Old Dogs, New Tricks

Mass media firms, and the people who work for them, face a choice: to lose social and economic relevance or embrace the new participatory ethic of the Web and find ways to profit from it. That’s my brutal synopsis of an essay entitled “The Future is Here, But Do News Media Companies See It.”

The piece was written for the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University by Chris Willis and Shayne Bowman, who run the Hypergene blog. Willis and Bowman are advocates of so-called citizen journalism and were involved in the 2003 report, We Media, that has been one of the roadmaps and manifestos of audience participation.

So they have a point of view. That being said, their analysis rings true:

“Citizens everywhere are getting together via the Internet in unprecedented ways to set the agenda for news, to inform each other about hyper-local and global issues, and to create new services in a connected, always-on society. The audience is now an active, important participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information, with or without the help of mainstream news media. (Emphasis added)”

This last observation is the point. There’s an old saying, “If you can’t beat –em, join –em,” and in more and better words Willis and Bowman suggest that mass media must embrace participation in order to survive:

“Citizen media is a trend that mainstream news media clearly recognize. With great trepidation and reluctance, mainstream media are beginning to learn how to evolve their business from an authoritarian “top-down” approach to integrate and report on user-generated news, as well as establish ways to collaborate in meaningful ways with its audience. However, they still have trouble letting go of control.”

And here, the authors remind us of another adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Mass media are accustomed to filtering and checking information, and when the filtering fails — oh, let’s say as in Rathergate — reputations are ruined and heads roll. So how do cautious news professionals embrace the shoot-first, apologize-later ethic of the emerging Web media?

In a comment posted in response to the essay, newspaperman-turned-Web guy Jay Small turns that question on its head, and wonders what will happen if the professionals don’t find ways to work with the amateurs and instead try to trim expenses as their revenues get siphoned off by new media. As Small says :

“The most likely scenario, in my mind, is that old-line news media will manage themselves slowly down to an economic floor where the sustainable value of Internet information services they can operate meets and beats the cost of operating them.”

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media