Thursday, October 22, 2009

Future imperfect: Thoughts about journalism in 2020

“In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising” (Oscar Wilde 1891).

2020 is barely ten years away. That is nothing in quantum time and not much more in the history of human civilisation. Yet predicting what might happen in 2020 is a prospect so hazardous, few do it outside the label of science fiction. The past is not much of a guide. If the butterfly effect ascribes an infinite amount of possible consequences for one action, what then might eventuate over the next 3650 days on a planet of six billion people? There are only two certainties. Events will occur, and humans will adapt to them. The adaptive habit of mind is an essential human survival strategy. In The Origin of Species Charles Darwin noted that existence is a struggle which relies on fickle fate to give a sucker an even break. “Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little”, he said and life becomes more bountiful. The rest of this essay will look at what checks and mitigations might help predict a more bountiful journalism in 2020. (photo by danzen)

Today’s journalists work under a rubric of organisations commonly known as “the media”, shorthand for any intermediate agency that enables communication to take place. In 1891 Wilde recognised the media as an improvement on the rack, if only barely. The media remains an imperfect communication construct and one that acts awkwardly in its dual-function of social institution and a business. It is these unresolved tensions between the church and state functions of media that will most affect the journalism of the future.

Technology is also affecting the business model that sustains journalism. Product lifecycles have been reduced to 12 months in all high tech industries which means there is a continual struggle to stay ahead of the basics of any job. The mass media industries have grown fat and wealthy under the philosophy of bringing eyeballs to advertisers but that does not work well on the Internet. Nor does subscription work either in an environment where the expectation is that content is free. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is currently trying to stick its fingers into this dyke but the dam walls will probably come tumbling down anyway.

Mention of Murdoch’s empire also reminds us that journalism has been corporatised. Media has become Big Media as the industry consolidates according to the natural nature of capitalism. The freedom of the press, as A.J. Liebling noted, used to be reserved to those who owned one. But the huge unregulated flow of user-generated content in blogs and social networks is changing that dynamic. Journalists who find themselves cast adrift from corporate downsizing may find salvation in the newer media.

There is the also the additional systemic impact of public relations. Other important actors such as governments have learned the skills of journalism to sidestep the media to ensure their message is delivered in the way they want it. Journalists pejoratively call public relations “the dark side” but it is the work of PR practitioners (mostly ex-journalists) that underscores the value of the craft. They thrive to serve the human unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The information society is not merely an intellectual abstraction; it is an economic reality. Yet Naisbitt also says that we are “drowning in information, but starved of knowledge. News is public knowledge and journalism will always be required to turn it into a composite, shared, ordered and edited product that people can use. Long-term journalism’s survival remains linked to finding an economic purpose to match the quenching of that thirst.

To do that, journalists must find new ways of doing things and must also embrace creativity. According to cyberspace scholar Lawrence Lessig, the Internet is the world’s greatest innovation commons. In a decade it has gone from being a technical curiosity to a major influence on every aspect of life for most people in developed countries. While journalism has traditionally prospered on a scarcity factor, the technology of the Internet has created an information rich society. Its influence will be at least as profound as that of Gutenberg’s printing press which affected religion, democracy and the organisation of society.

Democracy on the Internet is becoming an increasingly hot topic. Just as the right of clean air and healthy environment is being seen as a property from which nobody should be excluded, some countries are beginning to regard Internet service as a basic human right. Finland has recognised this recently by making it a legal right for Finnish citizens to have access to a 100 Megabit-per-second broadband connection by end 2015. This is laudable though likely to be outdated by 2015. What cyberspace needs more than democracy is a balanced ecology between culture and commerce.

Older media manage such ecologies with varying degrees of success. Newspapers appear to be in permanent decline although the lesson from Fidler is that the older technologies can survive if they enhance the texture of newer environments. Television still rules despite being the pejorative “idiot box” for “couch potatos” that Postman observed was “amusing us to death”. The computer has not yet inherited the negative cachet of TV twenty years later nor has it yet inherited its influence. That may yet change as fast broadband leads the way towards convergence between the two media. Mobile phone technology is further complicating content delivery. Cellphones are becoming the defacto mobile computer as more functionality is packed into these devices.

