The Future of Journalism

journalism.jpegOpenbusiness has interviewed Kenneth Neil Cukier, who is a technology correspondent for The Economist in London specialising in public policy matters, particularly intellectual property.

1. OpenBusiness looks at how free services emerging on the internet and the distribution of free content can be sustained. This is a great challenge to the existing media industry. Can you describe how the media industry experiences the challenge and give examples of innovative approaches?

The media industry has been quite slow to adapt to the changes. In some ways it is hostile to them. The media makes its money by selling content and maintaining control over supply — and particularly its status as the sole authority to act as an intermediary between the public, and news and entertainment. Free content, and especially citizen-based journalism and peer-production, is a huge threat to the media industry — not just on an economic level, but on a social one.

Media firms are doing two things: they’re putting their offline content online, and they’re devising new content exclusively for the web, but carrying over the same business models that they use offline. Some companies have tried to buy into the new media space, such as News Corp’s acquisition of MySpace — but this is the exception. Most are simply taking baby steps into the new medium, but not reconsidering how they operate. This is not very useful as a long-term strategy, when you’re up against rivals that work out of their bedrooms, such as contributors to Wikipedia on the content side, or Craig Newmark of Craig’s List on the revenue side. Or, when the editor is a piece of software, like Google News.

It doesn’t have to be so bleak. But media companies will have to change. What they are not doing is opening up their minds and asking: why should we be the one to package content? Why don’t we simply serve as a conduit for others to bring content to our audience, and we simply aggregate it and then filter it editorially? Media companies need to recognize that the days in which they force-fed news and entertainment to a passive audience are over. In the past, we gave you “I Love Lucy” at only this hour, and we signed this band but not that one, and pressed the vinyl disk and got it onto the radio and into the stores. And your role, as the audience, was to shut up and shop. Those days are over — thank God!

In some ways, ‘incumbent’ media companies are trapped: they can’t change their business model to adopt open approaches since it entails commercial risk and could cannibalize revenue. So the conservatism is entirely rational. Open-business models in media will probably have to come from outside traditional media, not from within. Interesting models are Slashdot.org, where content is created by users, and due to the wisdom of crowds the cream rises to the top. Digg works on the same principle. Ohmynews.com, Flickr, YouTube, podcasting, blogging — all this is hugely important for changing the model for media and propels open-business practices. The very fact that the models are constantly changing is what threatens classic media firms the most.

2. There is lots of talk about web 2.0 services. Yet many of them do not seem to have a business model. Do you have an idea on how they can survive?

The interesting thing is whether they need a business model at all. I’m mindful that I’m discussing this on OpenBusiness.cc, and that the context is sustainable commercial approaches. Still, what’s most interesting about what is happening today is that the monetary-incentive-laden marketplace isn’t the only sphere in which economic production is taking place. Yochai Benkler, who was recently interviewed on OpenBusiness, has been an intellectual pioneer for this idea and developed it fully — one might argue a bit too fully! — in his recent book “The Wealth of Networks.” So I’d start by questioning the assumption of the question itself: a business model may not be needed and the web 2.0 services still thrive.

That said, if these services aspire to be sustainable and evolve with the market, then yes, they will probably need a commercial model underpinning them. Will online advertising or getting a percentage of affiliate sales-revenue — the classic internet business models today — be enough? What could supplement that? I don’t know. What I’m certain of is that new business models will emerge from out of the very environment of web 2.0 services, just as Google’s keyword advertising system was developed by incorporating the same logic that supported its approach to search itself.

3. What role does copyright play in this context?

Copyright is a real mess, and we see this most when it is juxtaposed against “open media” practices. The copyright laws were designed in a different era that presumed a vastly different technical environment — a time when copying was hard, expensive and every reproduction was usually of inferior quality. Today, every aspect of that has changed — except the laws.

What is needed is balance, and clearly we need to redraw the scales in favor of encouraging the new creativity that technology enables — with an open-business approach in mind. Only a fool would stand against the crashing tides. It’s hard to see the protections granted to incumbent content industries as anything other than anachronistic privileges and economic protectionism. It certainly doesn’t help matters that they’re suing everyone and lobbying legislatures to strengthen their rights, even though it holds back incredible public creativity.

