The Demise of Journalism? The Rise of Internet-powered Activism?

After reading articles by a number of authors (including  Winer, Gray, Shirky, Daou, Starkman, Lanier, Gladwell, Grahamfelsen, Silberman, Stone and Isaac) on the impact of the internet and social networking technologies on traditional journalism and grassroots activism, I have mixed feelings.

On the subject of the steady erosion of traditional journalism, I find the – in some cases, rather smug (e.g. Winer) – near consensus that it is a “dead man walking” extremely worrying, even depressing.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my opinion is must be influenced by the fact that my immediate family had until relatively recently three full-time journalists in it, one a managing editor for the world’s largest-circulation newsweekly.  So I grew up in a home which was, and still is, idealistic about the role of the free press in society, and one which had benefited from the golden era of big journalism.

But while my experience at home certainly helped to form my perspective, it is not the only reason for my dismay at what is being touted by many as the inevitable destruction of the fourth estate.  I agree with Craig Crawford that a free and unconstrained press is crucial for the survival of any democracy.   If, as some predict, the press will erode to teams that cannot support more than 30 journalists (or worse, curators), or which are so dependent on (ever-scarcer and thus more emboldened) advertisers that its objectivity on issues of concern to sponsors is compromised, how will governments and corporations be held accountable in future?

This is no joke.  In every country in the world that is sliding toward dictatorship or oppression – whether of the left or the right – the first freedom to go is always that of the press.  There’s a reason for that.

In the US, since then Vice President George H.W. Bush ambushed CBS’ Dan Rather on national TV (accusing the journalist of bias in order to duck questions about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal), politicians of all parties have deliberately and systematically undermined the credibility of the media with the public for their own short-term gain.  In addition to this hydra-headed attack by national leaders, big journalism is facing the perfect storm of scandals of its own making, an unwillingness to defend itself, inept planning in the early days of the internet, and now the challenges posed by such ‘newcomers’ as Craigslist, online advertising and blogging.

I am not denying reality.  I see the point made by Shirky that the revenue-generation model has been ripped out from under the publishing (in the widest sense) industry by the internet-enabled groundswell.  But where is his prescription to replace the vital roles that the free press currently plays as democracy’s (and society’s) watchdog, and ensuring that we continue to receive news from further afield than the suburbs of our hometowns?  In my view, and generally speaking, blogs don’t yet have the punching weight – in audience reach, quality standards, or credibility.  Those that do, such as the Huffington Post, get bought up.  And the funding mechanism for the investigative journalism practiced by Sharesleuth is in my view suspect.  If profit is the underlying motive, then the Mark Cubans of this world can be bought off any given story, can’t they?

I was somewhat reassured by Starkman, who thinks that there ways forward exist for big journalism outlets – boosted by social networks and interaction – and by the example of the BBC, which seemed to me to have surfed the internet tsunami, rather than being crushed by it.  But when I wrote to Euan Semple, one of the architects of the Beeb’s internet, social and internal wiki strategies to ask him how the BBC had survived the advent of the internet, his return tweet was telling.  “Has it?”  He’ll get back to me on that one, I guess.

On the issue of the enablement of grassroots activism via Internet technologies, I am more optimistic.  While I see Malcolm Gladwell’s point that purely online activism is of limited value when you are looking to bring about real change, I agree with Daou, Grahamfelsen and Silberman’s example of 350, that activists who are most effectively using the web are not doing so entirely online.  They are using web technologies to enable and boost their offline activism.  Having myself built a virtual community with 5000 members, and having also built a grassroots political organization using these online tools – and having participated in organization activities prior to the advent of the internet, I can personally attest the facts that:

  • without online tools such as email, eGroups, Yahoo! Groups, Evite, Constant Contact, Wufoo and Facebook, I could never have achieved the success I did with them; but
  • of course the real world activity that they enable is the most important part of the equation.

What I get from the discussion about the erosion of journalism is this: I hope there is hope.  What I get from the discussion of web-enabled activism is this: I guess that to some degree whether or not that wish comes true is up to each and every one of us.

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