Sunday, November 08, 2009

Initial Thoughts on Media140: Memories of blogging

I’m just back from a Sydney two-day Media140 “news in the age of social media” conference. Due to Internet access issues and the vagaries of battery life, I didn’t get the chance to blog about it in Sydney. The conference generated a lot of discussion and argument (particularly between journalists and “new media” advocates) and I’ll add my take over the next few days. However, I wanted to begin with a comparison that struck me.

It seemed to me that the battles that dominated the backchannels this week reminded me of similar warfare waged two years ago. In September 2007 I attended the first (and to my knowledge, still only,) Australian Blogging Conference in Brisbane. Much of that conference focused on blogs and political reportage. Bloggers and academics lined up on one side of the argument describing how blogs were a crucial part of the public sphere. On the other side professional journalists reminded them that blogging was a practice as well as a platform and their craft skills were still needed to provide proper context to whatever information being made public.

The journalists had good reasons for their turf minding – they feared their role as sense-makers was about to be seriously diminished. Though the GFC was then unheard of, the media industry was already in crisis by 2007. As more and more people abandoned traditional media in favour of more disparate (and sometimes desperate) news sources online, it was becoming increasingly harder to harvest eyeballs for advertisers in sufficient quantities to justify the news expense of big media. That day in Brisbane, the argument raged back and forth over whether blogs would save journalism or walk all over its corpse.

With two years hindsight, it is obvious that blogging will do neither. The platform will continue as a popular venue of long-form thoughts for produsers, some of whom will be professional, some others amateur and more may be a mix of the two. All will likely continue to irk each other. But as the technology has matured, so has the argument. As blogging evolved, much of the heat went out of the battle. While a few journalists remain hostile, most are now either bloggers themselves or else see the blogs less as a threat than part of their arsenal of sources.

That hasn’t meant the journalists’ problems have gone away. On the contrary, journalists are move than ever under threat from corporate shareholder pressure to cut costs and demand thinner news rooms. The blogs are still eating away at audience along the long tail. Now more tools under the rubbery banner of “social media” are further muddying the waters. But thanks to the link economy, blogs and the social networks possibly bring as much traffic to old news sites as they take away.

Of the social networks it is Twitter that is causing the most professional angst. Twitter was a toddler at the time of the 2007 blogging conference and barely merited a mention. But its real time news function would prove irresistible and the subsequent explosion of growth and influence has pushed it to the centre of the argument. Ande Gregson coined the concept of media140 to launch a global discussion on what news in the social age means. I enjoyed the conference and the diverse set of speakers but the name riffing off Twitter’s character limit meant that the impact of Facebook (now 325 million users) did not get the attention it deserves.

What did come out was the same battle between new and old media proponents. The early adopters and academics showed how Twitter was changing the news landscape. The journalists asserted their right to provide an ethical, informed and contextualised take on the news in the new platform.

I suspect the outcome will be similar to the 2007 arguments. The (former) audience will be atomised into dialogues of the deaf and there will be less control and mediation. But journalists will prosper if they engage with Twitter, and carefully curate the data while showing a human and ethical face. Twitter, like the blogs, or Facebook, won’t hasten the demise of traditional media. As the wonderful fake Twitter account @BigHarto (based on News Ltd boss John Hartigan) pointed out late Friday afternoon: "In closing, I'd just like to remind #media140 participants that the future of journalism is whatever I fucking say it is." This may just be art resembling postmodernism. But it is also a reminder that real media power will not be tossed away lightly.

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