This is not to say that we should do away with copyright. On the contrary, it is more important than ever. But we as a society need to strike a new balance in light of changed technology that makes the idea of copying as easy as breathing.

One reason copyright is so vital is that open-business practices actually rely on it to function. The same property rights that prevent proprietary works from being ripped, mixed and burned is applied to content done in a non-proprietary manner, to ensure they are open for use, modification and redistribution. This is to say, copyright enables open-business models to function. That is the irony of open-source and open-business practices: the very attempt to work-around strict intellectual property rules actually depends on intellectual property. It is not an inconsistency, but it is an irony.

4. It seems that Wikipedia has found an excellent model for the production of high quality content, which certainly challenges — or might even destroy — the publishing model used for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Where does this leave the publishers?

The collaborative, open-source-like approach that is cropping up in many places is a monumental development, and from the point of view of democratic values, a terrific thing. But there are limits to it as a model, and having praised it, one shouldn’t exaggerate its influence. Will it change traditional publishing? Undoubtedly yes. Does it spell the end of traditional publishing? Absolutely not. Instead, it is more likely that there will be a diversity of models. That in itself is a good thing.

The peer-production model works well in certain areas, less well in others. For instance, it is not clear it can apply to all areas of publishing. And the publishing industry has a long history of adapting to technological changes — and it is very possible that traditional publishers will adopt elements of peer-production and implement it better than the very groups like Wikipedia that gave rise to it in the first place.

Peer-production has shortcomings in accuracy; concision and genius. Many people treat it ideologically: to offer the slightest criticism is to either be an imbecile who doesn’t ‘get it,’ or an evil elitist. It’s become a religious issue — ‘you’re either with us or against us.’ That’s shallow-minded.

The model has erratic accuracy since it is vulnerable to pranksters on one hand and intentional disrupters on the other. But the biggest concern comes from a third group: dilettantes — those who think they know more than they do. I doubt there will ever be enough top-notch contributors to fix the work of the others — and so while the model is amazingly good in many respects, I would dispute the idea that it is perfect.

The second shortcoming is concision. Online, with no physical space constraints, entries can expand indefinitely. Take that, and add to it that peer-production tends to be cumulative, and the result is there is a tendency for things to grow, but little editing function to condense it into a more useful form. There is a great value not just in completeness but being concise — maps are drawn at scale rather than actual size for a reason.

The final shortcoming is in genius, or intellectual innovation. It is not clear that truly inventive or radically creative ideas can emerge. Peer-production’s central strength is that it is democratic, and its weakness is that it is, well, democratic. We even see some of the same problems we see in any democratic system: the loudest critic often wins and the best people are often pushed out by the mediocre. No one would hold out committees as the ideal form for intellectual innovation to take place — so I would pose the question whether peer-production will necessarily do better than other models, including classic proprietary models, in the area of radically innovative ideas.

What is certain is that open-business models force traditional publishers to transform how they operate — clearly Britannica has to innovate, or it is in big trouble. That sort of competition is wonderful. And as someone who has contributed to Wikipedia’s entries, not just read them, I feel a special pride in its success.

5. I just spoke to publishers and authors — they are afraid of new ideas such as Wikipedia and GooglePrint. What happens if we move further into a world of free content: how do these people get paid? Any ideas?

I don’t think content is or will be free online. Some is and will be, but much will not. When Stewart Brand declared “Information wants to be free” in 1984, the very next sentences he said was: “Information also wants to be expensive.” No one seems to remember that bit.

The issue is how off-line publishers are remunerated in an online environment. It is a crucial question. Internet companies like Google wrap themselves in the robes of copyright’s “fair-use exemption,” which is self-serving and short-sighted. Meanwhile, publishers file nasty lawsuits, which makes them look as if they’re motivated purely by money without a wit for the higher ideals of access to knowledge.

There is a solution. But it’s not a popular one with the ‘open-business’ community or the pro-Google crowd. It is to uphold copyright protections online. Shouldn’t the copyright owners still have control over how a work is used online, and profit from their investment? This might mean they won’t allow access — but that’s not very realistic. Publishers publish, not lock books away from readers. It’s more likely that online, they will charge a reasonable sum for access. Let’s let them. Let’s let the market figure out a model to get content to people, and reward creators for their work.

