, and the way the news media work must change to include and allow these new forms of expression.

If this does not happen then the casualty will not be the new voices in the blogosphere but the old media, who will become as irrelevant to the process through which information is made public and absorbed into the discourse of society as the Lord Chamberlain became to the process through which plays were produced in the UK.

Journalistic practice is challenged on many levels and in many ways. The most obvious, and the one that bring sleepless nights to people like Carolyn McCall, CEO of the Guardian Media Group, is that the business model is completely broken, since the aggregation of content and advertising is no longer an effective or even plausible way to generate income.

Another problem is that audiences for news media are increasingly disillusioned and unconvinced by what they are told. As they age, or abandon current publications and programmes, they are not being replaced because there is now a much wider choice available.

Finally, many of those who write or broadcast on established outlets are too far distant from their audience to be interesting, relevant or useful. Just as a Radio 1 morning presenter on £800,000 a year can never speak of his nights down the pub with any credibility, so the aristocratic Simon Jenkins is now plugged into the wrong sorts of networks to have anything to say to the wired children who are discarding their parents’ newspapers.

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