Media Re:Public Final Report Released

Today, we at the Berkman Center have released a new report on the changes in the news media landscape.  For several years, we have been puzzling over the relationship between online and legacy media, dating back to the first BloggerCons; Dave Winer’s setting up a blog server on the Harvard campus; the first series of podcasts; our Thursday blog group; the Bloggers Journalism and Credibility conference, at which Jay Rosen proclaimed that “bloggers v. journalism is over”; the rise of Global Voices, the Citizens Media Law Project, and so forth.  We release this report today against a much changed backdrop: major news outlets are failing or consolidating; more people than ever are engaged in participatory journalism; and the need for more credible and diverse sources of information — and skills to assess them — continues to be substantial. 

The Media Re:Public report is an update on where things stand, and where they are headed, at a precarious moment in the news and information business.   It takes the form of a primary report, several commentaries by Berkman fellows and friends, and a series of short case studies.  We had lots of help from lots of people, through two conferences, writing and resesarch projects, and commentary on multiple drafts. 

We owe deep thanks, as we so often do, to John Bracken and our friends at the MacArthur Foundation for their support and involvement in this reflective process and work.

As for the findings?  Well, please read it!  At a minimum, there’s the main report (52 pages, with a handy executive summary, by project lead Persephone Miel and Berkman’s research director Rob Faris).  Or Ethan Zuckerman’s inspiring and challenging piece on International News.  Or at the very least watch the teaser video on YouTube.

Bloggers as Celebrities: Too Cool for School?

The organizers of a conference I’m just leaving mentioned to me a curious fact: they invited 6 prominent bloggers — not to be named here (and I am certainly not including myself in this category) — to attend the event, called The Leaders Project. Not a single one responded, not even to RSVP “no.”

I was astonished. The group had fewer than 40 attendees, each of whom apparently had responded to the invitation: famous columnists, editors of major publications from around the world, generals and admirals, news anchors, presidents of major news networks, executive producers of shows everyone watches, members of Congress, leading activists from around the world, and even a few lowly academics. It was at an amazing venue, hosted by a former cabinet secretary and US Senator, and an unexpectedly rich, varied conversation. The topic was on the changing global media landscape, a topic that ordinarily would appeal, I’d think, to the serious blogger.

Why would bloggers be the one category not even to *reply* to the invitation? It got me to thinking that perhaps these bloggers are so sought after for conferences of this sort at the moment that they are overwhelmed with travel and the gab-fest circuit. Possible. But unfortunate if that’s so. This moment strikes as just the right time to be talking up the citizen-generated media movement, helping opinion leaders to understand and working through the issues and problems it raises or unearths. The blogging world has the attention of decision-makers everywhere. Now’s not the time to be too big for one’s britches — it’s the time to seize the moment. I suggested that maybe there are others to whom such an invitation should be extended next time. Maybe someone will set up a little speakers’ bureau for bloggers.

* * *

I’m at the Charlotte-Douglas airport, en route to Oxford Internet Institute for a research meeting with others from the OpenNet Initiative. Charlotte-Douglas has won my heart (as far as airports can win a heart) with free wifi in the main concourse. Very nice.

How Digital Natives Experience News

The process of experiencing news of those Born Digital – the Digital Natives — is famously different from the generations they succeed. DNs don’t read the New York Times or their local paper cover-to-cover over coffee in the morning, nor return home to hear the news read by Walter Cronkhite or Dan Rather (then discuss it around the dinner table or around the water cooler or at the pub or over bridge or at the Elk’s Lodge).

What is the process of news and information gathering for the DN? Here’s a
hypothesis. It’s a three-step process: Grazing, Deep(er) Dive(s), and the Feedback Loop.

It works, in the paradigmatic sense, like this:

1) Grazing: The citizen gets introduced to new facts through a process of grazing. The source of the facts might be Jon Stewart; it might be an RSS reader with aggregated news sources; it might by a My Yahoo! page or Google news or a PubSub alert; it might be a filtered set of news offerings served up to a Blackberry; it might be passively listening to radio in the car or a news channel at the gym from the seat of a recumbent bike; it might be from peers or blogs (of the Scripting News, Instapundit variety — at once prominent and generous with links) or Drudge; or any number of other introducers of facts, including offline. The net effect is that the citizen has the bare fact, or the headline, and perhaps a bit more (on the order of a paragraph), but no real context. The fact may not be verified and may prove to be false or misleading. In terms of the competition to provide this service, speed and relevance are the sole factors.

2) Deep Dive: The citizen makes her decision that she wants to go beyond the headline, to learn more about a topic beyond the basic fact she’s been exposed to. This is where the citizen goes to dig for context for the fact that’s been introduced. The citizen might choose the “channel” for this information because of celebrity (she likes a certain news anchor’s hair); politics (she likes a certain slant on the news); brand (a given source has a brand that appeals to her); or other reasons. The deep dive helps to make sense of the news, to put it into a frame, to offer an analysis of it, to introduce relevant other voices. This is where trust, branding, credibility come in. This is where news organizations, especially powerful and wealthy institutions — able to afford bureaus and the like — can add the most value. Some blogs fill this role, too — Global Voices might be an example. (Query: is there any reason why you wouldn’t want 1000, or 1,000,000, or n, “channels” at this level, so long as we’re able to discern and choose? See the Daily Me debate and the like for counter-arguments.) The key factor is not speed here, though timeliness is important; the key factors are accuracy, trustworthiness, insight/analysis, and relationship.

