If you want to know the future of media, see what works now

Thoughtful Open Democracy piece by Charlie Beckett.

So we all have an interest in answering the question posed most acutely in the States: can the news media of a digital age enhance democracy?

The answer is that all around us we see that networking works. Networked Journalism works. This is the synthesis I set out in SuperMedia. It combines the technical capacity of mainstream media with much greater public participation in a thoroughly more open structural relationship between citizen and/as journalist. It is about the shift in journalism from a manufacturing to a service industry. It is a change in practice, from providing a product to acting as facilitators and connectors. It means an end to duplication and a focus on what value every bit of journalism production adds.

The SuperMedia version of Networked Journalism is a description of what is happening but also an aspiration that recognises that society (and especially media organisations) must invest resource and accept a shift in power. This model does not work well enough yet to replace the old business model of mainstream mass commercial media. That is a big worry at a time of immense economic stress. But perhaps the real task is not to ‘save’ old journalistic institutions. They worked best as a means of producing surplus value for shareholders rather than in providing social, economic and political benefits for people in the 21st century.

This is not to reject market forces. Quite the opposite. Online networking exposes journalists precisely and directly with what the public want and need. That is a good thing. Of course, there are market distortions such as the tendency for online communications to produce dominant brands in search, aggregation and distribution of information such as Google and the BBC. But even these mammoths are far more attuned to their consumers’ specific interests then the giants of mainstream media ever were.

That seems about right to me — 20th century mass media were mainly machines for churning out standardised products and enhancing shareholder value along the way. Sometimes, of course, they played an important role in the democratic process, but that was not their core business, any more than non-stick frying pans were the core business of the Apollo program. If journalism is to thrive in the new ecosystem then, as Beckett says, it has to make the shift “from a manufacturing to a service industry” and its practitioners will have to change from “providing a product to acting as facilitators and connectors”. My guess is that most journalists conditioned in the old ecosystem will find this an uncomfortable or downright impossible switch.

Beckett’s piece also reminds me of something that Steven Johnson said in his celebrated lecture, when he compared the quality of contemporary (highly networked) coverage of technology with the impoverished and meagre coverage provided within the old print-based system. In that sense, to adapt William Gibson’s trope, the future of new journalism is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. And you have to know where to look for it.