This article was written by Atticus Mullikin and was originally published on Newsvine, then rewritten and published on the European Journalism Center's Magazine section on October 8, 2007. What follows is the revised version.
As I write this, I'm helping to revolutionize journalism. No, really! I am. I can take this article, paste it, link it and tag it on dozens of websites in view of millions of people. I can establish hundreds of threads between my words and the world, and I can do it at no cost, every day, as much as I want. Usually, I'll even do it for free.
Big media and old-school journalists may grumble about the "cult of the amateur" and how, by aggregating news, Google is "stealing" content and thus ad revenue. The LA Times even quipped, "Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden." Such exaggerations miss the inevitable outcome of media convergence. In truth, the threat to old media is not an end to objectivity, but an end to profit margins.
Jeff Jarvis, editor of the popular blog Buzzmachine.com, recently speculated that "Newspapers in 2020," probably will not be "paper" and that newspapers should integrate into the network of internet media, operating "…advertising networks, finding and selling the best of what exists both within and without our walls and sites." In other words, if newspaper companies are to be successful, they should stop acting like incumbents and become innovators, utilizing not only Google but the democratized media Google represents, shrinking permanent staff, buying more stories from independent journalists and embracing citizen journalism.
Lou Ureneck of the Boston Globe recently lamented "I'm killing newspapers," saying that his new website was absorbing ad dollars from Google that would otherwise have gone to a newspaper. "I am contributing to problems of newspapers by jumping into Web publishing and accepting advertising. Is this fair? Well, fair or not, it clearly is inevitable." Big media "…no longer control the means of production – not as long as I have my laptop on my dining room table."
Is it fair? When have free markets ever been fair? Economy is monolithic, and success is navigating the monolith: in other words, competition. Though media incumbents may naysay new competitors, Ureneck is right, "…it is clearly inevitable." And it's just the tip of the iceberg.
The economy of the future will be a technocracy. Economists worth their salt will no longer think normatively, with no clear goal other than growth. Rather, technology is rendering old economic systems and markets obsolete. We are seeing, not merely "media convergence," but market convergence, a collapse of the competition monolith. Competition now will ironically lower the importance of competition in the future. Monolithic media companies and companies in general will quickly lose the "means of production," as technology places it in the hands all citizens, hence, citizen journalism and its increasingly cooperative form.
This is, of course, just my opinion. But think about it. How many people using Newsvine, Google, Facebook and other Web 2.0 innovations are making a living at it? These companies may be raking in the cash, but they're not creating content themselves, are they? They're providing a platform for "elegant organization," a place where people can make their own content. Online publishing is driven more by people's inherent need to communicate, to learn, to be entertained, to form a community. And yes, in time, many people will learn to make some income at it -- although they won't quit their day jobs.
The mistake for media companies would be to assume they can remain for-profit ventures. They cannot. If there is another lesson to derive from market convergence, it is that the profit margin necessary to satiate investors is unsustainable. An addendum to Jarvis's predictions: In the future, although newspapers may make money and continue to grow, they'll do it as non-profit companies. But this doesn't mean that they have to downsize.
Take National Public Radio, which is rapidly becoming a hybrid of old and new media. NPR acts as a hub for over 800 local radio stations in the U.S., each of which run nationally syndicated radio along with local programming and news. Almost every NPR show provides its content free-of-charge on the internet, and the organization has embraced Web 2.0 innovations like podcasting, blogging and RSS feeds. NPR serves as a conduit for both professional and citizen journalism, with call-in programs and public forums, frequent human-interest stories involving real people and among the most open contribution policies of any major media.
And it's successful. Despite years of shrinking government funding, the organization has grown, creating a West Coast office and reporting from 35 other locations, including 16 overseas press offices; this, even as for-profit media organizations are downsizing. Listener contributions compose roughly one-third of NPR's operating budget, along with local member-station dues that are also largely donations. Although NPR accepts money for "corporate underwriting," it does not advertise, and it is arguably more objective for it. Famous reporters from the old school, like Daniel Shore, Ted Koppel and Walter Kronkite, sidelined by for-profit media, have begun doing commentary and news analysis for NPR.
NPR is not the end-all, but it is representative of the future. Hundreds of stations, dozens of offices, and millions of listeners are increasingly collaborating to create a professional, representative and dynamic network that grows without investors, reports without glam and slick computer graphics and on which companies can sell without advertising.
In the future, news companies would do well to follow NPR's lead, embracing Web 2.0 applications while accepting – I know this is difficult – a non-profit model of production and growth. Some, as Jarvis suggested, may become smaller and more streamlined, functioning purely on advertising - an evolved form of today's media animal; most, though, will become sustainable, non-profit organisations that provide better reporting and news aggregation. They will, to coin Jarvis's term, become "omnimedia."
Governments, on the other hand, might consider making journalism an integral part of core school curriculum so that, when citizens do write – AND THEY WILL – they will produce quality material that can be posted and even sold to media hubs. It is, after all, inevitable. The trees will breathe a sigh of relief and we can all get to our laptops and start contributing.
For a primer on how media convergence is changing today's media landscape, check out Part III of Frontline's News War.