|A few years ago I gave a speech to a conference of Canadian media executives at which I told them that within a decade no one would pay for ‘factual’ news anymore. The audience was not impressed. They were rubbing their hands together in glee at the thought of being able to repackage the content from their newspapers and business magazines and news programs electronically and sell it as ‘feeds’ to large corporations. These same large corporations already paid handsomely for thousands of copies of this content in hard copy form, one for each executive desk, so now, surely, they would pay at least as much again for the same content in a different format. I told them they were in for a rude surprise.
Part of my job at the time was to negotiate for my employer the purchase of these electronic news feeds. I started out with the premise that we shouldn’t have to pay twice for the same content, and that, if we were to largely replace the hard copy with electronic feeds, we would actually be reducing the publisher’s costs (since bits cost less than paper and ink), so we should actually pay less than we were paying already. I was not a popular customer, but in the eight years since then I’ve been at least partially vindicated. To the extent companies were able to reduce their number of hard-copy subscriptions, they now pay less in total to each vendor than they did eight years ago (if they’re negotiating competently), and usually have a ‘site licence’ that allows them to distribute the content to every desktop in the organization, not just the executive suites. As Marshall McLuhan said, “Information is always trying to be free”.
I was also partially wrong. Many of the people in the executive suites are slow adopters of technology, and still demand their hard copy of the information, redundant and awkward as it is. It is true that, especially for commuters, reading hard copy is more convenient than reading off a screen. But with wireless and e-paper, that won’t be true much longer.
You can see the results of this struggle, too, on the Internet. Some newspapers and magazines initially refused to put their current editions up on the Internet unless you were a subscriber. You had to enter a subscription key. Those with such keys posted them up anonymously for other users and defeated this. Some tried to ’embargo’ their content for a period of time — only subscribers would be able to get it right away, while those who wanted it free would have to wait until it was off the shelves, no longer ‘news’. This is the same model used by movie-makers (it’s not working for them, either, thanks to file-sharing). For newspapers, which mostly recycle and package content from news services that is available free, immediately, elsewhere, this pretty well guaranteed no visitors to their websites. I know of one local newspaper that admits that much of its online traffic comes from people looking for the obituaries — the only content it carries that is unique and highly valued. You can’t get it anywhere else.
Some magazines, like the New Yorker, tease you by putting some of their content online and directing you to the hard copy for the meatier stuff. They lessen the blow of this tease by offering some multimedia content ‘online only’, for free. Some, like Harpers, put nothing at all online (they have recently switched to the ’embargo’ system, putting archives up after the issue comes off the shelves). Others, like Wired, have separate ‘online only’ editions that run in parallel to their hard copy editions. And others have given in and put everything up immediately, and trust that their subscribers find enough value in the magazine to buy the hard copy anyway, to photocopy and pass around and tear out the best articles and graphics, or because their readers tend to read their magazine cover-to-cover and, at least for now, hard copy is the most convenient format for doing so.
When I made my speech one member of the audience asked what they should do if my dire (and mostly correct) prediction came true. I told them they had to ‘add value’ to the content. If it was meta-tagged (indexed by subject matter) for easy online search that would be useful. An ability to link back to earlier related stories would add value, and a link to the reporter’s detailed unpublished files would be even better. But more than anything else, I told them to take the content up the value chain that I’ve illustrated above. ‘Just the news’, the facts and data of what happened with no slant or embellishment, as journalists are taught to provide, is at the bottom of the chain. If you synthesize it, put it in context, provide the background history and the related stories that let you see the whole picture, that’s more valuable. If you analyze it and provide insight as to what it means (and that implies providing more than one point of view on what it means) that’s more valuable still. And if you advise the reader what they can do (not tell them what they should do — but identify what alternatives are available to them that might make sense to do, with the decision left to the reader) as a result of that knowledge, that’s providing the most value of all.
