Today I’m starting to post chapter drafts of the Mediactive book. (Here’s everything I’ve posted so far.) Remember, this is a draft, not the final version, though my editor and I believe we’re fairly close. Feel free to chime in with ideas about what I’ve missed and especially what I have gotten wrong, or send email. The chapter begins after the jump.
In the last year of the first decade of the 21st century, reality hit the news business with a powerful thud. To the legions of pessimists, especially those who held jobs in traditional media companies, reality could be interpreted only as a catastrophe. The jobs were disappearing as journalism’s and publishing’s business model, which had been in jeopardy for at least a decade, crumbled in an accelerating and—because journalists love to talk about themselves—highly visible way.
Despite years of warnings and ample time to do something about the shifting nature of media from an analog to digital world, news organizations had decided to milk their former monopolies and oligopolies for all the money they could extract—and now the milk was running short. Media companies were still running operating profits, some quite healthy at that, but many had gone as deeply into debt as a mortgage borrower in Las Vegas, and the bills were too steep to pay. And even the media companies that had been cautious about debt were facing a perfect storm, with advertising revenues and circulation declining at a scary rate, and little or no prospect of a major comeback in either category.
This was bad enough. Worse, the doomsayers claimed, journalism itself was at risk. Who would do the journalism if the business model died? How would the public be informed?
All this anguish and chest-thumping, of course, begged these questions:
First, by what standard had traditional journalists done such a good job that they were irreplaceable? Given the well-documented failures of journalists in recent times, the notion that we should imbue great trust in their work was absurd on its face. There had been some superb reporting, to be sure, but a craft that a) helped lead the nation into a war started under false pretenses; and b) almost totally missed the financial bubble hardly deserved our unreserved trust.
Second, did the unquestionably hard economic times for their businesses mean that journalism would no longer exist if those businesses disappeared? Again, the question was founded in arrogance. Journalists working for traditional media companies were arguing that their enterprises had some near-divine right to exist. They never did.
The optimists in all this drama see something else afoot. We don’t worry about the supply of news and opinion, though we do recognize that a shifting marketplace for information—from monopoly and oligopoly to a new, competitive mediasphere—will cause massive turmoil. We recognize that we’ll lose some of the journalism we’ve had in the past, at least in the near term.
But we see a million experiments emerging from the wreckage, experiments in journalistic content and business models alike. This is wonderful news. Tomorrow’s media will be more diverse, by far, than today’s. We can imagine, therefore, a journalism ecosystem — a vital part of our expanded mediasphere — that is vastly healthier and more useful than the monoculture media of recent times.
There will always be a need for conscious efforts to make information better—more trustworthy and reliable—but the Digital Age, democratizing the media, at least guarantees we’ll have an abundance of it.
Yet to assure a continued supply of quality information, we have to address the other side of a classic economic and social equation: demand. And to put it mildly, our demand today isn’t so great. In fact, it’s downright crappy.
Unless we all demand something better than we’ve been getting, we will get more of the same sludge that now dominates the world of news. I have nothing against entertainment. But information that doesn’t help us make better decisions about our families and our communities leaves us short-changed.
My goal for this project—the book you’re reading, along with the accompanying website, mobile app, and other initatives—is to help you become what I call mediactive.
I’m asking you to use the media you once merely consumed. In an era of democratized media, you can do so—and by doing so will make an enormous difference.
I’m asking you to take some responsibility for knowing more of what’s real and what’s fantasy—because the consequences of “knowing” things that are false can be catastrophic.
I’m asking you to participate in media, in ways ranging from being a more nuanced reader all the way—if you decide to push it—to becoming a journalist in your own right., Of course, infinite gradations of participation lie in between; you can occupy any wavelength on that spectrum you like at different times.
Think of Mediactive as a “user’s guide” to democratized media. For this we don’t require a hyper-detailed how-to book like the great “Missing Manual” volumes from this publisher—the kinds of guides that tell you how to wring every bit of value from specific hardware and software products or services.
