All in Citizen Journalism

Debate about the future of newspapers won't die for some time yet I think . . . at least among journalists, news media watchers, some bloggers and Clay Shirky.

Roy Greenslade on Greenslade Blog wrote this week on newspapers and magazines charging for their online content. Greenslade's title alone raises the key question: "Paid content is all the rage with US publishers - but where's the proof that anyone will pay?"

I chuckled over the comment from Steven Brill, founder of Journalism Online, in the piece that JO "has helped shift the debate over charging for online news from 'if' to 'when and how'" because beleaguered publishers have moved past the "abstract debate" to agree that paid content is the way ahead." (JO's goal is to help them get there.)

Now there's a shock right? Publishers think the solution to declining print revenues is to charge people for accessing onlne content.

Megan McArdlein The Atlantic online framed the debate marvellously this way "The problem besetting newspapers is not that there are hordes of bloggers giving it away for free . . . Even if every newspaper and magazine in the country entered into a binding cartel agreement not to put more than a smidgen of free content on their websites, newspapers would still be losing money, and closing by the dozens.  It's the economics, stupid . . . We're witnessing the death of a business model."

So how exactly is pushing people to pay for online content recognizing, as people like Shirky and McArdle (and dozens of others) have been rightly trying to point out, that the paid online content model which has been tried many times before will not revive the fortunes of "old" media.

Lots of juicy factoids and information today that add a little more to my thinking on new communication memes:

  • Twitter_logo_header Of the many striking statistics in a report called 'Inside Twitter' out of Canada's Sysomos people, this one stands out for evidence of the sheer stupidity of the hordes who now call themselves  'social media consultants': "Of people who identify themselves as social media marketers, 65.5% have never posted an update (on Twitter)."  I guess they just can't be bothered . . . or don't have time?
  • To be filed under the tab 'Public Relations Through the Rear View Mirror', according to an article today in the Ottawa Citizen Canada's National Defence HQ has a new 'conduit' approach to public relations (in which all media questions are funneled through public affairs staff, with the journalist never allowed to speak to a subject matter expert directly) that the writer calls the 24 DAY news cycle: "Into this brave new world of hyper-speed news gathering, NDHQ has rolled out what I’ve termed, the “24-day news cycle. Yes, 24 days…..That’s about the length of time I figure that it takes NDHQ to answer a question from the news media…..if it is answered at all."

  • Bear with me on this one. Those who follow me on Twitter will know that as a native 'Geordie' I am an ardent -- and frustrated, some would say foolish -- supporter of the Newcastle United football club, formerly of the English Premier League now relegated to tier two football as a result of an abysmal season this past year. Thankfully, the owner has put the club up for sale (at 0,,10278~3488677,00 about US$200 million). Before he did so, he published a statement in which he said "I'm sorry" about four or five times. Frankly, it sounded hollow given Ashley's unwillingness to invest in the club and his lack of commitment to its success in spite of having one of the most loyal fan bases of any football club. The lesson here is simple . . . saying 'Im sorry' in a crisis is not enough. An apology has to be backed up by action to resolve the underlying problem. In this case, the owner getting out is the right move, although that is not counsel I would give to many CEOs.

  • Finally, this about philanthropic giving . . . "Today, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) shares a first-look at results from its annual philanthropy survey of nearly 140 leading companies, revealing that 53% of companies increased their total philanthropic donations in 2008, and 27% increased their giving by more than 10% year-over-year." So things are not as bad as the CR critics would have us believe.

I have no idea if this post from Molly Wood truly reflects Apple's approach to public relations ("hammer and hammer and hammer and hammer"), or if it is just the usual journalistic hectoring of public relations people doing their job.

But the pull-out quotation from the Wall Street Journal that prompted the piece demonstrates why many business people (and the demos at large) occasionally -- okay, often -- question the devotion of journalists to seeking truth from facts. Since the WSJ article uses as its source "people familiar with the matter", "these people say" and "they say" it is also fair game to conjecture, as The Molly does, whether the publication has been spun by a zealous public relations "machine".

