According to New York Magazine, when addressing his "Reporting and Writing I" class, Columbia Journalism Professor Ari Goldman is reported to have said "Fuck new media!" and to have described online media training as "playing with toys." His print-centric approach to journalism joins a chorus of practicing newsgatherers contemplating the end of the newspaper business as we know it.
It might appear a bit self-serving or conflicted when bastions of the mainstream media publish article after article bemoaning the death of newspapers, or claiming that only their business model for the collection and dissemination of information will save the American republic. Thus there are Walter Isaacson over at Time Magazine, David Lazarus of the LA Times and David Carr of the New York Times (among many others) who insist that readers pay for their news or suffer an increase in corruption or the end of the Republic. According to these sources, if news dissemination moves to the Internet, we must adopt a new, lucrative business model that will generate revenue sufficient to support their extensive news operations.
At least L. Gordon Crovitz over at the Wall Street Journal is upfront about his perceived need to feather journalists' nests. Under the heading "Information Wants to Be Expensive" he writes:
“People are happy to pay for news and information however it's delivered, but only if it has real, differentiated value. Traders must have their Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters terminal. Lawyers wouldn't go to court without accessing the Lexis or West online service.”
I wouldn't say I'm happy to pay for my news, especially when the traditional newsgathering operations set much of the agenda of what is worth investigating and knowing about and what isn't.
What traditionalists contemplating the future of news on the internet don't mention is that the need to charge their readers is a result of the hyperlink structure of the World Wide Web itself where banner ads have not yet (and may never) replace the revenue generated by print advertising.
Under the current business model in newspapers, the amount of news that is "fit to print" is determined by the number of column inches of advertising sold. The money I pay for my personal copy of the paper largely goes to support the newsstand where I make my purchase.
Of course, setting up pay tiers for information automatically creates text-based information "haves" and broadcast media-based information "have-nots", not exactly what the Founding Fathers envisioned when the drew up the First Amendment. Those who can pay will get the internet value, the rest of us news seekers will have to watch or listen to broadcast headlines.
There are alternatives already in production on the web. Blogs, Wikis, Facebook groups, Twitter cabals and many other information sharing operations are still in the process of becoming, but may have the potential to replace the key functions of mainstream media with free, open access to just the information each of us needs. As David Bollier notes in The Huffington Post, a myriad of below-the-radar activities on the Web are undermining corporate gatekeeping and control of news content:
“There are now countless online communities dedicated to generating their own content. It turns out that the joys of shopping pale in comparison to the pleasures of sharing and curating information with a community of peers.”
One can easily imagine a near future without newsprint:
Well, its been two years since the last printed newspaper shut down and I’ve finally settled into to the newspaperless media ecology. My day started with a two way tweet to President Obama concerning the latest stimulus package, protesting the inclusion of yet another bailout for NBC, CBS and ABC. The President agrees that network broadcasting is obsolete, but we can’t afford to let the three majors fail. Meanwhile, over at Fox, the “all reality programming all the time” former network, Bill O’Reilly was voted off “Debating with the Stars.”
I pulled out my handheld to review this hour’s digital news headlines, some of which I had contributed, when I noticed that our new puppy, Rush, had had another accident on the new carpet. “Bad boy!” I scolded him, tapping him lightly on the nose with my PDA. I completed my other chores, cycling out the old disposable laptop from the bottom of the budgie cage and lining the bottom of the garbage pail with old thumbdrive detritus. I wonder what we used before they came up with that solution?
As usual to start my work day, I exchanged text messages with my congressman, my senator and my friend in the Middle East who keeps my Facebook group up to date on the Palestine-Israeli détente. I noted that my YouTube video has achieved 100,000+ views and surveyed some of the response videos. I considered starting a new group, “Media Ecologists against the use of sepia tone videos” but put it off until later.
Later I set up a three way video conference with my SO who is away on business in Chicago and my daughter, who is on a mid-term break trip to Africa. We finalized plans for our family vacation this summer to one of the new National Tree Farm Parks that recently opened while the country gives the older national parks a few years fallow time to complete recovery from the ravages of the Bush years.
My daughter is researching and shooting a school report on the history of newspapers and had some questions:
- Is it true that the first toy airplanes were made out of something called "paper"?
- Did opinion columns and editorials once only go one way?
- What is papier maché?
So, Professor Goldman, perhaps the better message to your students (and would-be future journalists) would be: "Make love to the new media, not war!"
I don't often post an entire article written by someone else on my blog, but this overview of this new "Digital Republic" by David Bollier is so germane to the continuing news about newspaper decline that I think its worth a read.
From The Huffington Post, March March 19, 2009:
How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own
The Bush Administration achieved a virtual lockdown of American political culture for eight years, bringing policy innovation to an utter standstill. So consider this improbable fact: one of the most significant achievements in open, participatory democracy in history burst forth during the Bush years.
Working in the parallel universe of the Internet, a loosely coordinated, global federation of digital tribes built a new kind of democratic culture. This culture is embodied in free and open source software, the blogosphere and hundreds of wikis on specialized topics. It can be seen in remix music and amateur videos, the flourishing social networking sites, and new types of "open business" models.
These innovations are not primarily creatures of government or the marketplace. They represent a new "commons sector" -- a realm of collective wealth generated by ordinary people through their own resourcefulness and sharing, largely outside of the money economy.