Although I’ll offer lots of specific suggestions for being mediactive, the more lasting message behind them will be more important: principles and guidelines for being savvier consumers and creators alike. Once we get the principles straight, the rest is mostly tactics.
Don’t get the idea that this is some kind of stern lecture about how you must do this or that or else you’re a bad person. Nor is this an “eat your (insert vegetable you loathe) because it’s good for you” exercise. We’re talking about doing something that’s often fun, if you have the slightest curiosity about the world, and downright useful the rest of the time.
Ah, time. You can expand your horizons. You can expand your knowledge. But time is the one thing we can’t expand, even though we can use it more efficiently. The most vital element of this is to rethink your basic attitudes about media; that won’t take any extra minutes or hours out of your day, and will actually make the ones you do devote to your media more productive. But as with anything, the more active you become, the more time you’ll need to set aside for it. And if you follow the principles in this book, you’ll know what value you’re getting for your time.
At the end of this chapter I’ll tell you more about how I’ve organized the mediactive project, including a description of what I’ll cover in upcoming chapters. Before we look at the individual trees, however, let’s step back and look at the forest they inhabit.
An Extremely Brief History of Media
It has taken millennia for humanity to produce democratized media. When early humans started drawing on the walls of caves, they created a lasting record of things that mattered. Stationary cave walls gave way to rock and clay tablets, which in turn evolved to papyrus and animal-skin documents, including scrolls. Early books—single editions created by scribes—came next, setting the stage for what I think of as Media 1.0: the printing press.
Moveable type, in the form of the Gutenberg Bible, liberated the word of God from the control of the priests—and humanity had seen its first profound democratization of media. Printing presses spread the words of individuals to many readers. Regimes shook, and some fell. Civilizations changed irrevocably.
When the telegraph moved information over long distances at the speed of light, we’d hit a new turning point. Call it Media 1.5. The telegraph’s effects were more disruptive than transformative, but they led to the next epochal shift.
Broadcasting was Media 2.0: mass media traveling long distances instantaneously. The radio brought news and information, plus the sound of the human voice, with an immediacy that led both to the rise of the great and the wicked. Franklin Roosevelt did much to calm a troubled nation with his fireside chats, while Hitler used radio, among other media, to pull his nation into outright savagery.
Television added vision to radio’s voice, combining broadcasting’s immediacy with film’s visual intensity. It was a huge shift (Media 2.5), but not as much as what was to come.
The Internet is Media 3.0, combining all that has come before and extending it in the web of connections that includes everything from email to the Web (and Web 2.0 at that). It is radically democratized media, in ways that we are only now beginning to understand well. But with this opening of what had been a mostly closed system, possibilities emerge literally without limit.
Democratization Means Participation
The tools for creating news have come increasingly into everyone’s hands. The personal computer that I’m using to write this book comes equipped with media creation and editing tools of such depth that I can’t begin to learn all their capabilities. The device I carry in my pocket boasts Web browsing, email, video recording and playback, still-camera mode, audio recording, text messaging, GPS location sensing, compass headings, and much more; oh, and it’s a phone, too.
If creating media is now a trivial task, the other half of democratization springs from how media is seen by others.
With traditional media, we produced something, usually manufactured, and then distributed it; we put it in trucks or broadcast it to receivers in a one-to-many mode.
With new media, we create things and make them available; people just come and get them. In the new system, “distribution” is all about making sure that the people we have called consumers can find what we’ve created.
Even as media democratization turns people from mere consumers into potential creators, something else is happening. Some of those creators are becoming collaborators, because so many of the new tools of creation are inherently collaborative. We have only begun to explore the meaning, much less the potential, of this reality.
Media saturation requires us to become more active even if we remain consumers, in part to manage the flood of data pouring over us each day, but also to make informed judgments about the significance of what we see. Anyone creating media that serves the public interest or conveys news needs to understand what it means to be journalistic, as well as how to make it better and more useful.
This adds up to a new kind of media literacy, based on key principles for both consumers and creators. The principles overlap to some degree, and they require an active, not passive, approach to media.
