YouTube has nothing to do with journalism as we know it, but it canteach us a couple of things that we ought to learn. Beyond the fabulous pricefor which it has been bought, it reveals that many people have broadband,produce content and publish it, while others (partly the same) are moreinterested in this view of the world by “the people” than in ours. This mattersfor 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 muchin this buzzword. “Vaporware” as they love to say. This is troubling for mostof us who tend to take their word for granted when dealing with informationtechnologies and the web. I disagree and I use an expression coined by othersto approach the issue: “there is a there there”. We better find outwhat 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) whowanted to catch the attention of reluctant venture capitalists who becameallergic to high-tech start-ups after the bust of 2002. O’Reilly’s point wasthat 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 werecoming, creating new opportunities. They were right.
Granted, there was no towering new technology at stake. Almosteverything was there before, except for
Ajaxthat allows updating information on a web page in a dynamic manner. It doesthat by updating only the chunks that needit. Most of the rest falls under thevery popular category of “mashups” the mixing of applications and/orcontent from different sources to create new services. One of the most famousexamples is HousingMaps.com which brings information taken from CraigsList(houses for rent or sale) and puts them on a GoogleMap. With the satelliteview, it gives you a completely different renting or buying experience. [seeimage]
So, what is the “there there” made of?
While “web 2.0” might be catchy, those who coined it hadsomething more substantial in mind. O’Reilly wrote a founding essay tosubstantiate his claim. The definition has evolved since then. Other people havecontributed, and it remains an on-going process with broad elements ofconsensus that are phrased in different manners that we can summarize aroundthe 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 wemight 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. Wewill learn more by looking at what is actually happening at the periphery thanby 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 willultimately look at our media through these new lenses. We are slow to move.They change fast, particularly the younger generation. Our potential readers oftomorrow are using the web in ways we hardly imagine, acquiring a new culture,and if we want to remain significant for them, that
‘swhat we want to understand. Let
‘s takesome 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 mediacompanies let Google index their archives. The result page only indicates whenthe access is free and when not. The logical next step for this to work thoughis 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 oneof the key revenue sources of traditional newspapers. We can learn from it, inparticular from the way in which the content is generated. Users can put onlinedirectly (and freely) what they offer in a multimedia format if they so desireand without limitation of space (other than their readers’ attentionspan). Interaction facilitates groupcreation which contribute in a significant manner to the brand recognition, andto trafic.
Wikipedia.org shows that knowledge, access to information and thecapacity to publish are not the privilege of experts any more. The tendency toproduce errors is compensated by the capacity to correct them. This dynamicapproach allows it to provide quickly both context and in-depth informationthat media companies tend to ignore. The first information on the structure ofthe twin towers and the first documented hypothesis on why they crumbled onSept. 11, 2001 were published on this site.
These sites that attract hundreds of millions of users have a directrelationship with journalism and the news industry, on the side. Althoughslower to take off than Wikipedia, Wikinews is following the same path. GoogleNews shows how algorithms are doing editors’ job. Genuinely interested incitizen journalism, Craig Newmark (Craigslist’s founder) is financing New Assignment.net, a partnershipbetween professional journalists and editors, citizen journalists, andnonprofit funders.
Besides these nowmainstream attraction points, a number of new sites allow users to handleinformation in a way that goes far beyond what they can do when reading anewspaper, listening to radio or looking at television. Here are a fewexamples.
The most famous onesare del.icio.us (readers share articles they find interesting and tag themfreely allowing a dynamic “folksonomy” to replace traditionaltaxonomies, and the work done by editors), and Digg.com (articles are submittedand voted for by readers. Those that get more votes are placed at the top ofthe screen). NewsVine.com can be seen as a mix of both with the added optionfor 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 ofintegrated Google News + Google Reader that aggregates stories from traditionalmedia and from blogs. Personalization is done in the simplest way through tags- your own personal word associations – separated by a comma. So simple thatthe founders call it “an aggregator for dummies”.
Sphere.com is a searchengine specializing in blogs. Its more interesting feature might be thebookmarklet (small button that you drag to your browser toolbar) that allowsyou, when you read an interesting article, to “Sphere it” and seeother articles or blog entries that deal with the same topic. By allowing thereader to have access to multiple sources at once, it assures diversity whichmight be an important step in our ongoing search for better service throughobjectivity, balance and fairness.
ChicagoCrime.org is amashup that puts all crime-related information coming from the policedepartment on a Google map. It can be browsed by street, ward, zip code, typesof crime, and news stories.
Citizens’participation maybe more active yet as in Eugene, Oregon, where the Chambersneighborhood (cnrneighbors.org) has used the web and computers to fight adevelopment projectwith maps, pictures, and 3D images; the kind of informationneighborhood residents are interestedin.