Let’s take an example. Here’s an excerpt of the NBC video that we’ve all seen in the past couple of days showing a US marine shooting an allegedly unarmed, injured Iraqi in a mosque:
The picture itself is news. It’s data. You can’t argue with it. A thousand sources have attempted to turn it into information by giving us some context. Some of them are biased, others at least attempt to be objective about what we’re seeing and how it happened (I won’t get into the debate today about whether truly unbiased reporting is possible). We learn that the mosque depicted is in Fallujah, during a siege by the US against suspected militia. We learn what the Americans were saying to each other as the Iraqi was shot. We learn from the account of NBC’s Kevin Sites, a grizzled veteran of war reporting, that five wounded Iraqi fighters had been left in the mosque after Marines had fought their way into that part of the city on Friday and Saturday. Ten other Iraqis had been killed in the battle for the mosque. The wounded Iraqis were left in the mosque until a second group of Marines entered the building on Saturday, following reports that the building may have been reoccupied. Sites said that at this point one of the five Iraqis was dead and that three of the others appeared to be close to death. In his report accompanying the images, Sites said that one of the Marines noticed that one of the wounded men was still breathing before shouting that he was “faking it”. At this point, the Marine shot the Iraqi and walked away. We learn as well that the assault on Fallujah has been especially harrowing for the young Marines, who are exhausted and stressed out. Now we have a little information, just enough context to start to make sense of what happened. Enough, perhaps, to be dangerous.
On to insight, what it means. Here’s where the media start to play fast and loose with us. In the first place, they don’t really think it’s their place to tell us what it means. Sure, they have newsmagazines that will attempt this. But they’ll do it very badly. They’ll start by reiterating the facts and the limited context for this one event. There will not be time for them to recount and synthesize hundreds of similar events, and different events from the raid, so that we can see whether there’s a pattern here or just one pair of individuals acting in the intense stress of war. In fact, we probably won’t know what the real context is for this event for months, by which time the media will no longer be covering it (it will no longer be ‘news’). Instead, for the next week or so they’ll bring in pundits with diametrically opposed views on its significance. They’ll give each of them a couple of minutes to present hasty and utterly inadequate interpretations of what this news item means. One of them will quickly say that “Such images will recruit more terrorists faster than they are being killed”. Notice that it isn’t the behaviour of American troops toward Iraqis that’s being discussed here, it’s the “images”. The reporting of the news has become the news, more than the actual events! The other pundit will say that “We will only win the hearts and minds of Fallujah by ridding the city of insurgents. We’re doing that by patrolling the streets and killing the enemy. There’s no way of knowing whether the Iraqi was really injured or whether he had hidden arms. In the heat of battle you cannot take chances and there is no time for second-guessing. You do what you have to do.” [Incidentally, I’m not making these quotes up — they’re what has already been said about the incident]
And that will be the end of it. There will be no real analysis — there is no time for it, not enough facts have been accumulated to permit it, and the context provided is not nearly substantial enough for anything more than pure speculation. There will be no prescription for action at all, no alternatives laid out about what we as citizens of this planet should do as a result of this, because the show is already running over, attention spans are short, and besides there is not nearly enough quality analysis to support any prescription for action. All we can do is shake our heads and change the channel.
This is, in my opinion, irresponsible journalism, lazy, incompetent, and pandering to certain viewers’ love of sensationalism (the viewers who are more mature and reasoned in what they want have mostly given up on the mainstream media, and according to a recent poll the mainstream media command about the same amount of trust and respect from the majority of citizens as politicians and the IRS). The failure of the mainstream media to legitimately cover the news — providing proper context, analysis and insight, and suggestions for action — is a total abrogation of their responsibility to inform the American people. They say they do what they can with the data that’s available. They say they haven’t the time or resources to do more. They say the people whose eyeballs pay the bills won’t watch or read anyway. But the truth is that the media are a principal cause of the American public’s attention deficit for news. Why watch or read something if you get no true insight of what it means, and if there’s apparently nothing you can do about it anyway? And if you really want a sensational jolt, the special effects and picture quality of the latest Hollywood blockbuster are much better than the grainy shots of Abu Ghraib or the assault on Fallujah. They should be — there’s a lot more money invested in their production. It’s no wonder we’re all suffering from a feeling of learned helplessness. As I said back in January:
The delusion of danger, and the illusion that something can or has to be done, that someone — British cows, Canadian farmers, Chinese cats, Firestone, Saddam Hussein — must be brought to account in order to give us back control, is literally making us all crazy. It causes us to believe we cannot let children out of our sight even for a moment. It causes us to wildly change our diets, to avoid visiting whole countries, to fingerprint whole nations of visitors, to suspend civil liberties, to put barbed wire around our communities, to drink only bottled water, to wear masks, to introduce five levels of increasingly hysterical ‘threat’ to everyone’s safety. [and, I might add now, to re-elect the worst president in the history of the United States]
Alright, enough complaining. What should we do about it? How can we ‘reinvent the news’ so that it does provide value?
