Web 2.0: what does it mean for journalism and the media?

Publié le 26 Octobre 2006

YouTube has nothing to do with journalism as we know it, but it can teach us a couple of things that we ought to learn. Beyond the fabulous price for which it has been bought, it reveals that many people have broadband, produce content and publish it, while others (partly the same) are more interested in this view of the world by “the people” than in ours. This matters for journalism in the time of web 2.0.

W2: there is a there there

It is common (in particular among techies) to say that there is not much in this buzzword. “Vaporware” as they love to say. This is troubling for most of us who tend to take their word for granted when dealing with information technologies and the web. I disagree and I use an expression coined by others to approach the issue: "there is a there there". We better find out what it is about, understand it and react accordingly.

[This is a slightly longuer version of the story that was published in the Nieman Report]

Granted, "Web 2.0" is a catch phrase coined by

Northern Californians

(Tim O'Reilly and his friends) who wanted to catch the attention of reluctant venture capitalists who became allergic to high-tech start-ups after the bust of 2002. O'Reilly's point was that the crash did not affect the adoption of the technology by the people; that a mix of new technologies, new business models and new approaches were coming, creating new opportunities. They were right.

Granted, there was no towering new technology at stake. Almost everything was there before, except for


that allows updating information on a web page in a dynamic manner. It does that by updating only the chunks that needit. Most of the rest falls under the very popular category of "mashups" the mixing of applications and/or content from different sources to create new services. One of the most famous examples is HousingMaps.com which brings information taken from CraigsList (houses for rent or sale) and puts them on a GoogleMap. With the satellite view, it gives you a completely different renting or buying experience. [see image]

So, what is the "there there" made of?

While "web 2.0" might be catchy, those who coined it had something more substantial in mind. O'Reilly wrote a founding essay to substantiate his claim. The definition has evolved since then. Other people have contributed, and it remains an on-going process with broad elements of consensus that are phrased in different manners that we can summarize around the 5 following elements:

  • Platform - The web is      the platform through which "everything" (almost) is done or can      be done: emails, document writing and sharing, commercial transactions,      telephony [?], etc.;
  • Receive/publish/modify      (read/write/program) – Unlike broadcasting or newspaper publishing, this      platform is a two-way street. On it, you receive or find information (in a      personalized manner through RSS if you want.) You can contribute through      comments, upload your own content on blogs and wikis, and may even modify      the platform itself (when you create a mashup or invite others to a web      based conference call, for example).
  • Broadband – The      technology may not be new, but what has changed is that a significant number of people have      broadband: big pipes that are always on, and through which more      information can transmit, like images, music or video. More people have      access to the basic components which in turn are going main stream.
  • Contributions - A significant      number of those who have broadband are using the      "read/write/program" capacity of the platform; they contribute,      upload information, and share what they have with others. There is a      double change at stake here: it is simpler to do and more people are      willing to it.
  • Network effects - These      contributions have network effects, i.e. the outcome is greater thanthe      sum of its parts. Companies and      technologies find new ways to harness the "user generated      content" and create new business opportunities. It changes the nature      of knowledge and suggests the potential to "harness collective intelligence."

In order to get a sense of how this affects journalism and the media we might want to start by looking "outside.” There are two reasons for this. The first one is that changes generally move from the edges to the center. We will learn more by looking at what is actually happening at the periphery than by what might or will happen at the center (our center).

The second reason is that while media companies are reluctant to change, people acquire new practices on the edges, create a new culture and will ultimately look at our media through these new lenses. We are slow to move. They change fast, particularly the younger generation. Our potential readers of tomorrow are using the web in ways we hardly imagine, acquiring a new culture, and if we want to remain significant for them, that


s what we want to understand. Let


s take some examples, some obvious, others more granular.

The changing web

At the big picture level, we first find the impact of search engines. Because a significant part of the traffic of all news websites comes from them, the content that is kept behind pay-walls does not exist (it is not indexed). The problem is adressed with the new Google Search~~ in which major media companies let Google index their archives. The result page only indicates when the access is free and when not. The logical next step for this to work though is for media companies to practice real micropayments, and we are far from it… for now.

