Persephone Miel has released an excellent and comprehensive studyof participatory media, working at Harvard’s Berkman Center. She delivers the following summary of her findings:
Participatory media is great, has lots of potential. But it’s not doing everything we have counted on journalism institutions to do and, left to its own devices, it never will. Those journalism institutions, never perfect, are in serious trouble. Many will save themselves, as businesses, but there is no guarantee they will maintain their commitment to doing the journalism we need. People who for whatever reason (time, money, skills, desire) are not taking charge of creating their own online news diet still deserve to have access to comprehensive credible sources of news.
The U.S. media system was not handed down from the heavens on tablets. It’s time to look at models from other countries — stronger public media, newspapers less dependent on advertising, etc. We do a lot of studying of online activity, but we don’t know nearly enough about how real people in the real world take in information from many sources and what that means for how journalism in the public interest needs to evolve. We, the people who care about the public getting the information it needs, must take the best from both worlds to build the media we need.
She also has what I think is a new term for people like me who see the the internet as a hatchet which cuts primarily the wrong way as it relates to serious journalism: “cyberdystopians.”
Miel and her fellows rightly point out that newspapers are the canary in the journalism coal mine:
Threats to newspapers are threats to core functions of journalism. Newspapers are the most news-centric of the traditional media: timely information on current events is the core of their product. This contrasts sharply with broadcast media, in which entertainment is primary and coverage of news and current affairs represents only a small fraction of the activity across the industry as a whole. In contrast, coverage of current events by newspapers is both broad and deep; they generate more original reporting and more in-depth coverage of individual stories than broadcast news, whose audience will change the channel instead of just turning the page when they have had enough of a story. Cutbacks in reporting by newspapers resonate throughout other media—especially radio, whose newsrooms rely heavily on their reporting.
Forced to focus on economic survival, newspapers and other traditional news media may no longer have the luxury of maintaining their commitment to public service, a journalistic mission accurately portrayed as extremely resource-intensive. As a result, despite a period of widening globalization, U.S. newspapers and other traditional media are doing a poor job of informing citizens on world events. Cutbacks are weakening the media’s traditional role as watchdog, and coverage of serious social issues such as education, health care, and poverty is decreasing. As newsrooms shrink, the Project for Excellence in Journalism study despairs at “the ambition of newspapers to cover their regions or even basic government functions in nearby exurban towns is on a sharp decline.”
23 Editors are finding the age-old struggle to insulate editorial decisions from commercial imperatives to retain and attract advertisers ever more challenging.
She also raises a point which I think needs far more elucidation: that the American model of supporting and delivering news is both an aberration and a likely historical accident:
The effect of market forces in shaping the U.S. news and information environment is staggering and cannot be compared with any other country in the world (see Figure 3). For-profit media enterprises have long dominated the news industry, supported not only by their roughly $150 billion media advertising market,
20 but also by the phenomenal global market for American-produced entertainment, which is a significant part of the television economy. A combination of history, professional tradition, and regulation created a media model in which commercial companies were expected to serve the public need for quality information while simultaneously creating value for advertisers and profit for their owners. The traditional wall between the newsroom and the sales group was meant to ensure that these two often contradictory goals could coexist.
To bring Miel’s conclusion full circle ’round to the newspaper business, the “wall” that existed between business and editorial was accidental. The capital intensity of printing presses and distribution networks conferred upon newspapers natural monopoly status; that the recipients of these monopoly rents were willing to indulge in public service was doubtless due to a combination of noblesse oblige and a the pre-emption of any potential regulatory challenge to their franchise.