Here’s a good start. Take a look at this archive from the New Yorker. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of first-hand accounts and analysis of the Iraq war dating back to before it began. Data on what happened. Context to put the events in perspective. Analysis to provide insight into what it all means. And suggested actions on what we could do about it. This is what we should be getting in the news. Of course the mainstream media will say it costs too much and that not enough people will read it or watch it to justify that cost. It doesn’t matter. The media are licensed and given enormous public resources (spectrum allocation, cable and satellite allocation, and access to billions of eyeballs) to inform us. Not to titillate us with sensational pictures and celebrity indiscretions and leave us bewildered about what it all means and what we can do about it. They have a responsibility to inform us, more than ever today when our lack of knowledge allows those with money and power to launch wars under false pretenses, blackmail and bankrupt whole nations, and destroy our world.
In most Western countries outside the US, the governments and the people understand this. The most important (not the most popular, the most important) media in those countries are publicly owned. The BBC, Deutche Wellle, the CBC, and similar public broadcasters strive to meet this mandate. In the US, NPR and PBS do their best, but they’re horrifically underfunded and Bush would like to eliminate public funding for them entirely. There are many independent ‘alternative’ media, mostly Internet-based, that are quite well networked, but which barely have the resources to dig up basic facts, let alone provide investigation or analysis. There are tons of freelancers out there, more than ready to do whatever will put food on their table.
And then there’s us, the bloggers, the ‘million guys in pajamas’. We are becoming an extension of the independent media, capable of unearthing many more facts, at least in those areas where we live or have deep connections. But as critics have pointed out, mostly what we do is recycle the facts, both from the mainstream and independent media. We get them out to a larger audience. But we don’t have the resources, the skills or the time to provide much context, analysis, or prescriptions for action. So we, too, do what we can. When we see what we believe is a credible spin to a news item, we pass it on, notably to others who tend to believe the same things we do. Some of us have the unmitigated gall to write analyses and prescriptions for action, often based on woefully inadequate knowledge. But hey, we’re trying.
So we have mainstream media with lots of money who are squandering it on crap, and shrugging off their responsibility to inform. We have some magazines doing great investigative reporting. We have public broadcasters who are doing, mostly, an admirable job, with not enough money. We have independent media with good networks but not much else. We have freelance journalists with skills and time but who need to be paid a modest wage for their work. And we have us bloggers, who have vast numbers and great ideals and some modest writing skills and some time on our hands, but no resources. Put ’em together and what do you have? A system where the only players with the money are disinclined to use them to inform.
So what do we do? Here’s my suggestion:
OK, that’s all I have right now. I’m still thinking the concept through. I confess it’s a bit idealistic. I’m trying to be pragmatic, allowing networks who just want to entertain to pay others to take on their responsibility to inform. I’m trying to find a way to mobilize the incredible intelligence, energy and knowledge of a million bloggers and millions of others who care about the news and about being informed and who are currently sitting on the sidelines rehashing information when they could be producing and adding value to it. What would it take to make it really work? Pessimists who think it could never work, please keep your thoughts to yourself, at least until others have weighed in.
Oh, and bloggers offended by my description of us as ‘a million guys in pajamas’, please understand that the best way to destroy a false myth is to ridicule it from the inside. For investigative reporting fieldwork, what you’re wearing will work just fine.
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Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
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A Better Way to Work
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May I Ask a Question?
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A Harvest of Myths
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A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
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No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
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All the Things I Was Wrong About
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We Make Zero
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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The Job of the Media
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The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
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Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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