1.5 Innovation and Participation

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 20th century journalism business. That’s not happening—at least. not anytime soon. As I said earlier, we’re heading into an incredibly messy but also wonderful period of innovation and experimentation that will combine technology and people who push ideas both stunning and outlandish into the world. The result will be 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 Web journalism project called Bayosphere, and made just about every mistake in the entrepreneur’s goof-kit. But since then 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, and giving advice on what to do once they got there—that worked well enough to be bought by a big company.[1](I’m also involved in several startups as an advisor, and serve as an advisor or board member on several media-related non-profits.)

I can’t begin to list all of the great experiments I’m seeing right now. I’ll explore many of them on the Mediactive website (mediactive.com), and mention at least a few in this book.

What’s important is the breadth and depth of the innovations we’re already seeing—even now, before the traditional media have disappeared or evolved. The experiments and startups range from not-for-profits doing investigative reporting to data-driven operations at the hyper-local level to aggregators of journalism from many sources, and include any number of other kinds of enterprises.

In one journalistic arena in particular, new media have pretty much replaced the old: the world of technology. The widening array of coverage, with some of the best focusing on narrow audiences and topic niches, has not only superseded the magazines and (shallow) newspaper coverage of old, but is deeper and fundamentally better. Some of this is exemplary journalism. Not all topics will lend themselves to this kind of transition, as we’ll discuss later, but there’s every reason to believe that many of today’s weakly covered topics and issues will enjoy better journalism in the future.

I’m still having fun working on new media projects, but my money—literally, not just figuratively—is on a younger generation. For the past several years, while continuing to write and publish journalism online and in newspapers and magazines, including regular publication in the online magazine Salon.com, I’ve been working in academia. Currently I teach at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where I’m helping 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 envy my students, and I tell them so; they and countless others 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.

At the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, the ASU project we launched in 2008, my colleagues and I make this point to our students at the outset of every semester: There’s almost no barrier to entry if you want to do something in digital media.

The tools for creating news and community information are increasingly in 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 features such as 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.

The other side of the media-democratization coin is access.

With traditional media, we produced something, usually manufacturing it, and then distributed it: We put it in delivery trucks or broadcast it to receivers.

With new media, we create things and make them available; people come and get them. Now, this isn’t as simple as I’ve just made it sound. We get things in a variety of ways, such as RSS “feeds” and daily emails that come to us from many news sources; we also explore Webpages, Twitter tweets, Facebook messages, videos and so much more. Web publishers still look for ways to grow audiences. But I think of “distribution” in the new media world as the process of making sure that the people long known as consumers—that would be us—can find what’s being created not only by commercial and institutional publishers, but by all of us.

Publishers and online service providers especially crave audiences whose members become active participants in a community. That’s how some new media empires are made today: by helping the former audience become part of the process.

As media democratization turns people from mere consumers into potential creators, something else is happening. We 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. All I can say is, wow.

[1]My role in the second startup, Dopplr.com, was much less hands-on than my first one. I’m not sure if there’s a correlation between the demise of the first and success of the second.

4 thoughts on “1.5 Innovation and Participation”

  1. Thanks for releasing this book under the Creative Commons license. So far I find it very interesting. Also wanted to note that the “landed funding” link directs to an “Account Suspended” page. Regards.

    1. Yes, there’s some “link rot” — I’ll be writing about this for the course forum this weekend.

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