In such a world, the role of the publisher may change, or even go away. But to deny the right of the content creator or copyright holder to determine how the work is used online is not in society’s interests. Soon, the idea of a book as a physical instantiation will be archaic. Just as we don’t press vinyl albums but can both buy CDs or download music, so too books will be intangible, on screens and over networks, as well as physical. In such a world, creators ought to be paid. And for that to happen, they need to have control over how the material is used.

Of course fair-use provisions should still apply, and perhaps be strengthened. And if copyrights are overly stringent, let’s fix that. But let’s not undermine the principle of copyrights, which GooglePrint and similar initiatives seem to do. If open business practices are sustainable, they should need no special treatment. So let’s let proprietary models remain. And let’s let open-business exist. This diversity can only be a positive thing.

6. Any ideas about how high quality journalism will be sustained?

There is a presumption that in this new world of decentralized, open-source, peer-produced content — where individuals go from being consumers to creators of media — that the quality of journalism will decline. The dirty little secret is that it may actually improve!

I recently attended a two-day event at Windsor Castle organized by Sir David Brown, the chairman of Motorola UK, on the theme of journalism in a seamlessly mobile age, where these issues were discussed. I was surprised that many people were fixated on the glass being half-empty rather than half-full — that there was a problem to be fixed more than an opportunity to seize.

Where I meet the critics half-way is in the views of Rupert Grey, a famous British libel lawyer, who explained that the world has centuries of experience in establishing the laws and social norms to hold journalism to account — but that these things are absent in an online setting. As bad as journalism often is, there is usually at least a degree of veracity and responsibility, and if there isn’t, we have institutions to punish it. These things don’t exist online — and as we know from Mark Twain, a lie is half-way around the world before the truth has put on its boots. So it’s a legitimate concern.

At the same time, it is important not to exaggerate the problem relative to the benefits new media brings. In this, I was encouraged by the views of other participants who rushed to the defense of this bottom-up journalism. Lucas Van Grinsven of Reuters and Charles Arthur of The Guardian welcomed the development and argued that journalism needs to adapt by interacting more with readers. Mary Ebeling, a sociologist at the University of Surrey, explained that it provides access to new voices that were previously shut out. And there is still a role for professional journalists. Alan Cane of the Financial Times used the metaphor of fishing to describe the way journalists select the topics they cover. The image hit home when he expanded the idea, saying: “Fish don’t jump out of the sea and freeze themselves.”

For my part, I acknowledge the problems but welcome the development of the ‘amateur journalist,’ akin to the ‘gentleman scientist’ of the 18th century, which did so much to advance knowledge. I believe journalism is undergoing its ‘reformational moment.’ By that I mean that the Internet is affecting journalism just as the printing press affected the Church — people are bypassing the sacrosanct authority of the journalist in the same way as Luther asserted that individuals could have a direct relationship with God without the intermediary of the priest. The Internet has disintermediated middlemen in other industries, why should journalism be immune?

The tools of broadcast media have gone from owning paper mills, presses, million-dollar transmitters and broadcast licenses, to having a cheap PC or a mobile phone in one’s pocket. That gives everyone the ability to have a direct rapport with the news as either a consumer or a producer, instantaneously. This is like the advent of literacy: it threatened elites and sometimes created problems. But it empowered individuals and led to a far better world. The new literacy from digital media will do the same, even as it creates new problems. Ultimately, I believe it is a positive thing for journalism, because it enables something journalism has lacked: competition from the very public we serve.

2 Responses to “The Future of Journalism”

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  1. [...] Overall, a good primer on the topic. He also makes note of the many other names used to describe this concept: grassroots journalism, networked journalism, open source journalism, citizen media, participatory journalism, hyperlocal journalism, bottom-up journalism, stand-alone journalism, and finally distributed journalism. [...]

  2. [...] itself to the technological advances of the modern age. Tech feature writer for The Economist, Kenneth Neil Cukier agrees with the progressive capacity of citizen journalism in shaping a revolutionised media [...]

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