The Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School recently hosted an event entitled "How to Make Money in News: New Business Models for the 21st Century". This reminded me of a Washington Post editorial by Michael Gerson contrastingly titled “Journalism’s slow, sad death”. I came across the editorial a while back and decided to hold on to my copy, intending to reflect on some of Gerson’s points. Chancing upon the Shorenstein Center event provided me with just the opportunity.
As I reread Gerson’s piece, the following point jumped out at me: “… the whole (news and information) system is based on a kind of intellectual theft. Internet aggregators (who link to the news they don’t produce) and bloggers would have little time to collect or comment upon without the costly enterprise of newsgathering and investigative reporting. The old-media dinosaurs remain the basis for the entire media food chain. But newspapers are expected to provide their content free on the Internet.”
I think there’s some truth to this line of reasoning. It’s certainly the case that the “old media” in many places, in rich and poor countries alike, still serve as the “first rough draft of history”, and new technologies enable some form of “intellectual theft”. In the Philippines, for example, the front pages of spreadsheets and tabloids are featured on early morning television news programs, their headlines read on air by radio news anchors. Commentators and bloggers then comment on the original news content. Community radio stations in the developing world also broadcast newspaper stories over the airwaves, according to colleagues at the World Bank who have worked in various countries. Citizens then weigh in using their celphones, mainly via text messages. And there are websites, such as Global Voices, that aggregate news from media outlets all over the world.
So internet sites do aggregate and bloggers do comment on news content, as this blog does quite often – present post included. But is this really a form of intellectual piracy? At the Shorenstein Center event, David Levy, Director of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism posits not: “The Internet isn't killing news, what it's doing is it's increasing the reach... and the degree of engagement with news. What is true is that it's undermining one historic model of news organization in many countries, but even that isn't a universal trend. If you look at Brazil, look at India, we see the demand for conventional newspapers can go up, as well as down. Mature markets, such as Sweden and Finland, show us that the world's highest rate of Internet penetration can coexist with the highest rates of newspaper readership.”
In a similar vein, Arianna Huffington argues that “the future of journalism will be a hybrid future where traditional media players embrace the ways of new media (including transparency, interactivity, and immediacy) and new media companies adopt the best practices of old media (including fairness, accuracy, and high-impact investigative journalism).”
But who knows what the future holds? Traditional players might adopt the negative practices of new media and new media might embrace some bad habits of the traditional folks. In 2009, we have seen old media outlets continually close down news bureaus and opt for cheaper ways of filling airtime and newsprint. New media, on the other hand, have manged to bury in the public sphere a googol landmines of misinformation and distrust.
As we forge ahead into a new decade, we need innovative business and nonprofit models that will help pay for news gathering and production processes. More than ever, we need trusted sources and gatekeepers to help citizens chart a safe path to good information that leads to informed opinion and participation. And we, as citizens, need to care enough to want to know the difference.
Photo credit: Flickr user Robyn Gallagher