Cragislist.org is obviously of concern because it is siphoning out one of the key revenue sources of traditional newspapers. We can learn from it, in particular from the way in which the content is generated. Users can put online directly (and freely) what they offer in a multimedia format if they so desire and without limitation of space (other than their readers' attentionspan). Interaction facilitates group creation which contribute in a significant manner to the brand recognition, and to trafic.

Wikipedia.org shows that knowledge, access to information and the capacity to publish are not the privilege of experts any more. The tendency to produce errors is compensated by the capacity to correct them. This dynamic approach allows it to provide quickly both context and in-depth information that media companies tend to ignore. The first information on the structure of the twin towers and the first documented hypothesis on why they crumbled on Sept. 11, 2001 were published on this site.

These sites that attract hundreds of millions of users have a direct relationship with journalism and the news industry, on the side. Although slower to take off than Wikipedia, Wikinews is following the same path. Google News shows how algorithms are doing editors' job. Genuinely interested in citizen journalism, Craig Newmark (Craigslist's founder) is financing New Assignment.net, a partnership between professional journalists and editors, citizen journalists, and nonprofit funders.

Besides these now mainstream attraction points, a number of new sites allow users to handle information in a way that goes far beyond what they can do when reading a newspaper, listening to radio or looking at television. Here are a few examples.

The most famous ones are del.icio.us (readers share articles they find interesting and tag them freely allowing a dynamic "folksonomy" to replace traditional taxonomies, and the work done by editors), and Digg.com (articles are submitted and voted for by readers. Those that get more votes are placed at the top of the screen). NewsVine.com can be seen as a mix of both with the added option for the user to write her own articles.

Others, less known, might over time have specific impacts that journalists cannot ignore.

Wikio.com is a kind of integrated Google News + Google Reader that aggregates stories from traditional media and from blogs. Personalization is done in the simplest way through tags - your own personal word associations - separated by a comma. So simple that the founders call it "an aggregator for dummies".

Sphere.com is a search engine specializing in blogs. Its more interesting feature might be the bookmarklet (small button that you drag to your browser toolbar) that allows you, when you read an interesting article, to "Sphere it" and see other articles or blog entries that deal with the same topic. By allowing the reader to have access to multiple sources at once, it assures diversity which might be an important step in our ongoing search for better service through objectivity, balance and fairness.

ChicagoCrime.org is a mashup that puts all crime-related information coming from the police department on a Google map. It can be browsed by street, ward, zip code, types of crime, and news stories.

Citizens' participation maybe more active yet as in Eugene, Oregon, where the Chambers neighborhood (cnrneighbors.org) has used the web and computers to fight a development projectwith maps, pictures, and 3D images; the kind of information neighborhood residents are interested in.

Finally, even those who don't feel the pressure yet, should pay attention to NewsTrust.net (still in pilot mode). On this site volunteers "help people identify quality journalism - or ’news you can trust.’ Our members rate the news online, based on journalistic quality, not just popularity. Our pilot website and news feed feature the best and the worst news of the day, picked from hundreds of alternative and mainstream news sources."

Impact on journalism

Taken together these sites (and thousands of similar ones) affect all levels of journalistic activities.

Production – While a working rhetoric for multimedia projects still has to be worked out, traditional media can't ignore the phenomenal growth of blogs, moblogs, vlogs, stories told through maps (43places.com) or games (kumawar.com).

Organization ((is this the right word???)) – Selecting, organizing and presenting news (Page one, sections, home page, etc), one of the most important privileges of editors, is under attack from three different sides. Algorithms do the job on Google News and on the home page of sites like LeMonde.fr where they redistribute content in a dynamic manner following both the latest news, and the interest shown by readers. Search engine send readers directly to articles, thereby effectively bypassing all the editors' work (except the fact that it's online). Thanks to RSS and aggregators, users grab the pieces they want from the sources they fancy and organize them in personalized spaces like NetVibes.com. They exchange what they "digg" and tag them too.

Distribution – Media companies have to format their content to make it accessible on all kind of platforms and devices. They don't decide which one it will be received on and interacted with;the users do.

Audience participation – Yesterday, most readers were satisfied with seeing a fragment of their letter to the editor published in a corner of a never read section. Today, they want to see their comments appear beside an article whose value they want to criticize or highlight. They want to engage the journalist directly, and contribute with their own material. Citizen journalism is still looking for viable formulas, but professional journalists have lost their monopoly on news.

