The future of news?

The future of news?

The lucky and talented Knight News Challenge winners have joined us here at MIT this week to explore “The Future of News and Civic Media.” As they arrive, I am preparing to depart. This farewell post for C4FCM is inspired especially by them and by four experiences here this spring:
…MIT Prof. William Uricchio observed that old media make us feel like “a passenger in the back seat of the car, howling at the driver.”
…Phil Balboni debated a skeptical MIT student about news “objectivity” at Balboni’s new online GlobalPost venture http://civic.mit.edu/watchlistenlearn/video-c4fcm-lecture-series-the-fut...
…Harvard’s Shorenstein Center handed out prestigious Goldsmith investigative reporting prizes to mostly old media folks http://www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/news_events/archive/2009/goldsmith_a...,
…And across the river, people started hearing the death rattle of the Boston Globe http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jun/09/boston-globe-pay-cut1

Even for the optimists, the media landscape remains a minefield of unresolved questions:

Is it enough that anyone can be in the driver’s seat now, creating and re-creating content, consuming whatever we like, and the hell with the rest of it?

Is news more authentic now?

Will my friends and colleagues spread the story to me if something relevant is out there?

Aren’t we glad to be washing our hands of “objectivity” and other myths?

Isn’t it glorious to be in the age of more information than we can possibly use?

Every day here in Cambridge, MA, I am surrounded by people who have moved on from the mainstream news media with no regrets. ("The media didn’t tell us about the Bush Administration lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They didn’t warn us about the pending financial collapse. …it’s all much better now that we are getting our news from real people...")

My bottom line has always been: how can people understand their real choices for shaping their own lives and communities? How can the flow of news actually promote personal and community agency? This is why the future of journalism and civic media are important to me.

Many of my truly smart civic media colleagues believe that crowd sourcing and individual participation will fill in the gaps and do a better job than the mainstream media have done with this, offering better watchdogging of political, economic and cultural institutions. I would love to see this. The projects that have worked—such as the Ft. Myers newspaper expose of a corrupt sewer contractor, and the Sunlight Foundation’s efforts at illuminating what is actually in the budgets and laws being passed, are wonderful examples of what is possible. But for cultural rather than technological reasons, they are far–-very, very far--from covering the waterfront. In Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, wonderful examples of civic media prowess are given but in each case, they seem to require the MSM megaphone at some point, to actually affect policy and change things on the ground.

Others note that news audiences haven’t really left MSM. They are flocking to the best MSM websites. It’s just about a broken business model. Yes, but… it’s about a shifting culture as well. If the best and brightest young folks don’t value agnostic, professional journalism, even a dozen new business models won’t work for long. I am waiting for a public relations campaign to argue the virtues of Kovach and Rosenstiel-style journalism (http://www.journalism.org/node/71), combined with a comprehensive news literacy curriculum at all levels, in all countries, that invites people to produce, consume and pay for public service news.

Fair, important, earth-shaking journalism is actually hard to do. It’s harder than simply repeating what anyone tells you, or selecting the facts that support your own biases. That is what all the fuss is about as newspapers around the country collapse and die. Look at the winners of the Pulitzers (http://www.pulitzer.org/awards/2009) and the Goldsmith awards. They have demonstrated real expertise at teasing out something important that others didn’t want them to know. Their legitimacy came from their honest broker status, rather than their witty personas. Some became expert at reading obscure documents, figuring out the proper context and meaning of them, and then using their institutional clout to make their findings matter. Some used new algorithms and other computational tools. Others, like my former Wall Street Journal beatmate Jane Mayer, insisted on verifiable evidence and persuaded people to trust her with what they knew about top-secret U.S. torture policy (http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/07/hbc-90003234.) This work takes not only skill, but time and, alas, money.

A feature of the new participatory ad hoc media is that people can participate anonymously and briefly, and then go away. This can capture moments of expertise that would have been wasted before. But no one can criticize them for letting down the public or making things up. They can just click away from that activity whenever it grows tiresome to them. So our challenge is not just how do you obtain the journalism you need without a professional group of experts being paid to do this, but also, how do you organize amateurs who wish to participate sporadically with acts of journalism, in a way that has value both for them and the publics they wish to serve? Will these mechanisms provide adequate information on which to base critical policy and voting decisions?

To be sure, what has called itself journalism has too often been a hack job, a pile of missed clues and mistaken identities. It’s not just about messing up the facts. It’s about misunderstanding what they mean. Stupid journalism is just like stupid anything else. It’s demonstrably bad and people should expose or ignore it.

