Our readings from the last couple weeks have looked at the impact of the internet on journalism and government. Ultimately, I think it’s a story of two forces:
- The groundswell: described by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff in their book by the same name, the groundswell is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions.” (I explored this idea in an earlier post).
- Crowdsourcing: Jeff Howe, who is credited with coining the term, defines crowdsourcing as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call. Or, as he puts it in his “soundbyte version” of the definition – “the application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.”
In journalism, it seems it’s been more a story of the groundswell, because institutions (i.e., newspapers and other traditional media sources) have been so resistant to the changes made possible – even inevitable – by the internet. As a result of this resistance, these institutions have not put out open calls, guiding the efforts of the “crowd” towards a common end goal. Instead, people have been blogging, tweeting, and discussing online, adding their own reports, observations, opinions, and analyses to the media mix – very much a groundswell effect.
This resistance of most traditional media institutions is highlighted in the blog post by Dave Winer we read, in which he analyzes eight speeches given by news execs. Winer points out that “these guys” don’t see the value of the internet, simply moving their existing editorial structure from print to the Internet as if that will take care of it. One of the speeches Winer mentions, a 2007 speech by executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, truly underlines the point. Keller refers to the internet as the “great disrupter,” calls the purchasing of newspapers by billionaires “a silver lining”, and insists that the “worldwide corps of trained, skilled reporters” traditional media institutions deploy and their “rigorous set of standards” are simply unmatchable by digital newcomers. All of which betray he might very well deserve Winer’s characterization of him as someone “who clearly thinks almost everyone who doesn’t work at the NY Times is stupid.”
Keller fails to recognize that there is reporting happening online, in the form of first-hand reports from all over the world; that there can be standards online (Wikipedia’s emphasis on and patrol of verifiability and accuracy); and that the internet might actually help journalism be better (especially if the open source idea of “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” can be applied to improve verifiability, not make it worse). I’m not saying this admittedly utopian view of the internet’s impact on journalism is true, or even likely – just that it’s possible. And that news execs aren’t considering the possibility.
As Clay Shirky points out, in revolutions, “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place” – no one knows what journalism 2.0 will look like exactly. But some of the examples we’ve seen in our readings highlight the possibilities, for better and for worse. Much of what’s happening in journalism, as I mentioned, seems to be groundswell-esque ways of reporting and sharing information, with blogs, twitter, and other outlets allowing people to turn to each other for information. While a lot of work done in this realm is sharing of information reported elsewhere, there are examples of actual reporting being done – Susannah Breslin’s experiment with self-publishing long-form journalism comes to mind.
Other examples of reporting are more like crowdsourcing than a groundswell – with a leader or institution directing the process – Denton’s blog empire, WikiLeaks, and OffTheBus come to mind. It is interesting to note that traditional media institutions are not moving into this space of directed crowdsourcing, or even grappling with the potential it has to revolutionize journalism. If they would stop fighting the change, and figure out how to leverage it, perhaps they would move into this space, and perhaps it could help them change with the times instead of being steamrolled by them.
In government, although there are some examples of people turning to each other to accomplish things that government used to do (we talked in class about an example of citizens pitching in money to hire construction workers to pave a road that their government just wouldn’t get around to paving), it seems more a story of crowdsourcing. That is, government guiding (and responding to) input from the crowd. I’ve mentioned Mayor Menino’s New Urban Mechanics approach before, and this past week’s reading has introduced me to other fascinating examples. One is the e-Democracia Project in Brazil, which “aims to engage the citizens in the lawmaking process to achieve tangible legislative results.” The project’s website allows citizens to share information about a problem that requires a legislative solution, identify and discuss possible solutions, and even draft the bill. We also read about Manor, Texas, a city on the forefront of Gov 2.0 innovations. The process involves “using open source technologies that empower citizens to co-create government with officials and city employees”. Similarly, Expert Labs is looking to connect policymakers with “the vast community of knowledge that lives on the web” (although this begs the question – what about connecting them with citizens more broadly?).
So, in a way, government seems more willing than traditional media institutions to engage with the internet and open source philosophies. Not sure if this says government is more innovative and open to change than we usually assume or if it says media institutions are depressingly not innovative and open to change. Maybe a little bit of both.
Of course, although government is slowly dangling its toes into this new pool of opportunities, there are a lot of barriers to its jumping in fully, beginning with the bureaucracy and red tape inherent in governmental institutions that make change – particularly revolutionary and transformative change – very difficult. As Alex Howard points out, the “cultural shifts required for full adoption [of open government] are not in the DNA of many federal or state agencies”. Howard also points out further complications of the move to open government – it’s risky, incremental, and an unfunded mandate; there are security and privacy risks to consider, as well as the danger of inevitable crashes and failures (particularly when considering the weight of certain government decisions, like nuclear launches and court rulings).
Ultimately though, the revolution is coming – incrementally, but inevitably – and both journalism and government are going to have to deal. In doing so, among other things, it will be interesting to see the balance between the groundswell/“people turning to each other” approach and the crowdsourcing/institutions guiding the crowd in collective action approach.