Journalism Business Woes, and Opportunities
The mass media of the 20th Century were based on control: monopolistic and oligopolistic control not so much of content but of the revenues that made it possible to produce the most widely distributed content. Broadcasters got exclusive rights to use the publicly owned airwaves, so three broadcast networks in the U.S.—perhaps only one in many other countries—along with their local affiliates held sway over local TV and radio media. Newspapers became monopolies in many communities due to a confluence of factors, not least of were two major barriers to entry:, the cost of publishing and advertisers’ preference for the channel that reached the broadest possible audience.
Newspaper proprietors are whining today that they’re giving away what they’ve been charging for all these years. This claim is basically false. For the past half-century, they’ve subsidized relatively meager circulation (readers who buy the newspaper) with monopoly-based advertising, typically to the tune of 80 percent advertising revenues to 20 percent circulation revenues. Now that advertising is moving online in a competitive market, advertisers are moving to non-news sites and paying a small fraction of what the former monopolies charged them.
Because we’ve become accustomed to a media world dominated by monopolies and oligopolies, we still tend to imagine that just a few big institutions will rise from the sad rubble of the journalism business. That’s not where it’s going, at least not anytime soon. We’re heading into an incredibly messy but also wonderful period of innovation and experimentation that combines technology and people who push ideas both stunning and outlandish into the world. The result will a huge number of failures, but also a large number of successes.
One of the failures was mine. In 2005 I helped launch an experimental local project, and made just about every mistake in the entrepreneur’s goof-kit. But I’ve also invested in several new media enterprises. I co-founded a site with a media component—users telling each other about where they were traveling plus advice on what to do once they got there— that worked well enough to be bought by a big company. I’m also involved in several emerging enterprises as an advisor.
I can’t begin to list all of the great experiments I’m seeing right now. I’ll be doing more of that on the Mediactive website, which is where such things belong. (I’ll explain why later in this chapter.)
What’s important is the breadth and depth of the innovations we’re already seeing— even now before the traditional media have disappeared. The experiments and startups range from not-for-profits doing investigative reporting to data-driven operations at the hyper-local level to aggregators to any number of other kinds of enterprises.
In one journalistic arena in particular, new media have pretty much replaced the old: technology. The widening array of coverage, some of the best focusing on narrow audience and topic niches, has not only superseded the magazines and (shallow) newspaper coverage of old, but is deeper and fundamentally better. Not all topics will lend themselves to this kind of transition, as we’ll discuss in Chapter 6, but there’s every reason to believe that many of today’s weakly covered topics and issues will enjoy better journalism in the future.
For the past several years I’ve been working in a journalism school to bring entrepreneurship and the startup culture into the curriculum. We’ve encouraged students in a variety of programs, not just journalism, to team up and create new kinds of community-focused information products and services. Several have landed funding to take their ideas further, and all have shown the kind of potential that tells me we’ll get this right in the end. I am envious of my students, and I tell them so; they and a million like them around the world are inventing our media future, and the field is wide open for them in ways that I could not have imagined when I started my own career.
Trust and Reliability
The expanding and diversifying media ecosystem poses some difficult challenges alongside the unquestioned benefits. A key question often asked is: in this emergent global conversation, which has created a tsunami of information, what can we trust?
How we live, work, and govern ourselves in a digital age depends in significant ways on the answers. To get this right, we’ll have to rethink, or at least reapply, some older cultural norms in distinctly modern ways.
These norms exist in the form of principles as much as practices, and they are now essential for consumers and creators alike. They add up to a 21st -century notion of what we once called “media literacy,” but the older concept largely missed the emerging methods of participation that are becoming such a key element of digital media. (This is only one reason that we should seek a replacement for the expression “media literacy”—because it connotes something that has become quaint to the point of near-irrelevance.)
Trust and credibility are not new to the Digital Age. Journalists of the past have faced these questions again and again, and the Industrial Age rise of what people called “objective journalism”— allegedly unbiased reporting—clearly did not solve the problem.