Journalists' role – "My readers know more than I do" wrote Dan Gillmor a few years back. He concluded, rightly, that we needed to move from journalism as a lecture to journalism as a conversation. We will have to learn to practice our trade with the same rigor and demanding values in a much humbler manner.

The challenges we face

Traditional media seem to react rather coyly, when they react at all. The New York Times highlights the most emailed, and most blogged stories on its website. The Washington Post does the same with the most viewed articles, and, in a more open manner, signals the blogs that link to each story. El País (


) provides the opportunity to report an error found in a story, and the statistics (number of visits, how many times it has been printed, recommended or emailed). Le Monde (


) publishes on its home page links to the most recommended stories, and the latest comment to articles (some of them are published beside the article on the story page). Clarin.com (

Buenos Aires

) lets the users select the sections they want to see on the home page. Blogs, forums, and polls are now common. And so on. The list is long, the changes are prudent.

The most advanced phase is readers' participation in the production of news. The BBC has a special page for that on which they can upload pictures, stories and comments. Following the now famous example of the Korean OhMyNews, citizen journalism is appearing in many different places like Bluffton Today, Backfence (

Palo Alto

), or (see a list of these initiatives on CyberJournalist.net http://www.cyberjournalist.net/news/002226.php).

Besides what is done on websites, one should not forget the efforts to respond more to readers’ wishes and opinions. Zero Hora (

Porto   Alegre



) for instance, has a full page – on the print edition - for their letters, an advisory council that meets every month, a section for their contributions within a systematic drive to give them more importance.

There are many active sites, and innovative companies. They do not set the tone.

Dan Gillmor denounced a "complete unraveling of business models for traditional journalism" during a panel on citizen journalism that took place on October 25th at a conference on "The business of new media" organized by SD Forum in

Santa Clara



. Traditional media companies "are clueless about what's going on" added Len Brody from NowPublic. Mark Pincus, co-founder of Tribes goes further: "it's amazing how newspaper companies have no balls. They are driving off a cliff . They know it and they don't react. They don't even do anything fun."

Their position is not easy, and Gillmor reminded the audience of the pressures from Wall Street, as could be seen in the case of Knight Ridder. To make the situation worse, there is no clear business model for new media yet. "We don't have the answer" answered Gillmor when asked about this issue.

That's one of the most serious problems of this transition period in which the audience is changing, traditional media don't react fast enough and there is no new business model at hand. T[?] Media companies are not going to change until they see a reasonably successful business model. Traffic attracts advertising, and user generated content drives traffic, but it's happening more on the entertainment side of media than on its journalistic side.

"Journalism is work, and nobody wants to work when they don't have to", said J.D. Lassica during the SDForum panel. That might be our greatest chance. Traditional media will not disappear, he added, but "they will have to make room to the audience to create media." That may be the real test.

The challenge that journalists and media organizations are facing cannot be compared to that of an old technology facing a new one like in HD TV vs. analog TV or in fixed type, vs. movable type. It is not one media vs. another like in television vs. print. It is not citizen journalism eliminating professional journalism. It is not a problem of either/or, death or life, for the simple reason that there is no simple answer. It is not only a problem of technology. The challenge is for the news ecosystem to evolve, and change, to adapt to the increased role of the audience, its growing capacity and desire to contribute.

Journalism is already practiced in virtual worlds (Reuters has a beat reporter in Second Life), and might soon imply some more sophisticated forms of immersion. But technology is not, in itself, the most significant element.

Technological changes at stake in web2.0 can be seen as a mere enabler of deep cultural changes. What matters is the relationship between the two. People have lost confidence in institutions (and meta narratives as the postmodernists said), and now they have the tools to express themselves and listen to their peers. This is hard for journalists to see because they view themselves as critics of these institutions, while they are seen by many as being part of them.

Journalists are right when they want to preserve ethical and professional rules they have hardly fought for. They know that some kind of business is involved in what they do. They more seldom accept having power. But they have. That is why change will come from the edges (like blogs appeared on the margins of the system before being adopted by main stream media).

People (some of them at least) want to participate, and they have the tools to do so. Journalists can help. They can facilitate the conversation, make sure that more people have the skills, and the values which have contributed to make our profession socially useful.

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