But while the technology to deliver journalism to audiences will undoubtedly continue to evolve, the basic craft skills will remain. Those skills are important in providing a sense-making mechanism that uses available technology to provide content for audiences. These audiences are fragmenting and a “long tail” of niche providers is emerging to take the place of the big monoliths. Yet whatever the size of the enterprise, journalists’ first obligation should always be to the truth. They should also retain the core trait of journalism: fairness. While our perception of reality is always only partial, these intangible values have stood the test of time and will retain value in the new economy.

Networks of social relationships create social capital which underpins this new economy. Leadbeater called social capitalism “the driving force” behind creativity. But unlike the old economy where individuality and self-interest were critical success factors, social capitalism relies on the ethic of trust and collaboration. As Cambridge University vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers said “if a researcher is not part of a world technology network, he [sic] is unlikely to succeed”. The era of individual innovation is over. Teresa Amabile says creativity occurs best when people are working on a problem they perceive as important, with a sense of urgency that is apparent not only to them but to others. According to Cunningham, creative enterprises should increasingly be seen as an integral element of high-value-added knowledge-based emergent industries.

Richard Florida says that creativity is the single most important source of economic growth and investing in creativity in all its forms is the best way to ensure continued growth. But creativity simply cannot be turned on by tap, it means using both hemispheres of the brain. In Western cultures the left-to-right alphabets has reinforced left-brain dominance and what Havelock called “the alphabetic mind”. Journalists who write for a living are particularly cursed by the alphabetic mind. More right-brain thinking is required to unlock the potential offered by simultaneous operations, understanding context and seeing the big picture.

The importance of network externalities to the big picture cannot be understated. We live in a small world where everything is linked to everything else. Because everything is connected either through technology or culture, connection creates as much value as function. Open source models such as creative commons licensing are facilitating a new Internet business environment which enables a “royalty-free literature” to thrive which enlarges readership, enhances reputation and still enables creators to retain copyright of their works.

The rise of the network economy has implications across the board. Journalists have taken up social networks like Facebook and Twitter in large numbers. These forums are a rich source of material, contacts and opinions. These networks are living organisms where producers and audiences alike engage with each other. Because these gated communities blur the line between private and public utterances, journalists will need to be increasingly careful of online reputations, both theirs and others. Closed communities add to the breakdown of social cohesion which has led to the proliferation of special interests and an over-valued sense of belonging to narrowly subscribed communities. But the social networks and blogs are revolutionary technologies capable of creating a vast Habermasian space where a public sphere can debate items of wide-ranging importance.

As media historian Mitchell Stephens reminds us, none of the existing revolutionary technologies have exhausted themselves. The alphabet has been around for barely 95 generations, the printing press is still expanding, and the electronic media are just reaching adulthood. The effect is “revolution upon revolution upon revolution” in which technology continually outstrips our imagination. Journalists and everyone else must be, as Bauman noted, “fluid” in response. We must be ready to change shape in time, be mobile and weightless. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said no one will live in the world they were born in and no one will die in the world they worked in maturity. It is safe to say that 2020 will be a time of profound protean change.

A final note in any discussion of the future is the need to ensure there is one. Tough says that humanity has the potential to live for many more centuries “with robust health and happiness” if we take seriously the five most important priorities: understanding world problems, dissemination of that knowledge, improving governance, avoiding catastrophic war, and fostering positive developments. Journalists can play a large role in the creative story-telling that will bring these priorities to wide audiences in a compelling manner.

Chief among these priorities is human-induced climate change. Respected scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen have warned of catastrophic species loss and the inundation of the world’s coastal cities if we do not address the problem. As Hansen bluntly told a newly elected President Obama last year “the planet is in peril”. Science tells us what we need to do to stop climate change. Yet vested interests will always be out there slowing the way. H. G. Wells saw human history as “a race between education and catastrophe”. As storytellers, journalists of the future can play a key role in ensuring that education wins that race. Even Oscar Wilde might not find that outcome too demoralising.

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