In November 2007, I was invited to spend a year at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, leading a research project in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation. Its aim, according to Colin Maclay, the center’s acting executive director, would be to take a “skeptical but constructive look at the state of the blogosphere.” Many well-known folks in the world of blogs had applied for this job, but the Berkman Center decided they needed someone who had not “drunk the blogging Kool-Aid.” This is why they took a chance on me—someone who’d worked with traditional news media in less developed countries, where online media were still mostly considered irrelevant, who’d never written a blog nor regularly read them.
Our project was named “Media Re:public.” This turned out to be an apt name given our key finding that more journalism in the public interest is essential, whether created by professionals or amateurs, commercial entities or nonprofits, online, on the air or on paper. But in the yearlong process of reaching this conclusion—looking at “new” and “old” media and how they’re blending (and not blending)—I feel as though I’ve undergone two religious crises; one feels like a loss of faith, the other like a conversion.
Preaching a False Message
Before moving to Boston and taking on this project, I’d spent a dozen years with the international media development nonprofit Internews Network (internews.org) working in the former Soviet Union and other countries to promote independent media. The idea that commercial media with advertising coming from many sources equals financial independence, which is the best foundation for robust independent journalism, was central to much of our work. This message seemed especially appropriate in places like Russia, where I lived for many years, when everyone seemed to agree that converting state-run media to true public media was an impossible task, and commercial news media would be the country’s savior.
As I look at what is happening now to this news model in the United States, I believe I was a missionary of a false gospel. Relying on advertising to support independent editorial structures that serve the public interest has always been a remarkably fragile construct resulting from a combination of history, regulation, professional aspirations, and family businesses. It’s been eroding for a long time due to deregulation and the shift of many media businesses from privately held companies to shareholder corporations. Couple this with the shift of media consumption to the Internet, where advertising aimed at people looking for the score from last night’s game no longer necessarily supports the same enterprise doing reporting on city hall, and it delivers the fatal blow.
In interview after interview I did with those working at newspapers and in TV and radio news, people described a continuing shift in priorities towards anything that helps their bottom line. Usually, this means cheap or free content that brings in large audiences or is advertiser-friendly, including a huge increase in various kinds of sponsored content. The church-state newsroom wall is looking more and more like a low hurdle, crossed without breaking stride.
Even publicly funded broadcasters offered little comfort. When I started this project, I imagined that public radio and TV stations would be the natural homes for the kind of mixing of amateur-professional online media that I’d hoped might address the impending failures of traditional commercial media, especially locally. Though I haven’t given up hope, the more I looked inside the system, the less likely this seemed, despite the many smart and motivated people who work within these news organizations. There are wonderful initiatives, both nationally and at local stations, but I worry these efforts will not get the financial and political support they need to develop and prove themselves. Some terrific efforts by local stations—part of a steady stream of small-scale innovations—include New Hampshire Public Radio (nhpr.org), the Public Insight Network and :Vocalo (vocalo.org), a bold and beautiful experiment by Chicago Public Radio, which I regularly listen to at my desk.
Converting to Participatory Media
It was not my misgivings about the future of newspapers and serious journalism generally but my conversion to a participatory media evangelist that shocked my friends. From their point of view, I am now drunk on the Kool-Aid. When I began this project, we were all curmudgeons [see author's note], acknowledging that the Internet was important but believing this whole “citizen journalism” thing was wildly exaggerated. Citizen media guru Dan Gillmor, now one of my favorite Berkman colleagues, had come to speak at Internews, and his message was very convincing. But we took away ideas about how to enhance professional journalism, not replace it. When Berkman explained that my research was meant to answer the question of why online citizen media had not yet created a revolution—in shifting power from the center, where mainstream media resides, to the edges—I laughed out loud. I still have a hard time believing that anyone really thought unpaid, untrained people would take on significant portions of the work of professional news media.
Though my belief in the need for professional journalism remains intact, I have come to believe that “participatory media,” the name we gave online citizen media, can, and indeed must, create a more democratic sphere for information and a more engaged public. By naming it “participatory media” we moved past defining it as only, or even mostly, being about blogs and acknowledged that not everyone involved is a citizen or a journalist, never mind a citizen journalist. Participatory media is whenever the people formerly known as the audience help shape the media environment, whether by commenting or recommending, sorting or reporting.
One observation to emerge from our research is the increasing amount of participatory media happening within traditional news organizations. The disturbing thing, however, about what is taking place there is that the content is often just as susceptible to the problems of credibility and lowest common denominator quality that professional journalists once condemned as inherent to amateur online media.
As part of my research, I attended many conferences, almost all a mix of old and new media, with some tilting towards journalism and others in the direction of technology and participatory media. The contrast between the two tribes—and they are distinct despite increasing trends towards intermarriage—remains stark. At NewsTools2008, folks from traditional and online media, technology companies, startups and universities spent three extraordinary days in the self-organized sessions of what is known as an “un-conference”: ideas bubbled as we learned about each other’s projects. On the third day, most of that group went home, but some of us stayed to take part in a daylong event with a group of local traditional journalists who, I have to admit, depressed me utterly. As a group, they seemed to have only one question to ask: What’s going to happen to my job?
Meanwhile, despite the image of bloggers and other new media folk as a sort of closed society, I experienced just the opposite. Just about all those I talked with in the new media world were excited to share information and explain their thinking and approach. I learned to give up a skill I’d developed during years spent with specialized professionals in the U.S. media of pretending to know what they were talking about long enough to guess. With my new colleagues, I could say, “Excuse me, but what exactly is Twitter?” or substitute Flickr, RSS, geo-tagging, SEO, or any of dozens of other terms that entered my vocabulary during this past year. Never did I feel that anyone had any less respect for me for not knowing. This refreshing attitude was one of many things I wish traditional media folks would pick up.
The Work Ahead
Despite being a convert to participatory media, I do not believe it will produce quality journalism by some kind of volunteer crowd-powered magic. “Build it and they will use it to make the media we need” has not proven to be true in the areas that matter. What I see being done online by both Web-native media and traditional media is the easy stuff—the low-hanging fruit, including coverage of politics, consumer news, gossip and technology. Much hard work remains to do to realize its potential; pretending that we’ve figured out everything about how participatory media works is very dangerous. We need a far more sophisticated interpretation of the citizen media scripture before my conversion will be complete.
As I write this, sitting in my hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia, my Berkman colleagues and I are finalizing our main report and several other documents we’re publishing under the aegis of this project. The one-year MacArthur grant has ended, and I’m looking at ways to act on the conclusions I reached.
Here’s my sense of where we are now in this discussion—and where we need to head:
More media projects should focus on the needs of specific publics, especially underserved populations.
They should build on what’s available and bring organizations together rather than trying to create something entirely new.
Technology is only one tiny part of the picture; the hard work will involve people.
I will continue to think and blog sporadically about these important media issues at www.mediarepublic.org. Between consulting jobs, which will likely focus on bringing my new media perspective to the international media development world, I will volunteer my time to develop a local media project with teenagers in my neighborhood, Boston’s South End. This project is tentatively called NeighborChord. Because many people in the neighborhood are not online, it will combine digital and traditional media, and these youngsters will be trained in traditional reporting as well as the multimedia and technology necessary to produce it. Like many experiments, it may fail. But a year of looking at the state of the news media has led me to believe it is critical to try.
Persephone Miel directed the Media Re:public project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Prior to joining Berkman, she spent more than 12 years with Internews Network, an international NGO supporting independent media around the world.