It’s not about the platform, even though too many MSM moguls have lost their shirts by responding as if it is. Many fine journalists are net-based and have never set foot inside an MSM organization. Joshua Micah Marshall is I.F. Stone2.0 (http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/). I see exciting new civic media possibilities on the horizon. Twitter is dazzling, as a headline service and a conversation. But I need more than Twitter, YouTube and my Facebook social network to understand this complicated world.

Phil Balboni’s talk at MIT inspired another installment in the debate about objectivity. Students seemed uniformly skeptical when he advocated objective news. ("Objectivity means less transparency. Why hide your inevitable biases? Why would anybody prefer a journalist who won’t tell you what she thinks about what she’s witnessing?")

“Objectivity” was impossible, of course, but the effort to achieve it was the journalist’s shield against the influence of the advertisers, political bosses and owners. It required real discipline. It was an act of idealism and selflessness, an effort to step back and honestly present what one witnessed as truthfully as possible, even if it didn’t reinforce one’s own beliefs or the politician’s or advertiser’s wishes. For example, there was the day my colleague and I had a lead story in the Wall Street Journal documenting how everyone around President Reagan—including Mrs. Reagan, Vice President Bush and virtually the entire cabinet—thought Attorney Edwin Meese should resign. But the Journal’s editorial page, on the same day, thundered that the only people who wanted Meese to resign were the liberal critics of the Reagan Administration.

My belief in the value of agnostic journalism—to offer facts on all sides of the issue, and trust the ability of my readers to connect the dots—was tested when I wrote about people like Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and conservative prankster Terry Dolan. I forced myself to be open-minded, to understand and present what they thought of themselves, and what their admirers as well as their critics saw in them, instead of simply lining up my own objections. Now newsmakers can offer themselves to the world through their own platforms, and they don’t need journalists like me to paint their portraits. But are we better informed now, better protected against bias because we don’t believe in trying for objectivity anymore? Is the personal lens always the best model for every news situation?

Roger Ailes—the GOP media guru who now runs Fox news—once told the students in a class I was teaching at Harvard that journalists got up in the morning with a goal of tearing down his GOP candidates. Did he really believe that? That wasn’t what we thought we were trying to do. We asked unpopular questions in order to hold the powerful accountable. A few months before Ailes made his comment, I had been a Wall Street Journal reporter questioning Ailes’ client, GOP Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle in a “press availability” in Huntington, Indiana. Quayle complained that I was unpatriotic to question his finding a personal safe haven in the U.S. National Guard during the Vietnam War, while others were being drafted and dying in a war he vigorously supported. I took more heat than Quayle did for the exchange, which was captured live on CNN. Critics said I seemed disrespectful and “biased” against Quayle. I thought it was our job to ask uncomfortable questions, not to seek accolades as celebrity pundits in a patriotism contest.

But without cultural support for that kind of insolence, journalists made popularity their Faustian bargain with the bottom line. Bloviators are hired on radio and cable TV for their ratings rather than their honesty or wisdom, and a news story’s spreadable popularity (as the most emailed or highest ranked on sites like Digg) establishes the journalist’s value to sponsors. Few noticed until after Hurricane Katrina, the faltering of the Iraq War and the economic meltdown, that the unpopular questions were not being asked effectively before the crisis. This has always been a challenge, of course, but it is more so when the paying customers prefer faith over facts.

It’s been an extraordinary privilege to serve for 18 months as research director at C4FCM. The work has been highly experimental, creative and public-spirited. This is a wonderful place to invent communication technologies and practices that promote civic engagement in local settings. Some of it is already a lot more promising than old journalism ever was. We need to apply these new media affordances for civic good. How can people build cultural practices that use communication technologies to best advantage personal agency and healthy communities, all around the world? Let’s all keep working on that, even as we see the terrible and stirring pictures and words coming out of Iran, Gaza, and other crisis areas.

Part of the original C4FCM team is breaking up after this conference, as Henry Jenkins moves on to USC, and outreach director Ingeborg Endter and I depart MIT. But the Knight Foundation grant work is in excellent hands with two of the original creators of the Center, C4FCM Director and Principal Investigator Chris Csikszentmihalyi, and Associate Director and Principal Investigator Mitchel Resnick, as well as C4FCM’s new administrator, Sarah Wolozin.

When I leave MIT next week in order to take up a new life in Budapest, I will be an Annenberg Fellow in Civic Media at the Center for Media and Communication Studies at Central European University. Please keep checking in with the MIT Center for Future Civic Media here at http://civic.mit.edu and stay in touch with me through my website, www.ellenhume.com

Comments

Best wishes to you & yours on your CEU adventures, and thanks for this last MIT-based essay. At least we have this Internet thingie so you can stay in touch.