The blame, though isn't with the public relations people, as Wood accedes, but with lame and now inadequately supported journalism:

"It’s not a crime for a company to have a good PR machine. It’s working for Apple and it has for a long time. But this is a nation that is, at the moment, finding itself in quite a pickle because we blindly believed everything that companies were telling us. So, if we’re trying to be skeptical about, say, large financial institutions and their outlandish and/or reassuring claims, shouldn’t we also cast the same critical eye on a convenient flood of information that does little other than improve Apple’s stock price a week before they have to answer to angry and worried shareholders? Or, hey, maybe the Wall Street Journal just trying to boost the Nasdaq on purpose. You know, to help the economy."

An extensive analysis in Toronto's The Globe and Mail newspaper by Sinclair Stewart and Grant Robertson repeats a popular question: "(I)f print is a dinosaur, what will take up its traditional roles -- informing the public, animating civic culture and holding government accountable?" Jon Slattery picks it up in the U.K.'s The Guardian in a piece with the earthy title 'Where the hell do we go now?' And Canadian blogger and former journalist Mark Evans chimes in with his worry about maintaining the quality of journalism in the face of dissection of the newsroom . . . . without, however, taking a stand on the future of news journalism and without drawing a picture of an alternative news cosmos.

The background to the soul-searching is the precipitous disappearance of major newspapers in print form (The Seattle Intelligencer most recently and The San Francisco Chronicle likely next). At the core of the discussion, other than the loss of jobs and the "decline" of quality (The quotation marks are purposeful since quality has been in retreat in broadcast and print journalism from before social media became a threat.) is the question of whether social discourse, investigative inquiry and democracy will suffer without an energetic and well-financed fourth estate playing the role of critical watchdog.

The model is changing. That much is self-evident. But there is an embryonic new model within the decline (which nearly always happens in transition periods) and it is based on an unprecedented ability to gather, share and act collectively. Clay Shirky in 'Here Comes Everybody' calls it a new communications "ecology":

"The change isn't a shift from one kind of news institution to another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organizations, informal collectives, and individuals."

Some of the critical pieces of the prototype are already in place.

The ability of people using social networks to form and act together in groups means that problems like corruption and malfeasance among legislators, clergy and citizens can be discovered and fought with even greater speed than when we depended on investigative journalism to root it out. Shirky again . . . "social tools don't create collective action - they merely remove the obstacles to it." Without the obstacles to discovery and action, the social criminals and demagogues won't be able to hide for long.

With the ability of anyone to publish, for the time being we have lost the beauty of fine writing. But not the capacity to find and report significant events. In exchange, we've got speed in reporting news, depth, breadth and personality in what is understood as "news", and often now quirky and energetic prose. The result may be hyper-local community reportage (and publications), but it can also become national and international news if warranted or needed. The disappearance of some print and broadcast outlets doesn't mean that news is not being revealed, or that criticism isn't being coalesced into opposition, only that the agent has changed.

As for print newspapers providing a sense of community and hence their disappearance leading to a decline in a sense of place, this is silly. Where we get a sense of community is simply shifting to social networks built around communities and communities of interest. I can learn as much (and find out more immediately) about Toronto from as from the Toronto Star or the Toronto Sun.

Newspapers as we know them won't all disappear. We need journalistic models of quality, thoroughness and objectivity to learn from and against which to measure citizen journalism. And they're wonderful to sit with on a Sunday morning while enjoying a cappuccino. Nevertheless, their influence will surely continue to decline. However, democracy is safe in the hands of all of us.

