Online Commons and the Reinvention of Journalism

The mainstream media (MSM) are facing a profound crisis of trust and an erosion of their economic base — at the very moment that new genres of citizen journalism, creativity and info-archives are exploding. Coincidence? Hardly. I regard this as a matter of the commons rising. It illustrates what happens when markets lose touch with the social trust and connections that they depend on. Thanks to new digital technologies, citizen-directed media are reinventing journalism and seizing the mantle of credibility that the MSM have long taken for granted.

It helps to realize that the MSM have become commodified brands that quite deliberately developed an ethic and style of journalism based on “objectivity.” This cultural sensibility was a great way to develop a broad, heterogeneous commercial market — but a terrible way to express a point of view, explore dissenting views or expose politically embarrassing truths. Journalistic objectivity became a “voice of God” omniscience — the arrogant stance of a moral referee above the fray of politics and controversy. This serves the market interests of the MSM quite well, but it requires the marginalization of diverse moral and social concerns.

The journalistic convention of objectivity is precisely what is being assaulted by the new online media. The commons-based media are thriving because they are seen as more authentic, timely, and user-responsive. Blogging has exploded. Wikipedia is soaring. Craigslist is out-competing classified ads in newspapers. MySpace and Facebook have more users than most prime-time television shows. Public domain repositories like the Internet Archives and are flourishing. Podcasting is attracting the attention of commercial radio stations and even The New York Times (which now has audio versions of its opeds). And, of course, open source software — the founding paradigm and metaphor for so many of these commons genres — continues to flourish and expand.

What is notable about these many commons is that many of them are out-competing conventional newspapers. They often produce value more efficiently than the market and rapidly attract large audiences. They tend to be very flexible, personally satisfying and culturally authentic. People are also waking up to the fact that “objective journalism” is capable of lying. As Geneva Overholser, a former ombudsman for The Washington Post, put it, “The way it is currently construed, ‘objectivity’ makes the media easily manipulable by an executive branch intent on and adept at controlling the message. It produces a rigid orthodoxy, excluding voices beyond the narrowly conventional.”

A key advantage of online commons is that they can often aggregate excellent knowledge from a more disparate and authoritative range of people than centralized media can. The information amassed through distributed networks is, in a sense, more socially credible as a result. An excellent example is provided by Martin Kaplan at The Huffington Post. Here’s what happened when the Ford Motor Company capitulated to Reverend Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association and yanked its advertising from gay-oriented publications.:

John Aravosis’s AMERICAblog was all over this story from the moment it began. His site became a public square for information about the Ford deal with Wildmon and the LGBT community’s reaction. He published the phone numbers and emails of Ford executives. His readers got Ford people on the phone, and he published and dissected their lame attempts to spin their way out of their self-made crisis. His site became a bulletin board, an information clearing house, and a war room, instantaneously linking hundreds of thousands of people, a micro-political movement with no need to rent filing cabinets, hire direct-mail specialists, or run ads.

I love this example because it shows how a single sophisticated blog can run circles around the MSM with faster, more insightful and more trustworthy reporting. Yes, yes, there are all sorts of scurrilous, poorly vetted blogs — but anyone who has tuned into Fox News or Sinclair-owned TV stations knows that the MSM can be equally scurrilous and erroneous. Bob Woodward cozies up to his sources in the Bush Administration, betraying his duty to the public’s right to know. The New York Times still hasn’t come clean on Judith Miller’s perfidies on the WMD story. The burden of transparency at the NYT has been assigned to an ombudsman, essentially insulating the rest of the paper from having to host its own open dialogues with readers. Meanwhile, who is stepping forward from either the MSM executive ranks or journalistic world to ostracize or sanction reporters who abuse the public trust?

This is a key reason why online journalism is flourishing: it is trusted. NYU professor and press critic Jay Rosen has a wonderful essay, “Blogging, Journalism & Credibility,” that explores this territory with great insight. He explains how professional journalism no longer has sovereignty over the flow of news; readers are gaining more direct control themselves. The “social dynamics of user trust” are changing radically. Rosen writes:

The price of professionalizing journalism was the de-voicing of the journalist. The price for having mass media was the atomization of the audience, who in the broadcasting model were connected “up” to the center, but not “across” to each other. Well, blogging is a re-voicing tool in journalism, and the Net’s strengths in horizontal communication mean that audience atomization is being overcome.

For me, citizen journalism (a phenomena that has many names and multiple aspects) is evidence of the commons rising. New types of social communities are emerging to challenge the MSM view of the world. In the process, the MSM is revealed as a creature of the market, not of the commons — and therefore less accountable and trustworthy. Whether the MSM can re-engineer their business model to take greater account of the commons remains a significant open question.