We don’t have to look very far, or very far back in history, to note some egregious cases. The New York Times’ Jayson Blair saga, in which a young reporter spun interviews and other details from whole cloth, showed that even the best news organizations are vulnerable. Fox News still maintains a slogan of “fair and balanced” —two falsehoods in three words. The Washington press corps, with dismayingly few exceptions, served as stenographers for the government in the run-up to the Iraq War. And so on.
But the credibility problem of traditional media goes much deeper. Almost everyone who has ever been the subject of a news story can point to small and sometimes large errors of fact or nuance, or to quotes that, while accurately written down, are presented out of their original context in ways that change their intended meaning. Shallowness is a more common media failing than malice.
In the traditional news world, even though we understood the prevalence of minor errors in stories, even by reputable journalists, we also understood that, by and large, the better media organizations get things pretty much right. The small mistakes undermine any notion of absolute trust, but we accept the overall value of the work.
Most traditional media organizations try to avoid the worst excesses of bad journalism through processes aimed both at preventing mistakes and—when they inevitably occur—setting the record straight. Yet too many practitioners are bizarrely reluctant to do so. As I write this, it has been 10 weeks since the Washington Post published an editorial based on an absolutely false premise, which I documented in my blog and passed along to the paper’s ombudsman (who, bizarrely, is not expected to comment on what the opinion pages do, only the “news” pages); the editorial page has neither corrected nor acknowledged the error, an outrageous failure of its journalistic responsibility.
As noted, the new media environment is rich with potential for excellence. But it is equally open to error, honest or otherwise, and persuasion morphs into manipulation more readily than ever.
Consider just a few examples:
- The 2004 U.S. congressional elections were notable in many ways, not least in the widespread adoption of blogging and other conversational tools by candidates, staffs, and supporters. But in South Dakota’s U.S. Senate race, the campaign of Republican challenger John Thune paid two local political bloggers whose work influenced the state’s major newspaper; not until after the election, which Thune won, was their paid role widely known.
- Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart, among other major companies, have been caught compensating bloggers and social networkers for promoting the firms or their products without disclosing their corporate ties. The stealth marketing, also called “buzz marketing,” caused mini-uproars in the blogging community, but a frequently asked question was whether these campaigns were, as most believe, just the tip of an influence iceberg. Meanwhile, other companies have created the blogging and social networking equivalents of the “advertorials” we find in newspapers, compensating people for blogging, Tweeting and the like and not always providing adequate disclosure. Federal regulators have been sufficiently alarmed by these and other practices that they’ve enacted regulations aimed at halting abuses; unfortunately, as we’ll see later, they’ve gone way too far.
- President Barack Obama has been the target of mostly shadowy, though sometime overt, rumors and outright lies. They range from the laughable to the truly slimy. What they have in common is that during the election campaign they were plainly designed to poison voters’ attitudes in swing states. During Obama’s presidency they are designed to discredit his authority among a large swath of the American people. The people behind these campaigns have succeeded to a degree that should scare every honest citizen; a nontrivial percentage of Americans believes Obama is a Muslim and originally a citizen of Kenya. If the latter were true, which it is not, Obama would be disqualified from holding his office.
- On blogs and many other sites where conversation among the audience is part of the mix, we often encounter sock puppets—people posting under pseudonyms instead of their real names, and either promoting their own work or denigrating their opponents, sometimes in the crudest ways. As with the buzz marketing, it’s widely believed that the ones getting caught are a small percentage of the ones misusing these online forums. Sock puppetry predates the Internet, and has never gone out of style in traditional media, but it’s easier than ever to pull off online.
Craig Newmark, founder of the craigslist online advertising and community site, famously says that most people online are good and that a tiny percentage does the vast majority of the harm. He is undoubtedly correct. Yet that doesn’t solve the problem.
In a world with seemingly infinite sources of information, trust is harder to establish. But we can make a start by becoming better informed about what we read, hear and watch.
