Newsplaces: the future of journalism

While it is hard to say what the future of journalism will be, one thing I know: journalism will not die as some people suggest. Journalism will change definition, as most things through history do.
I don’t think it is really worth spending too much time on whether the future of journalism will be on-line or a mix between on-line and paper. While I do appreciate the tactual feeling of a newspaper, I cannot deny the convenience of reading news on-line. I think it is almost inevitable that newspapers will eventually be almost entirely on-line based.

Instead, I think it is worth spending time on what I believe journalism’s function should be and how the web could eventually help in the achievement of this function.
To this end, it is extremely useful to look into the intellectual debate about journalism and democracy that took place in the 1920s between Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) and John Dewey (1859–1952).

According to Walter Lippmann, news and truth are not synonymous: the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”

While the New York Times recently “accused proponents of public journalism of abandoning the traditional goal of objectivity”, Lippman would have argued that journalists can never be objective (other than when reporting the score of a game or a simple data) since everyone has his own interpretation of reality.
Being an “objective reporter” (i.e. a simple witness of an event) is something that more and more people can do right now. With the web, an increasing slice of the population is able to write about events through blogs, Facebook updates, tweets on twitter, etc.
When an event has the potential to be objectively reported, it doesn’t usually require a degree in journalism to do so.

At the same time, what is happening on-line is that always more people express their opinion and their analysis of an event whose truth goes beyond a binary “yes or no”.
With this pressure from on-line communities and the blogosphere, it seems to me that more and more journalists clearly write what can be perceived as an actual interpretation of a fact, instead of claiming objectivity a priori.
In my opinion the web, with its exceptions, is making journalism a bit more accountable.
I will never forgive “old school journalism” for omitting some of the most terrible truth of the past decades.

But let’s go back to Lippman vs. Dowey.
Lippmann wrote that “the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation.” Furthermore, the average American “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.”
While this might be true at times, this is indeed created by the society we live in. Changing society might make things different. I don’t think that people are necessarily deemed to ignorance.
Instead, Lippman’s elitist solution was that “power should be invested in a few men of action, public policy analysts and political leaders”.
In this model, the journalists would get their news from the experts and would transmit the information to the public in simpler terms. A very “top down” approach.

Philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that the world was way too complex for every citizen to understand it in its entirety, but he believed that democracy should be about creating the conditions in society for everyone to express their full potential.
Dewey beautifully described democracy as “a belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience shall grow in ordered richness.”
Democracy is not just about obtaining voting rights for everyone, but it should also be about making sure that a “public opinion” is formed through the effective communication between citizen, experts and politicians, all thanks to the mediation of journalism.
Dewey’s model makes everyone, citizen included, more accountable.
I don’t remember the last time I agreed with someone more than how much I agree with Dewey.

Dewey’s visionary quote, “Till the Great Society is converted in to a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse… Communication can alone create a great community”, seems to wish for something that the web can at least partially bring.
For Dewey, the public should add value to a news, generating extra knowledge.
This is what is happening, at least in certain instances, on the web, where citizens comment on journalists’ articles or even write blog posts in order to provide a different version or interpretation of a particular news.
While the truth is not the sum of everyone’s truths, the access to more knowledge and opinions is definitely a positive fact when it comes to judge an event from an historical perspective.
In my view, it is impossible to trust a small elite of people (just like we should have in Lippmann’s view) to basically report on every single “truth”… This elite would almost surely end up bringing its own interests forward.

My view of journalism and its function is extremely “Deweyan” (if such word exists).
People are not ignorant by definition.
To me, journalism should be dialectic, a dialog seeking to pursue the truth while “improving” all the participants in the dialog in the process.
What I am seeing on certain websites and blogs definitely looks a lot more like a conversation than an imposition from above. I like this.

Newspapers as newsplaces

The fact that I’m optimistic about what journalism is becoming on the web doesn’t mean that I don’t share some of the concerns that many professional journalists are expressing.
Journalists cannot work for free and, while many bloggers are willing to do so, on the long term, not finding an effective business model for journalism might prove harmful for society at large.
I don’t think micro-payments will work for newspapers. We are now used to get news for free and we won’t give it up.
Unfortunately I am not too sure about advertising either. While very effective in targeting the right people with the right product, I don’t think it can be the only source of revenue for a newspaper.

To me, the key of today’s journalism style is its collaborative nature.
Journalists need to interact and engage in conversations with their public.
I truly liked Jeff Jarvis’ quoting Hug MacLeod who said that “rather than thinking of a newspaper as a thing, we should start thinking of it as a place”.

Had I to start a newspaper today, I would call it “Agora” (the main square in Ancient Greek city-states) – though it looks like there a few homonyms already – and I’d make it a true Agora.
I said that journalism’s definition has changed…the role of journalists has changed as well. What is seeked from a journalist is not just a well written article. A journalist needs to have more abilities now.
A valid journalist should be able to stir a true debate (something that actually makes him a guarantor of democracy).
So in my Agora, the money usually invested in now useless presses, would be invested in physical locations for discussions. Meetup.com has proved that all the excitement there is for the web doesn’t mean that people do not want to meet in real life.
I am confident that people would want to meet in places where they can engage in discussions with excellent journalists and opinion-makers and eventually become themselves journalists, at least by this new definition of the term.
The articles that emerge from these discussions and from the journalists’ personal views would obviously be available on-line for everyone for free. But a community of committed people will want to converse on a deeper level. So I really think that people would be willing to pay annual subscriptions to be part of this “physical on-line community”.
A bar/restaurant/tea place/anything you can think of could be an extra source of money at the meeting place.

Anyway, the point is that “news is a commodity”. Newspapers need to differentiate themselves otherwise…maybe by becoming this sort of open think tank that Agora represents.
I’m not saying that Agora would definitely work, but it could be an interesting experiment.

My final take on journalism is that society isn’t stupid by definition: a “thinking” society has a great potential of improvement. Collaborative/Conversational journalism, I believe, fosters improvement in society.

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