The final episode in Ira Basen's Spin Cycles series is a bit of a schmozzle (not to be confused with 'schlimazel' which refers to someone who is inept), a mix of the habitual juvenile sniping at public relations (especially agencies who create those corporately funded front groups or astroturf organizations that propogate "junk science"; Basen's example is Friends of Science,) some thumping of his colleagues in the media for being merely the "stenographers" of the powerful, and more unchallenged commentary by the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization that can spin with the best of them. Frankly, though, Basen finally hits a couple of home runs -- well, maybe infield singles -- in this episode:

Idea One:

Public relations professionals, and many companies, need to do some soul searching about our efforts to deny, or support the denial of, the impact of carbon emissions on climate. Basen claims "Audiences were led to believe there was a meaningful debate (over carbon emissions and climate change) within the scientific community long after there ceased to be one." Evidence now suggests this might be the case . . . see the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change.

Idea Two:

Social media represent in the words of Richard Edelman as heard on Spin Cycles "the wisdom of the crowd . . . the cacophony of participation." While still in its infancy, and suffering from childish bouts of self-absorption and silly pop culture pre-occupations, social media hold out hope as a replacement for retreating journalistic integrity and independence. I would argue that legitimate, intelligent, curious, and investigative bloggers may now become the "estate" for asking questions of power. George Pitcher, the author of The Death of Spin, says to escape spin we need a more vigorous public sphere: social media may be that sphere.

Idea Three:

Basen offers up two commentators who provide some truly interesting texture to discussions about the future of journalism and the role of public relations. Jay Rosen argues there is potential for a natural convergence of social media and journalism. His own blog, while dense, is focused on a fascinating idea: "The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached."

Julia Hobsbawn even accepts a role for public relations in this new convergence. To get the best sense of her ideas, don't bother listening to the audio which suffers from Basen's prejudicial subjectivity: her transcipt interview here is more instructive about her views and provides some evidence about what has been wrong with this whole series . . .

"But I also think it's worth emphasizing that journalism also has its paymaster. It's extremely rare for journalism not to have an actual expectation of bias in some quarters or an institutional bias. Now I don't mean that is to say that all journalism is coloured but what I do mean is that editorials and comment pieces are bias and that they're absolutely standard in many newspapers and broadcasters, that a certain kind of coverage will be given to one thing and not another. So I think we have to be, at the very least, philosophical and . . . quite apart from anything else, getting a bit more real about the actual differences between the moral parameters of PR and the moral parameters of journalism."

Hobsbawn's comments -- be philosophical; get real -- underscore the chief failings, on balance, of the Spin Cycles series. It allowed prejudice about public relations to get in the way of exploring the complexities of transparency and truth in the information-sharing industries. It assumed a fundamental moral superiority to broadcast and newspaper journalism corrupted now by political and business spin, and a basic bankruptcy to the whole concept of public relations now simply more slick and manipulative. And it looked at the nature of the new online demos and its "cacophony of participation" with the same unfortunate cynical, even dismissive, tone that it approached most of the major questions about communication in our age. 

Comment, argument, disagreement and, of course, praise about my assessment more than welcome.

I spoke at a media relations conference yesterday paradoxically on the topic of influencing public attitidues with direct communication strategies. Of course, I touched on my usual themes -- dialogue replacing monologue (shouting your message), dialgoue as "the art of thinking together" (William Isaacs), and the impact of social media on corporate communication strategies. The response was polite, with a bit more enthusiasm from a couple of people who work for NGOs.

But during those parts of the presentation where I rant about the declining importance of mainstream media when it comes to issue management, using examples like Intel's announcement about layoffs that was scooped by bloggers, I realized just how tough it is to be a newspaper or television reporter these days. Not only are newspaper jobs disappearing, and news room resources dwindling, but bloggers are also getting to stories hours, even days, before a reporter is on the case.

The question is How are reporters coping? What strategies are individual reporters using to justify their craft? Other than those fighting a rearguard action with complaints about 'no standards in the blogsphere', no fact checkers in social media, no training for citizen journalists, are some wondering just how valuable is their profession? If a thousand others can find news faster, can write with as much panache and meaning, and reach an influential audience, then what is the new role for mainstream scribes?

Just a thought.