Over Thursday and Friday last week I attended the Media140 conference held at the ABC in Sydney. The focus of the conference was on how journalists can create value through engagement within social networks.
For someone who’s been following the citizen journalism/”new media” space for some time, there wasn’t a whole lot of new insights from the conference. I wanted to attend in part to see Jay Rosen speak on Friday morning, but also to get a better sense of where the journalism profession is at in relation to this space – especially in Australia – and to contribute positively to the conversations that would no doubt occur in between sessions.
What seems apparent from the discussion, even before Julie Posetti made the point explicit in her closing remarks, was that Twitter seems to have resulted in a bit of a tipping point with journalists entering and making sense of this space. This is undoubtedly a good thing, and while I too found it slightly tedious how much emphasis was put on Twitter overall it didn’t bother me as much as it did other attendees (judging by the Twitter backchannel) – it’s a conversation that needs to happen. If Twitter is the entry point, that’s great…
What I found promising is that most of the presenters and panelists seemed to “get it” – so a lot of the conversation (though not all) was demonstrating positive examples of these tools being used to great effect.
These concepts are not new, of course. Dan Gillmor, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen and many others have been writing about it for some time. Even in the “old media” analogue form of printed books ;) The discussion really kicked off almost 10 years ago when blogs started to gain traction and the “journalist vs. blogger” debates started raging.
Value for journalism
While a lot of the focus was on the non-monetary value of networks – a healthy and positive progression IMO – the “who will pay” theme was certainly bubbling under much of the discussion. The Thursday afternoon “How social media is changing political reporting” in particular was railroaded into a discssion of “you’ll be sorry when journalistic institutions fail.”
It was implied that people “wouldn’t pay” for journalism, and that we’d all be left worse off without publications like the Sydney Morning Herald if they failed. I think this is a reflection of a failure of the imagination and a reflection of the (not entirely unfounded) fear within elements of the industry about the uncertainty around models.
Two asides: No surprise that the most vocal was a News Limited journalist – such a coincidence that just prior to the session I read VisceralBusiness’ post on News Limited needing a “higher purpose” to be successful. I also think that the SMH is doing far more damage to it’s own reputation and readership through ridiculously intrusive advertising than social media is doing – in fact I would suspect social media sharing has increased readership of the SMH (not that I have the facts to back that up).
Should traditional institutions survive?
There seemed to be a view that institutions such as the SMH and News Limited are the only way that professional journalists will receive a paycheck. There are examples from around the world that point to new models and ideas that suggest that this is not the case. The problem is they are sometimes hard to recognise because they don’t look much like what is traditionally known – and perhaps won’t support the “big business” approach of the past (but is this really needed?).
I find it fascinating that the “industrial media”, who have built their entire model on “indirect funding” (advertising pays for the product for the most part) are really struggling to grasp the new opportunities for indirect funding in this new landscape. Note to SMH: advertising is not the only answer.
I think in part this is because a) there are still relatively few people taking the leap and trying different models and b) there isn’t necessarily single model that will save the day – it will be a variety of models applied in different ways depending on the circumstance.
All of that said, I too am concerned about how expensive investigative journalism will be paid for moving forward (I recall Jeff Jarvis raising similar concerns in the past – though he’s quick to suggest a way forward). Again, models will emerge, but there is no clear winning model at this point. NewAssignment and Newsvine are two such experiments underway. Kevin Sites’ work is another (Sites was sponsored by Yahoo! to cover zones of conflict around the world – thanks for the reminder Tobes.)
From what I can tell, a majority of what is termed “journalism” doesn’t fit the “investigative” description, but protecting this aspect of the industry is used as the justification for supporting traditional models, as though these are the only options. I think this is akin to multinational record companies using concerns for “supporting artists” as their front-line PR approach to get people to buy music. We – the public – recognise, however, that the beneficiaries are by and large the middle- to upper-management and shareholders of these companies – not the journalists themselves (who are the first to get axed in downsizing efforts). With this in mind their words ring somewhat hollow.
I think there are many potential opportunities for industrial media to play a positive role in these new spaces – to re-assert their relevance and value into the future. If they do this, and start ASAP seeking/experimenting/trialing alternative models, they will be well placed to transition. The problem is they’ve had 10 years to start seriously working on alternative models, and now time may be running out…
Fact checking is not an exclusive right
We also didn’t escape the “journalists fact check, social media sources don’t” arguments. Every time this point was raised I couldn’t help think two things: a) it’s often social media participants fact checking and correcting the record of mainstream media sources and b) has no-one ever heard of Josh Marshall and Talking Points Memo – crowdsourcing at it’s best where the audience helps the journalist fact check and develop stories (a point alluded to by Jay Rosen). Proof that once you get past a defensive position you can actually be open to the opportunities.
I think, though, that Riyaad Minty of Al Jazeera (an organisation that clearly gets it) provided the best response to this – while making the point that it’s still important he demonstrated how it is possible, and can provide value.
One thing’s for sure – a journalist’s personal “brand” online will become more and more important moving forward, and will become somewhat disassociated from mastheads/publications. All of the speakers that seemed to be successful in this space were establishing their own brands in this space and reaping the rewards.
I am hopeful that, as a result of this growing interest (and perhaps the conference itself), the conversation might progress and that the mainstream media will advance beyond simply allowing comments on articles. But at 10 years and counting, and these same conversations having been hashed and rehashed over that time, I suspect the job is far from done…
Updated 2009-11-18: I saw that Dilbert cartoon today and thought it was a perfect illustration for this post, so I added it…