Finally, even thosewho don’t feel the pressure yet, should pay attention to NewsTrust.net (stillin pilot mode). On this site volunteers “help people identify quality journalism- or ’news you can trust.’ Our members rate the news online, based onjournalistic quality, not just popularity. Our pilot website and news feedfeature the best and the worst news of the day, picked from hundreds ofalternative and mainstream news sources.”
Impact on journalism
Taken together thesesites (and thousands of similar ones) affect all levels of journalisticactivities.
Production – While aworking 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 thisthe right word???)) – Selecting, organizing and presenting news (Page one,sections, home page, etc), one of the most important privileges of editors, isunder attack from three different sides. Algorithms do the job on Google Newsand on the home page of sites like LeMonde.fr where they redistribute contentin a dynamic manner following both the latest news, and the interest shown byreaders. Search engine send readers directly to articles, thereby effectivelybypassing all the editors’ work (except the fact that it’s online). Thanks toRSS and aggregators, users grab the pieces they want from the sources theyfancy and organize them in personalized spaces like NetVibes.com. They exchangewhat they “digg” and tag them too.
Distribution – Mediacompanies have to format their content to make it accessible on all kind ofplatforms 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 letterto the editor published in a corner of a never read section. Today, they wantto see their comments appear beside an article whose value they want tocriticize or highlight. They want to engage the journalist directly, andcontribute with their own material. Citizen journalism is still looking forviable 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 tojournalism as a conversation. We will have to learn to practice our trade withthe same rigor and demanding values in a much humbler manner.
The challenges we face
Traditional media seemto react rather coyly, when they react at all. The New York Times highlightsthe most emailed, and most blogged stories on its website. The Washington Postdoes 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 reportan error found in a story, and the statistics (number of visits, how many timesit has been printed, recommended or emailed). Le Monde (
) publishes on its home page links tothe most recommended stories, and the latest comment to articles (some of themare published beside the article on the story page). Clarin.com (
) lets theusers select the sections they want to see on the home page. Blogs, forums, andpolls are now common. And so on. The list is long, the changes are prudent.
The most advancedphase is readers’ participation in the production of news. The BBC has aspecial page for that on which they can upload pictures, stories and comments.Following the now famous example of the Korean OhMyNews, citizen journalism isappearing in many different places like Bluffton Today, Backfence (
), or (see a listof these initiatives on CyberJournalist.nethttp://www.cyberjournalist.net/news/002226.php).
Besides what is doneon websites, one should not forget the efforts to respond more to readers’wishes and opinions. Zero Hora (
Brazil)for instance, has a full page – on the print edition – for their letters, anadvisory council that meets every month, a section for their contributionswithin a systematic drive to give them more importance.
There are many activesites, and innovative companies. They do not set the tone.
Dan Gillmor denounceda “complete unraveling of business models for traditional journalism”during a panel on citizen journalism that took place on October 25th at aconference on “The business of new media” organized by SD Forum in
California.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 acliff . They know it and they don’t react. They don’t even do anythingfun.”
Their position is noteasy, and Gillmor reminded the audience of the pressures from Wall Street, ascould be seen in the case of Knight Ridder. To make the situation worse, thereis no clear business model for new media yet. “We don’t have theanswer” answered Gillmor when asked about this issue.
That’s one of the mostserious 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 athand. T[?] Media companies are not going to change until they see a reasonablysuccessful business model. Traffic attracts advertising, and user generatedcontent drives traffic, but it’s happening more on the entertainment side ofmedia than on its journalistic side.
“Journalism iswork, and nobody wants to work when they don’t have to”, said J.D. Lassicaduring the SDForum panel. That might be our greatest chance. Traditional mediawill not disappear, he added, but “they will have to make room to theaudience to create media.” That may be the real test.
The challenge thatjournalists and media organizations are facing cannot be compared to that of anold 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 aproblem of either/or, death or life, for the simple reason that there is no simpleanswer. It is not only a problem of technology. The challenge is for the newsecosystem to evolve, and change, to adapt to the increased role of theaudience, its growing capacity and desire to contribute.
Journalism is alreadypracticed in virtual worlds (Reuters has a beat reporter in Second Life), andmight soon imply some more sophisticated forms of immersion. But technology isnot, in itself, the most significant element.
Technological changesat stake in web2.0 can be seen as a mere enabler of deep cultural changes. Whatmatters is the relationship between the two. People have lost confidence ininstitutions (and meta narratives as the postmodernists said), and now theyhave the tools to express themselves and listen to their peers. This is hard forjournalists to see because they view themselves as critics of theseinstitutions, while they are seen by many as being part of them.
Journalists are rightwhen they want to preserve ethical and professional rules they have hardlyfought 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 willcome from the edges (like blogs appeared on the margins of the system beforebeing adopted by main stream media).
People (some of themat least) want to participate, and they have the tools to do so. Journalistscan help. They can facilitate the conversation, make sure that more people havethe skills, and the values which have contributed to make our professionsocially useful.