Supply Side: Watching the Watchers
One of most serious failings of traditional journalism has been its reluctance to focus critical attention on a powerful player in our society: journalism itself. The Fourth Estate rarely gives itself the same scrutiny it sometimes applies to the other major institutions. (I say “sometimes” because, as we’ve seen in recent years, journalists’ most ardent scrutiny has been aimed at celebrities, not the governments, businesses, and other entities that have the most influence, often malignant, on our lives.)
A few small publications, notably the Columbia Journalism Review, have provided valuable coverage of the news business over the years. But these publications circulate mostly within the field, and can look at only a sliver of the pie.
To be fair, the news media do cover each other to some degree. But most of that coverage focuses on reporting related to corporate maneuvering and profiles of stars—a worthy topic, but not sufficient to meet the public interest. Only very occasionally do journalists for major media organizations drill in on each others’ successes and failures as journalists. When they do it, they tend to do it well; it is unfortunate that they don’t try more often.
Apart from raw market mechanisms and the legal system’s bludgeon of libel lawsuits—both providing, sadly, only flawed countermeasures to poor journalism—we have had a largely unaccountable press. But new media tools are pulling down some walls and helping to create the possibility of deeper accountability outside legal frameworks. Bloggers and Web-only publications are providing some of the toughest and best work of this kind.
Salon’s Glenn Greenwald reports with enormous depth and is singularly persuasive in showing how American journalists have continually botched even basic duties when it comes, for example, to covering the debate over government electronic surveillance. In Los Angeles, lawyer and blogger Patrick Frey (”Patterico”) relentlessly tracks and critiques—sometimes, like Greenwald, with over-the-top language—the Los Angeles Times’ coverage, particularly political stories. Both of these writers make clear their political leanings, left for Greenwald and right for Frey; readers refract that information through their own lenses to make their own decisions.
These two writers are among legions of people who have taken up media criticism, not as their primary occupation but as a part of what they do in their daily lives. When they care about something, they care about the journalism covering that topic—and now they have a way to discuss what they’ve seen.
Their work is diffuse, and therefore not always easy to find—a natural aspect of the Web’s distributed nature. But their work is essential, and I hope you’ll consider adding your learning and your voice to their number.
More thorough, robust media criticism, and conversations built around it, will serve us all better.
It’s Up to Us, Not “Them”
In mid-to-late 2009, if you were paying even the slightest attention to the legislative debate over America’s messed-up system of health care, you heard again and again about “death panels.” These were the shadowy governmental bodies that opponents claimed would decide your fate if the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted just about any major shifts away from the current system. Tens of millions of Americans believed this, and many still do.
But if you were paying sufficiently close attention, you came to realize that the death panels were outrageous lies. They’d been concocted by opponents of pretty much anything the president and his fellow Democrats might propose.
The death panels lost their power in the public mind for several reasons. First, the charge was so inflammatory that some traditional media organizations did something unusual: they stopped simply quoting “both sides” of an issue that had a true side and a false side, and reported what was true. Not all media organizations did this by any means, and some continued to promote the falsehoods.
But the issue was significant enough, and the consequences alarming enough if the charges had been true, that many people spent the extra time it took to figure out what they could trust. The public, by and large, learned the truth. And the health-care debate shed at least one flagrant deception.
We need to do this more often.
The 20th-century’s era of media monopolies and oligopolies encouraged us to be mere consumers. We were expected to sit back and accept what they were being told. We turned over our essential skepticism, especially about the actions of powerful institutions at all levels, to media organizations that in many cases came to treat journalism as a form of entertainment. We loaned our trust to people who too often didn’t earn it.
It was always a bad idea to be a passive consumer, even when there was little choice. Our current media-saturated age offers us some new openings as well as new responsibilities, at the very least being more active (and informed) as media consumers. We can’t afford to be entirely passive, not in a time when the consequences of being misinformed are so potentially serious to our personal lives and to our society’s future.
We have no real choice in any case.
Our democratized 21st-century media lay out before us a land of opportunity, and of peril. When we have unlimited sources of information, and when the Big Media organizations relentlessly shed their credibility in the face of economic and journalistic challenges, life gets more confusing.
