Reinventing Journalism in the Networked Age

It is becoming increasingly clear that a riot of Internet-based venues now poses a serious long-term challenge to the great organs of traditional mainstream journalism. No, Time and The Washington Post and CNN are not going to fade away any time soon. But their appeal and credibility are waning in the face of proliferating online choices that are more useful, timely, socially authentic and free. We can now connect with a huge universe of blogs and podcasts, customized news digests like the Huffington Post and Raw Story, sector forums like Slashdot and Dailykos, free community services like Craigslist, and aggregators of collective intelligence like Wikipedia, and Technorati.

Throw in a few credibility-shattering scandals for traditional journalism (Judith Miller’s deceptions about WMD, Bob Woodward’s coziness with Bush officials, and so on) — mix with the propaganda and lies coming from the Bush Administration — and it is no wonder that trust in conventional journalism is declining. People have become sufficiently sophisticated that many regard the very conventions of the mainstream-news genre as laughable. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and The Onion are so popular precisely because they so brilliantly lampoon the pretensions of an aging cultural form.

I believe the real problem — the source of journalism’s identity crisis — has deeper roots in the changing relationship between corporate news organizations and news “consumers.” “The people formally known as the audience” — a term used by Dan Gillmor, the champion of grassroots citizen-journalism — are refusing to be an “audience.” People no longer want to be treated as crude demographic categories to be showered with relentless advertising, celebrity gossip and tabloid pseudo-news (“prole-feed,” as Orwell put it). Now they can participate in creating their own socially congenial, non-commercial information sphere…and frankly, that’s darn refreshing and addictive.

Jay Rosen, the journalism professor and blogger of PressThink, offers some nice insights on this topic in a recent post:

The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people of our existence, and of a shift in power that goes with the platform shift you’ve all heard about.

_You [the media] don’t own the eyeballs. You don’t own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us.

An unanswered question hovers in the air, however: How will quality journalism get produced if the news universe is dominated by amateurs? Where will the money come from to support serious journalism that necessarily costs real money?

In an attempt to answer that question, Rosen is launching an experiment in user-financed journalism called He calls it “a way to fund high-quality, original reporting, in any medium, through donations to a non-profit called NewAssignment.Net.” The venture aspires to combine the talent of professional journalism with the deep, eclectic knowledge of participatory communities. Rosen:

The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion; it employs professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards so the work holds up. There are accountability and reputation systems built in that should make the system reliable. The betting is that (some) people will donate to works they can see are going to be great because the open source methods allow for that glimpse ahead.

The project is still an idea, not a real organization. But it strikes me as an imaginative, worthwhile experiment. It?s clear that some sorts of risk-taking and innovation are needed if we are going to rescue journalism and re-connect it to the people whom it is supposedly serving.