3) Feedback Loop: This stage is not for everyone, and is the hardest for traditionalists to grapple with, but an increasing number of citizens want to take another step and to engage more meaningfully with the fact and the context. It might mean blogging something yourself on an obscure blog (like this one!), creating your own podcast or vlog, or commenting on someone else’s blog or a wiki or bulletin board. Or send an e-mail to a listserv or to a network news program. The idea is to talk back — to act as an empowered citizen, able to have an impact on the way the story is told. This feedback loop may be taken seriously, or it may not, by others in the citizen generated media movement, by mainstream media, by decision-makers. It’s in theory good for participatory and semiotic democracy. The role of media in the feedback loop might be to provide an easy means to do it, or to serve as an aggregator by topic of multiple viewpoints from the broader community (loop back to the “deep-dive” step). The feedback loop might also involve taking local news and making it of broader relevance, to a non-local audience. The key factor is the ability to participate with the hopes of being heard, able to affect the outcome of the debate in some fashion, even if only for a few people.

Consider the feedback loop open.

The Leaders Project at White Oak

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, along with his colleague Doug Wilson, has been hosting a very interesting “successor generation” event called The Leaders Project for the past several years. The sixth iteration of the event is hosted at a remarkable estate in northeast Florida called White Oak, as it has been for five of the previous sessions. A run late this afternoon took me past zebras, rhinos, and horses spread across a wildlife sanctuary. The substance of the event: “The Media and the World: Through Each Other’s Eyes.” The group assembled is as varied and unexpected and exciting as the venue. The dinner speaker tonight was Dan Senor, whom I’ve come to respect enormously over the past several months. (Dan’s strategy firm has ably advised us on media strategy for StopBadware.) He focused on the 24-hour news cycle and the challenge of being a spokesperson to a global media, where a single news conference in Iraw is covered not just by Fox and CNN but also the satellite networks serving the Arab world.
From the description on Conde Nast of White Oak: “Hidden away among pine trees, palmettos and tidal wetlands of Florida’s northern border with Georgia is the exclusive White Oak Plantation, a sanctuary for numerous species of endangered wildlife and a centre for the arts. Originally a private estate owned by Howard Gilman – whose grandfather, Isaac Gilman, was to the US paper industry what the Rockefellers were to oil and Andrew Carnegie to steel – the plantation has now become a refuge for endangered species, and other more exotic species in need of care. With the guidance of conservationist John Lukas, White Oak has become perhaps the most exclusive conservation facility in the world, home to more than three dozen species of endangered and threatened animals, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, kept in a secluded 600-acre section at the heart of the estate.”

Re-Reading Negroponte, Being Digital (1995)

In preparing for the final lecture of a two-day seminar that Urs Gasser and I are teaching here at the University of St. Gallen, I was going back through one of the books that got me interested in Internet law in the first place — Nicholas Negroponte’s seminal book in atom form, Being Digital (1995).

A passage that spoke to me, on p. 20: “One way to look at the future of being digital is to ask if the quality of one medium can be transposed to another. Can the television experience be more like the newspaper experience? Many people think of newspapers as having more depth than television news. Must that be so? Similarly, television is considered a richer sensory experience than what newspapers can deliver. Must that be so?

“The answer lies in creating computers to filter, sort, prioritize, and manage multimedia on our behalf — computers that read newspapers and look at television for us, and act as editors when we ask them to do so. This kind of intelligence can live in two different places.

“It can live at the transmitter and behave as if you had your own staff writers — as if the The New York Times were publishing a single newspaper tailored to your interests. In this first example, a small subset of bits has been selected especially for you. The bits are filtered, prepared, and delivered to you, perhaps to be printed at home, perhaps to be viewed more interactively with an electronic display.

“The second example is one in which your news-editing system lives in the receiver and The New York Times broadcasts a very large number of bits, perhaps five thousand different stories, from which your appliance grabs a select few, depending on your interests, habits, or plans for that day. In this instance, the intelligence is in the receiver, and the dumb transmitter is indiscriminately sending all the bits to everybody.

“The future will not be one or the other, but both.”

He picks up the story of the newspaper industry again, on p. 56, noting how everything is created in bit form, then pressed onto atoms. Imagine if the head of a newspaper read Being Digital in 1995 and really listened? Maybe that’s what happened with Martin N. and co. at NYT Digital and a few others. But most clearly missed this lesson back then; I doubt many are missing it now.

Also, on copyrights, he nailed the vision of the trainwreck we’ve experienced in the late 1990s and early oughts (p. 58 ff.).

I think he gets a handful of things wrong, of course, but only at the margins — mainly, the reliance on machines, rather than humans, who I still think will play a key role, as the “web 2.0” people will tell you — but this book was astonishingly prescient. I’m not sure that he predicted quite the information quality problem that Urs is talking about right now, but then again, most people don’t focus on that even now.

Whether or not you first read it in 1995, it’s fun to read Being Digital today. (Then again, I learned last night from Prof. Dr. Herbert Burkert that you can only read 3,172 books in your life.  I don’t know how re-reading fits into that calculation.)  In any event, wildy impressive as a futuristic tale.