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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Alec Ross and the 21st century statecraft

We had the pleasure to listen to and converse with Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His role, which was specifically created for him, has the objective of putting together technology and diplomacy, which nowadays are always more connected.

It was a very interesting talk, which provided valuable insights into the current administration’s take on how to deal with international issues.
Ross talked about the importance of living in an open, transparent society and argued against the cold war-type “binary” foreign policy.
What was certainly confirmed from this talk is that dealing in international relations is very complicated and complicated is to analyze the impact of social media and new technologies to this field.

Twitter and activism

Most of the readings about Alec Ross and the 21st century statecraft that he represents discussed the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iranian’s elections and in other protests (in Moldova, in Belarus, etc…).

There are few points I want to make.
The first point was already made by Clay Shirky and was reiterated in class by Alec Ross: technology is essentially neutral and the spread and advancement of new technologies is inevitable.
I feel that instead of discussing how much really was the impact of Twitter In Iran (something that is very hard to calculate, considering the importance of “indirect impact”), we should discuss how, going forward, we should use these technologies in the best possible way to promote just causes.

Many argue, correctly, that these new media can also be used for non-noble intentions, pointing out to the fact that for example Facebook was used by the Iranian government to track Iranian dissidents outside the country or that the same technologies that facilitate group formation and dissemination of information can be used by terrorist groups to organize or by totalitarian governments to spread the wrong messages.
But once one states this, he is at least acknowledging their potential as an organizing tool and at this point I still feel that their potential advantages are far superior than the potential disadvantages.

Another common claim is that these tools might be fostering a light-type of involvement in situations, such as protests against a totalitarian regime, that would require a very committed and involved group of people. Morozov writes: “this is one of my problems with the promiscuous nature of online activism: it cheapens our commitment to political and social causes that matter and demand constant sacrifice”. Basically his argument is that people might think that they are contributing to a protest by sharing a link or posting something on Twitter, but protests need their leaders to act and commit in a courageous way, in a way that goes far beyond that of the blogging (or micro-blogging) about it.
True, if that was the case, it would be a problem.

But I strongly doubt that people feel they are being heroes of any sort when they are sharing a link or writing their opinion of dissent. I’m no sociologist, but I think that part of the reason why someone shares something is to inform others (where information is controlled, it isn’t easy for people to access less biased information) and to reach out to those who think like them, in order for example to feel less politically-lonely.

I definitely agree that using Twitter or Facebook to express dissent is not enough and using these tools cannot be compared to the action of great dissident leaders.
But I am quite sure that Facebook and Twitter are not hindering the development of such heroic figures.
If anything, they are creating more chances for those who would have stayed silent.
And the more people speak up, even if most of them speak up without making too much efforts, maybe from the “comfort” of their computers, the better it is. If you feel that something is going badly in the way your country is administered and you notice that your friends or even some people you remotely know share your concerns, you’ll be more likely to “speak up” or write about it. While this doesn’t get a dictator to step down, it encourages thinking and discussion.
Furthermore, I don’t think that heroic dissidents need to be fully lonely to be called such. If they know they can count on people that support their ideas and they know they can communicate with these people, they can eventually lead and persuade them better to take real actions.

The quote that truly made me think during Alec Ross’ talk belongs to Joseph Stalin: “We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”
Sometimes certain commentators, maybe because they have plenty of ideas themselves, forget that people having ideas is a fundamental element to achieve democracy and fight totalitarianism.
The indifference of most people is the best weapon for dictators!
Sharing and writing avoids indifference and it is part of the idea formation process.

To conclude, I don’t want to be naïve and categorically affirm that the more these tools are spread, the harder it will be for governments to use them at their advantage. I mean, I am sure television could have had a much better destiny, but it has become what it is now (pretty dull) and politicians have in often cases used it as a way to acquire power (any reference to Italian politics is purely casual…not).
But I do believe that TV and web are intrinsically different, because of the “participatory” nature of the web. To make sure that the difference lasts, we must definitely avoid the cyber-balkanization effect of which I talked in my previous post.
At least for now, we still definitely have the chance to make the web an extraordinary tool to promote democracy.

Cyberbalkanization and Politics

Perhaps the main reason why I love the web is that I believe it diminishes power unbalance by guaranteeing easier access to information to a larger slice of the population.
In fact, I could argue that most power relationships are a direct or indirect consequence of different level of access to information.

After hearing from Eli Pariser, both on YouTube and in class, I am still very much convinced of the potential of the web (as much as he is), but I share his preoccupation that the direction that the web is taking might foster what some call Cyberbalkanization, defined on Wikipedia as “the division of the world wide web into sub-groups with specific interests, to the extent that a sub-group’s members almost always use the web to communicate or read material that is only of interest to the rest of the sub-group”.

But let me go back to the issue of different levels of access to information first.
I recently had a discussion as to whether most politicians really have an interest in leading a more aware, intelligent and educated population or whether they prosper when people are fairly ignorant.
For me “educating” someone means giving her the tools to judge things as thoroughly and critically as possible. It doesn’t mean imposing (or dryly teaching) ideas, but provide the instruments to come up with always better views and initiatives. In my mind, an educator should feel proud only when his pupil has surpassed him.

While politicians might not have an interest in having people completely ignorant or stupid, for most politicians there is no real incentive in having very aware and intelligent electorate.
In other words, for the incapable politician, there is only to prosper in a world of ignorance. Obviously the rare  capable politician prospers only in a world of knowledge.

This is why I really like the idea of the web making people more aware and ultimately politicians more accountable.
A web that gives the instruments to judge, without judging anything or anyone. A web where true politics, that of ideas, could be rediscovered.

So let’s now go back to Eli Pariser’s comments on what he calls the “filter bubble” or cyber-balkanization.
Without you noticing, algorithms decide what you are more inclined in watching or reading, what people you would agree more with, etc… This is what happens for example with Facebook newsfeed or with Google search. These are certainly very effective and well studied tools and they make the information you see more relevant. In the words of sociologist Mark Granovetter, “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency”.

Eli Pariser noticed that, despite trying hard to befriend on Facebook people who would not share his political opinion, he would still get a newsfeed that reflected his own ideas.
While it is certainly pleasant to know that in the world there are other people who think like you as this might make you feel less of a lonely wolf, I remember Oscar Wilde’s “When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong”.
Indeed, it is certainly enriching to find out about different people’s opinions. They make you wonder whether you should reconsider what you had given for granted and they help you making your ideas stronger and more consistent.

While when we watch a biased TV show, we are more or less aware of its bias or political orientation, this is not true with Internet algorithms: we don’t see them!
These tools will certainly be very efficient in helping us find the film we are more likely to enjoy or the restaurant that best fulfill out culinary tastes, but it could go against our intellectual enrichment.

Don’t get me wrong.
I still believe the web provides a way better alternative for people to inform themselves and I still believe it makes the politicians more accountable. I still have very high hopes for the web.
But power is definitely going to those who, in Jaron Lanier’s words, are “close to the servers”.
While a certain degree of standardization (i.e. a common platform such as Facebook) has many positive aspects and definitely facilitates interactions and exchange of opinions, we must make sure it won’t end up standardizing opinions as well.

I’m an optimist, for the simple reason that, while I always keep in mind the image of the Utopian world I want to live in, I’m aware that this Utopia can only be reached through gradual improvements.
The web represents an improvement. A great one I should say.
Now it’s up to us to make it the precursor of that “dream-world” for which it was conceived.