Although the tech world gets a lot of attention, few people appreciate how the new commons sector is achieving a slow-mo political revolution. As I put it in the subtitle of my new book Viral Spiral, the commoners have built a digital republic of their own. Using software code, free public licenses authorizing sharing and their own imaginations, the commoners have built an impressive civic, economic and cultural infrastructure that belongs to them. It is a world based on open access, decentralized creativity, collaborative intelligence and cheap and easy sharing.
The established order, meanwhile -- the world of centralized control, strict intellectual property rights and hierarchies of credentialed experts -- is under siege. Broadcast networks, daily newspapers, government agencies and politicians are still nominally "in control" -- but with each passing day, the new culture of the commons asserts its powers and out-maneuvers the old order.
The influence of this new sector -- law professor Lawrence Lessig has dubbed it "free culture" -- is large and growing. There are, for example, thousands of free software and open source software programs that power Web sites and blogs, information archives and social networking communities. Where would we be without GNU Linux (operating system), Mozilla (web-browsing), Thunderbird (email), bitTorrent (file-sharing) and BIND, Perl and Apache, which are central to many Internet functions? Linux alone -- a free program created by a vast commons of programmers -- is estimated to have spawned some $30 billion in economic activity.
More than 150 million Web objects now use Creative Commons licenses, an ingenious "hack" around copyright law that lets people allow the legal sharing, copying and distribution of their works. Online sharing and collaboration have become so popular that companies now base their business models around them.
Yet the real story is the power of the commons itself. There are now countless online communities dedicated to generating their own content. It turns out that the joys of shopping pale in comparison to the pleasures of sharing and curating information with a community of peers.
For every name-brand commons like Craigslist, Flickr and Wikipedia, there are thousands of impressive niche sites like Flu Wiki (decentralized tabulation of flu outbreaks), Wikitravel (user-generated travel guides) and Jamendo (music sharing). Sometimes these commons actual serve as "staging areas" for commercial startups. The Internet Movie Database, now the leading database of film facts and credits, was started by two film buffs. Gracenote, the database that looks up information about audio CDs, was started by a community of music fans. This is a new macroeconomic reality -- the commons as an incubator for market innovation.
To date, the commons sector has largely eluded mainstream attention because it is so fragmented and decentralized. It doesn't necessarily make money and it is run by self-organized amateurs. Neither government nor corporations are "in charge" of this eclectic, unorganized realm. It's supposedly a world of bloggers in their pajamas and teenagers exchanging silly videos via YouTube. How can we take it seriously?
Not surprisingly, powerful people from President Obama to corporate executives to newspaper publishers use the commons sector as a convenient foil. They try to dismiss it as a way to show that they remain in control -- and that the insurgent digital republic can be safely ignored.
The commoners know better.
After centuries of being victimized by market forces, the commoners now have powerful tools to protect and advance their interests. They no longer have to put up with the privatization and commodification of their shared inheritance and collective work -- a process known as "enclosure."
The commoners now have their own software infrastructures and open platforms. They have their own legal licenses to prevent anyone from "taking private" their content. One need only recall how Disney appropriated fairy tales and literary classics to build its corporate empire. Or how commercial broadcasters have used the public's airwaves for decades, for free. Or how Big Pharma pays a pittance (if anything) for exclusive rights to federal drug research -- which is then sold back to us as expensive proprietary drugs.
But in the online world, the commoners are asserting their control. Think how the mainstream media are often two steps behind the blogosphere, and how GNU Linux has taken huge market share away from Microsoft. Consider how YouTube is stealing audiences from the broadcast networks....and how the music industry has now eliminated "digital rights management" encryption from most recorded music.
Remember how Barack Obama's candidacy was borne aloft by the commoners acting on their own -- and think how Obama and Congress now face a mobilized public that is more actively engaged in our national political life than ever.
While centralized media continues their sad decline, remix artists and indie musicians and filmmakers are producing some of the most daring new works around. Newcomers with style and vision are using the Web to reach audiences cheaply and directly, without having to get the approval of stodgy, risk-averse Hollywood gatekeepers.
In education and science, there are strong movements underway to reclaim control over knowledge. In the face of soaring subscription rates for academic journals, academics have created more than 3,900 "open access" journals that are free to everyone, in perpetuity. M.I.T. and dozens of other universities have put their curricula up on the Web for free, spurring a new "open courseware" movement.
Students frustrated by exorbitant textbook prices are starting to develop "open textbook" projects, in the style of a wiki, so that they can pay $25 for a print-on-demand textbook with the latest scholarship, rather than $125 for a standard commercial textbook that may be outdated.
An open culture, a sharing economy and a digital republic: the foundations for this new world actually matured during the nightmarish Bush years, beneath its contemptuous gaze. Now that such radical ideas as participation, transparency and accountability have a stable home on the Internet (provided Net Neutrality can be assured), the challenge will be to safeguard this world -- and build it out even further.
R. Buckminster Fuller once said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." That's exactly what the commons sector is doing. For all the thrashing about that will surely occur in coming years, somehow I think I know who will prevail.
David Bollier is an editor of OntheCommons.org and the author of Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own (New Press). For several short video interviews with Bollier on the "viral spiral," visit here, here and here.