September 27, 2005

News Meets the Global Thought Bubble

I am writing on the plane, en route to New York for a discussion organized by the Museum of Television & Radio about the "Intersection of Blogging and Mainstream News."

The group is loaded with enough media heavyweights - from Brown to Nisenholtz to Kaplan - to make me wonder how I got invited (thanks, Jarvis). Among the questions posed by the organizers are:

 How are traditional news organizations responding to citizen journalism and blogging?
 What interests do citizen journalism and mainstream news organizations share? Where are they at odds?
 How wide is the culture gap between incumbent new organizations and citizen journalists?
 How can each form of journalism enhance the other to serve the public better?
 What types of news products and business models might emerge?

These are big questions. Some have simple answers (the width of old-media-new-media culture gap is Grand Canyonesque). Others require profounder responses (what will future audiences of news look like?)

For me, a good place to start is with the nature of the blogosphere itself - a planet-wide theater that truly makes the world a stage for every citizen, provides an unlimited, ever-changing audience and gives everyone who wants one a shot at a piece of the box office. The New York Times last month said in an editorial that "it's natural enough to think of the growth of the blogosphere as a merely technical phenomenon.

"But it's also a profoundly human phenomenon, a way of expanding and, in some sense, reifying the ephemeral daily conversation that humans engage in. Every day the blogosphere captures a little more of the strange immediacy of the life that is passing before us. Think of it as the global thought bubble of a single voluble species."

Three phrases in that paragraph contain the essence of the opportunity - and the threat - blogging holds for mainstream news organizations: Daily conversation, immediacy of life and global thought bubble.

Daily conversation

The communal shared conversation was, until 15 years ago, the province of newspapers and the networks. The decisions of the editors and news managers of these organizations resulted in daily news agenda that provided grist for the national, regional or local conversation. There were few outlets for "news" beyond these legacy media.

The beginning of the end of old news occurred during Gulf War I, when CNN, personified in the visages of Peter Arnett, yelling into a satellite phone atop a hotel in Baghdad beneath the sky streaked green with anti-aircraft fire, and Bernard Shaw, steady and strong-jawed live on deadline, showed the American public and other journalists that cable could do serious news.

Then came the Clinton years and the proliferation of talk radio, both politicized by and helping create a growing national conservatism that came to regard the airwave pundits as more truthful and more trustworthy than the "liberal media" that was their frequent target.

During this time, of course, the Internet evolved both technologically and socially to the point where its earlier, unfulfilled promise of personal configuration - of news, of entertainment, of social interaction - became a reality, but with a twist only a prescient few had foreseen: Blogging, the power of anyone to publish.

The national conversation is gone, splintered amid media sliced so thin that a person can spend all of his or her media use time within a comforting bubble of self-reinforcing interests. Or, that person can remix the slices, reassemble media across locality and topic and engage in a worldwide conversation with others of similar interests.

The national conversation is gone, replaced by the global conversation.

News media - and journalists - that prosper in this environment will do so because they both enable and participate in that conversation. Their key to entry is their work product - its quality, its transparency, and its authenticity of voice and authority of knowledge.

Immediacy of life

Media is most powerful when it captures, or approximates, the authentic pace and emotion of human life. And with each passing decade, as connection between media and public, between media producer and media consumer, becomes more intimate and therefore more compelling, the expectation of what media can and should do is raised.

Yesterday's immediacy is today's archive fodder.

For example, the powerful images of bloodied American soldiers made by both print and broadcast photojournalists during the Vietnam War were shot on film, flown from the battlefield to be developed elsewhere, and then published or broadcast a day or even days later. Nonetheless, at the time the speed of this ground-level photojournalism and the relatively unfiltered content of the images themselves brought into America's living-rooms the brutal emotions of war, sentiments that contributed to the nation's ultimate disaffection with the conflict.

Flash forward to Iraq: Embedded correspondents, faces glowing green from night vision cameras, broadcast live from their Humvees as U.S. troops cross the Kuwaiti border. Live from the war zone. See it now in a way Ed Murrow never envisioned.

Immediacy is taken for granted these days - even for news that is delayed. Again from Iraq, when the photos of Pvt. Lynndie England making naked Iraqis bark like dogs inside Abu Ghraib hit the Internet, they flowed like rushing water from one web site to another, linked by bloggers of all political persuasion, including those considered enemies by the United States. In the global conversation, even those trying to kill each other can join in.

In the world of "now," where the news continuum runs from ancient history to a moment ago and technology gives the public access to the entire timeline at once, there are many value points, locations, where journalists can stake out ground and publishers can build business models to pay for the journalism.

When media is omnipresent, location has value. When media is overwhelming, editing has value. When media is instantaneous, context has value. When media is spun, truth has value. When media is suspect, data have value. When media is overly professional, amateurs have values. When media is professionally arrogant, authentic amateurs have value.

Global thought bubble

I like this phrase so much I wish I had coined it. When I think of the blogosphere, I recall the colorful world maps that hung on the wall of my high school geography classroom. On them, curved arrows and various shapes and sizes depicted the swirling rivers of ocean and air currents that move endlessly, seamlessly around the globe. The Jet Stream, the Gulf Stream, the Alaska Current. The blogosphere is the same -- The Thought Stream -- moving across geography, beyond nationality, node by node from one individual to another, tying people together in a swirling current of ideas, debate and interaction.

It is the globalization of thought, forming within it virtual nations of interest - commercial, political, social, recreational - whose citizens create their own standards for media authority and own patterns of media use. The media serving the "nation of politics" will have little in common with the media serving the "nation of digital photography" except with their interests overlap, such as when laws are considered that might infringe on the rights of a photographer.

Journalists in this global "community of communities" have many opportunities, even some with legacy news models. Newspapers will not disappear, but they will retreat into niches of locality (your town news), topic (sports, business, science) or quality (high or low). The mass in the middle will be squeezed out of existence.

Newer opportunities are arising to serve these emerging nations of interests. As business models, most remain as yet unproven. Web organizations like PaidContent.org, blogs like Talking Points Memo, citizen journalism efforts like Bayosphere and Bluffton Today provide examples of new vehicles for journalism.

Journalism is moving beyond its traditional boundaries. The news this week that Yahoo hired a handful of business columnists (Ben Stein and Stephen Covey among them) to produce original content (on the heels of contracting with solo journalists Kevin Sites to report from war zones) signifies a recognition that content enmeshed in services is still important and that journalism can be a branding experience that can drive readership. [Read: Yahoo Answers the Question: Who Will Pay for the Journalism?] Mainstream journalists should take Yahoo's leap from news aggregator to news producer as a hopeful sign that new business models are developing to pay for journalism.

The globalization of ideas - the global thought bubble that the blogosphere enables - will create demand for more journalism not less, for more reporting, more fact-finding and truth-telling, more data and more analysis of that data to feed and help generate ideas. Traditional journalists can adapt and participate or they can let others fill that role.

To me it's a no-brainer. I choose the former.

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Posted by Tim Porter at September 27, 2005 09:07 PM
Comments

Tim:
Once again, you've absolutely nailed it. I'm going to email this link to my staff, and to others in the industry I've been advising. You put in print, in an organized, meaningful way, all of the random comments (and more) that I've been making about this very subject.
Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.
Ken

Posted by: Ken Sands on September 29, 2005 07:57 AM
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