We need to break out from the passive consumer role and become active users of media: hands-on consumers and creators. This won’t only be good for society, though it certainly will be. It’s the right approach because we’ll all be better off individually.
Above all, hands-on mediactivity is satisfying, and often fun. Once you get used to checking a variety of postings on various topics and following the many threads of arguments to reach your own conclusions — not on everything, of course, but on the issues that you care about the most — you’ll have trouble waiting for the next break in the day when you can do it again. Meanwhile, traditional sources of information will start to feel disappointingly predictable.
The Mediactive Project: Walking the Talk
As noted earlier, the book Mediactive is a sliver of a much larger project. I’ll be posting everything in the book on the Mediactive.com website, but my goals go well beyond the physical volume you’re either holding in your hand or reading online.
Book and Web
Even in this era of fast-to-market production methods, with print-to-order publishing becoming one of the ways we make and sell books, the versions we print on paper, bind between covers, and ship to customers has some added permanence and stability.
So it made sense to put in the physical book the kind of material that doesn’t change very quickly. While the tactics we might use to achieve something might vary from year to year, based on what tools are available, the principles don’t change much, if at all.
The material that does evolve fast, including tools and techniques, makes much more sense on the website. And that’s where you’ll find most of it.
Topics of Coming Chapters
Here’s what we’ll discuss along the way:
- Principles of Media Consumption. These include: Be Skeptical; Exercise Judgment; Open Your Mind; Keep Asking Questions; and Learn Media Techniques.
- Tools and tactics for exercising skepticism, using judgment and generally following those principles.
- Principles of Media Creation: Be Thorough; Get it Right; Insist on Fairness; Think Independently; and Be Transparent.
- Tools for creating media, and techniques for being more trusted.
- Why everyone needs to be a publisher about him/herself: If you don’t define yourself, others will define you in this increasingly public world. In particular, you should create and maintain your own Web presence.
- Why journalism still matters: What traditional media organizations could still do to survive; what some new organizations are doing to experiment our way to the future; and how our fellow media participants are joining the larger ecosystem in more intriguing ways. For people who aren’t journalists but who may occasionally commit a random act of journalism, which is to say almost everyone, what should you do when you encounter something newsworthy? Also: my rules for any news organization.
- Law and Norms: Freedom of speech has always come with legal caveats, and you need to know some basics. Equally important, we all need to recognize that the law can’t and shouldn’t deal with some situations. Societal norms will need to evolve, too.
- Why parents and teachers need to understand all this, and how they can push educational institutions to do a better job. Journalism educators should also become leaders in this arena. Sadly, traditional news organizations missed an opportunity by not doing it.
- A look ahead: What tools and techniques need to be invented, or perfected, so that we’ll have the trusted information ecosystem we need? They include human-machine reputation systems; aggregators that give humans more say in what’s reliable; and much more. Also: Why entrepreneurship is a key to the future of journalism and all media.
Who is This Project Not For?
If you have been spreading the notion that Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in Africa, this book is probably not for you. Correspondingly, if you promote the belief that George W. Bush was complicit in a U.S.-led plot leading to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, this book is probably not for you. Ditto if you believe that Biblical writings are equally plausible as evolution in explaining humanity’s presence on Earth.
Who is This For?
I don’t really expect to persuade everyone to jump off the couch and become a mediactivist. That would be wonderful, it’s not going to happen.
But if you are still sitting back in the cushions, maybe I can help you imagine the results of leaning forward and demanding something better than you’re getting, so you’ll be better informed on the things that matter to you.
If you’re an active consumer, I hope to persuade you to take the next step and participate in the journalistic part of the mediasphere, even in a small way.
If you’re a sometime participant, maybe I can persuade you to take an even more active role in your community’s physical or virtual information flow.
We need each others’ help. The rewards are going to be worth the effort.
 For an illustrated history of the printed word, visit the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/educator/modules/gutenberg/books/early/
 I lived in Silicon Valley too long, and tend to put version numbers on things. I’m in Career 3.4 at the moment, for example.