Local Media in a Postmodern World
The Public Journal
May 2008

by Terry Heaton

My JournalSlowly but surely the path that leads to journalism's future is increasingly one of participation by the people formerly known as the audience. The extent to which the public will be a part of journalism tomorrow is often missed by those who continue the fight to maintain the status quo, but as as Sony CEO Howard Stringer said recently, "When you defend the status quo when the quo has lost its status, youíre in trouble."

Traditional journalists try to separate themselves from the rise of personal media by perjoratively referring to "them" as amateurs. "User-generated content" is a convenient but terribly misleading moniker that is used to perpetuate the myth that journalists are somehow special people and that this is what gives us our place in the culture.

This is unfortunate, for what's taking place in front of us is nothing less than a breathtaking reinvention of how we inform each other as a people, and journalists — those normally curious researchers of everything from perps to pets — are missing it almost entirely. As Upton Sinclair wrote many years ago, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Since the earliest of times, the journal in journalism was the thing, a neatly bound expression of the writer's stories or the stories of many writers. Regardless, people stood in line to obtain the journal and, sooner or later, the publishers discovered that people would actually pay for it, whether directly through subscriptions or indirectly through advertising. A business model was born, and along with it, the drift away from the journal and towards the "ism" — what 12-step groups refer to as "I, self, me."

Media advisor, analyst, academician and author Robert Picard wrote in 2004 of how commercialization had impacted the soul of the journal.

This situation has promoted self-interested behavior aimed at exploiting market potential, and there is a growing conflict between the role of newspapers as servants of readers and the exploitation of readers to seek additional commercial gain. It should not be surprising that the public increasingly sees the press as just another business that is more concerned with its own economic interests than with the broader interests of those it purports to serve.

Media evolved in terms of the method and means of delivering the journal, but the essence of the journal itself remained constant — the output of the writer.

newspaper boyIn its earliest iterations, blogging was also about the journal. One of the earliest players in the game is actually named "Live Journal," a site where teens could share their thoughts with themselves and their friends. There were the occasional posts by other, more — cough, cough — esteemed bloggers suggesting that Live Journal wasn't blogging at all, but that self-serving argument was put to rest when MySpace started calling such journals "blogs." A blog is a blog. Period.

So now, everybody writes, and everybody publishes. Flickr is a repository of millions of photographs. YouTube is a repository of millions of videos. Facebook and MySpace are home to the journals of millions. Twitter follows the movements of millions. The open source software movement has placed powerful — and free — content management systems in the hands of millions, including advertisers. Aggregators of any form of information stream are also available anywhere and are today even woven into the fabric of browsers. And all of it shows no signs of slowing down.

In 2004, Simon Bucks, Associate Editor of SkyNews in London, made news when he was asked about citizen journalism and replied "How about citizen heart surgeons?" In a remarkable recantation of that last year, Bucks noted that the new stars of journalism may be on Facebook or MySpace.

The cultural issue is altogether tougher, not just for Sky News, but for all news organisations. Most journalists have grown up with the idea that we tell people the news which we think they should be told.

Confession time: I was guilty too. I once argued that you wouldnít trust a citizen journalist any more than a citizen heart surgeon. It was a paternalistic and sermonising approach that most of us shared, but it wonít do any more.

Web 2.0 (the generic name for the interactive internet) is giving the media to the people. On-demand news means that people can choose the news they want, when they want it. And they can interact with it, rant about it, and contribute to it. The coming generation of news-users, the 16- to 24-year-olds, have grown up with this concept, and expect nothing less.

the constant nowBut even more significant than the reality that everybody is a reporter — that citizen "journalism" is here to stay — is what's happening to the journal itself.

Not only is it no longer the realm of the few; its very nature is changing. The journal is a constant now, ever morphing from one form to another and making sense only in the moment it is consumed. No entry is complete unto itself, for all are infuenced by what was before and all lead to the next. The journal has become one continuous flow of raw information that serves the moment, and this is the paradigm of journalism for tomorrow.

It is the news gathering process that is tomorrow's journal. If the finished products of our efforts are no longer a sustainable model, then we must let people into — and participate with — the process of gathering the news and let that become our primary model.

And it will come with new guidelines and princples. At one point in its ongoing coverage of the death of actor Heath Ledger, the gossip/entertainment site TMZ.com reported that Ledger had died in the apartment of Mary Kate Olsen, which was incorrect. The New York Times "City Room" blog also got it wrong.

Both corrected the mistake as soon as it was known and moved on, and the Los Angeles Times later provided a fascinating glimpse into the unedited world of continuous news:

But hereís the problem: Stories have never arrived to the world fully formed or vetted. Journalists have generally had hours — not minutes or seconds — to craft a story from the blast wave of facts and factoids that comes in the wake of a bombshell.

What people are seeing now is an old-fashioned process — reporting — as it unfolds in real time. If the public wants its information as raw and immediate as possible, itíll have to get used to a few missteps along the way, and maybe even approach breaking stories with a bit of skepticism, like a good reporter would.

So a part of this "process" of news is mistakes, and the ethical question is does it matter in a world of raw and unedited news-as-a-process? This is just one of the many issues with which we'll have to grapple in the years to come, for mistakes are a part of everyday life in the professional newsgathering process. They are corrected as stories advance, and nobody thinks anything about it, because for us, the journal is the thing.

So in a world where that newsgathering process is also the product, we have to assume that mistakes and errors will be a part of the stream. We'll correct them when they happen and move on, just like we do today in the process of gathering the news. The legal world will have to make adjustments, too. An error, for example, published in the "unerasable" world of finished-product news, for example, carries a different kind of authoritative weight than one that can be altered within minutes, especially if it's couched in language that doesn't express finality.

These are the types of things that our culture will have to work out, as the journal evolves into a continuous, public stream.

Robert ScobleTechnology is the servant of the public journal, and that is going to continue to shape the degree to which it is truly public. Nobody understands this better than Robert Scoble, the blogging pioneer who is beginning a new job with Fast Company. Scoble got a lot of attention from the blogosphere for live streaming recently from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — mostly for his comments that it takes fewer clicks to stream live video than it does to make a phone call.

But the more profound disruption that Scoble is discovering was revealed in an interview with Jeff Jarvis:

When I turn on my cellphone, it tells Twitter that I'm now streaming, and an audience shows up pretty quickly. I find that even having a small audience makes the interaction more interesting, because people will help me interview whoever I'm aiming the camera at. An audience can now participate in something live and influence the interactions that I'm having with somebody in front of the camera.

Scoble is a guy who's at the cutting edge of the cutting edge, and his experiences will be repeated by many others in the years ahead. This ability to include the people formerly known as the audience in the creation of the product — as it's being created — has staggering ramifications for the news business and the public journal.

Business viability for media in this new world will be driven by many of the same attributes that separate news organizations in the world of the private journal, including the editorial process, the arguments and opinions of those filtering the inbound streams, convenience and habit. The only downside for media companies is the refusal to participate, because the journal that increasingly matters is now written by everyone.

This is the ultimate "new" in new media.

© Terry Heaton