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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Here's the Media Company I Want to Work for, Too!

Amid all the sturm und drang of the MSM's travails, the alleged evils of media concentration, Rathergate, convergence, etc. etc., the Internet is sparking the creation of a new journalism. Media pundits, talking heads and futurists have been saying so for at least a decade, but who can name the existing media company, new or otherwise, that actually embodies the culture and products that can reasonably be expected of a new journalism? The work of some among the top bloggers illustrates the underlying principles of an emerging new journalism, but only on a limited scale and typically only within the narrow confines of one or a few public policy issues.

What will a new journalism media company look like whenever it appears? Online Journalism Review's Mark Glaser has a superb piece on Professor Jay Rosen's always stimulating PressThink that lays out a dozen characteristics he believes will characterize such a company. Glaser's piece, as well as the succeeding commens from Rosen and others, are well worth a careful read.

In the meantime, my two-cents worth revolves around these points that I believe are at the heart of Glaser's vision:

"A group of like-minded people who are willing to start from scratch and build a new way of doing smart, groundbreaking citizen journalism. Not too amateur, not too professional but something in between.
"A company that is flexible and knowledgeable, with people who 'get it' and understand how they can tap the latest technology to improve the craft of journalism -- and help it survive. "These new journalists would blend the research done online via search and databases, the production process of a content management system, the community involvement of bulletin boards and
wikis, and the delivery mechanisms of RSS, blogs and mobile platforms.
"Rather than teach old dogs new tricks, employ techno-literate people from inception. The 'everyone gets it' company.
"A commitment to provide more transparency for all writers and editors, including political leanings, conflicts of interest and other details that will help readers know who they are. A balance of privacy for journalists with the public's need to know who they are and where they come from."

First, I think Glaser undervalues the skills of the new journalists. They won't be "somewhere between" the amateur and professional, but will instead redefine both of those terms, which are themselves relics of a bureacratic era. Today, "professionals" work for MSM companies, amateurs don't. The presumption, at least in the minds of the professionals, is that they alone are able to do journalism. This is credentialism at its worst.

I suggest that with the emerging new journalism, the relevant distinction won't be professional versus amateur but rather contributor or constructor versus detractor. We are rapidly reaching a point where practically anybody and everybody who has even rudimentary web access can provide some level of "reporting." The important distinction will be reporting that expands the universe of verifiable knowledge or fact about an event, personality, program or product, and reporting that doesn't, either because it is found to be false, inaccurate, incomplete or otherwise value-less. How exactly this is going to look on a resume or be embodied in law and regulation, I don't know, but the day when we all look back and say "yeah, we should have seen this coming" is not that far off in my judgement.

Second, when the nature of reporting changes, so will the nature of much of what is reported. This will be most evident in government and other institutions with an impact on public policy. The kind of transparency that will be required as a matter of course among new journalists will force far greater levels of transparency throughout government and industry, too. This will be mostly a blessing to a society that views itself as a representative democracy in which the rulers answer to the ruled, not the other way around. But it will present some unique challenges as well.

Consider, for example, the area of government contracting. The federal government now is party to more than 350,000 contracts that cover purchases of more than $200 billion annually for everything from aluminum to zinc. Getting information about the terms of those contracts, how efficiently and effectively they are being fulfilled and who is responsible for managing their fulfillment is virtually impossible because the government's internal systems like the Past Performance Information Retrievel System (PPIRS) are closed to the public.

In a society in which the media includes legions of government and private contractor employees who are themselves reporters, keeping a system like PPIRS closed will become all but impossible. That will be good from the perspective of maintaining public accountability of the bureaucracy and its friends in industry. But how will an open PPIRS keep proprietary national security information secure? See the potential for the new journalism being the source of blessings and headaches we can't even begin to contemplate today?

These are issues that need to be vented and assessed now, not after a terrorist regime (like the Mullahs who presently run Iran) is able to detonate a 5 megaton warhead in Manhattan in part because the security provisions of Uncle Sam's contract with a U.S. weapons developer were available on the web.