13 August, 2009

The message is in the method, not in the media

Sergio Abranches

Wherever I go to discuss change in the 21st Century, I stumble upon the same idea. All disciplines, and all professions are full of people envisioning an ongoing – I didn’t say forthcoming – revolution.

It is on its very beginnings, its primitive stage, but it has already brought change enough to make us marvel with the possibilities it opens up, to be scared by the risk and ethical questions it raises, and to be perplexed by the uncertainties ahead. There are some common drivers: digital and computer technology breakthroughs, new media emergence and media convergence, new scientific fields, new knowledge, new tools everywhere.

I was watching a TV interview with Brazilian neurosurgeon Paulo Niemeyer Filho, probably one of the most prominent Latin American on his field, and he was talking about the fact that medicine as a whole, and his specialty in particular were being revolutionized by new scientific and technological discoveries. He was trying to convey the idea that he was talking about revolution, not incremental change, nor even fast change. He wasn’t talking about improvements or advances on a given practice, model or paradigm.  He was talking about a full transformation, a radical shift of perspective, a paradigm shift. “As radical as when modern Western medicine came to life, with the development of anatomy,” he said.

Three main areas of scientific-technological progress are driving this revolution: genomics, and the possibility of therapeutically redesigning genes; stem cell research and cell therapy; and nanotechnology, allowing nonintrusive surgery, particularly brain surgery, on his case. Some breakthroughs have already made a world of difference. He mentioned, for instance, the extraordinary advancement of diagnosis and treatment prompted by substituting radiography with magnetic resonance imaging. Oh, yes, digital and computer technology are also a part of the revolution.

Sounds familiar to those debating the future of journalism? It sure does. We are trying to ride a gigantic wave of change. A revolution that is transforming the business, the technology, the economics, the profession, the practice, the ethics, and the agenda of journalism. No single piece of the journalistic building raised along the 20th century will remain untouched. Obviously the skeptical can always say that the revolution thesis is just a form of escaping the pain that the death of journalism brings. Maybe. So, journalism is dead. OK. Long live journalism!

This is a weird form of dying: reporting both its own passing, and already telling about postmortem life. Either we’ve moved into the mystic world, or this is journalism on its best, with all the cynicism, skepticism, controversy, and punch typical of newsroom culture. Looking at what’s happening and trying to understand where all this upheaval is leading to, that’s what journalists do. Because it is an upheaval, not simply an upgrade, as Clay Shirky has aptly said. This revolutionary change is not only caused by technology and new tools for social networking. Nor is it only about journalism.

Global warming, a macro-driver of change in the 21st century is determining acceleration and redirection of scientific and technological priorities and investment; it is shaping medical practice, through new pandemics, the effects of heat and cold waves; or business, opening new investment avenues, closing well-known routes for making money; or journalism, redefining the way to look into any story to find its connection to climate change; and the list goes on to cover any relevant activity one can imagine.

Steve Yelvington says very aptly that “technology is working deep changes in the way people discover, discuss and come to understand public events. Social processing of this information is moving from the family room and the dinner table onto networks. Information power is shifting from centers and institutions to edges and individuals.” Technology, as much as global warming are twenty-first century trends journalism has to cope with and adapt, finding new ways to keep telling the story, and finance itself. As Yelvington puts it: “in the context of such change, a journalist or a media executive who persists in operating as if we’re still living in the twenty century is guilty of failure to meet his or her moral and financial obligations to the public and to investors.”

Newspapers, however, “continue to produce a product with the same general shape and the same general set of ingredients as a decade or even a generation ago.” The attitude towards the rapidly changing environment has been reactive, rather than innovative. How long it will take for journalism to recreate itself as a profession, as well as a business, is an open ended question, that accepts many different answers, and journalism is just beginning to try answering it.

My impression is that journalists as individual professionals are moving faster, tapping the web for information, using social network to disseminate news and opinion, to enlarge their dialogue among themselves, and other practitioners of the trade of gathering and spreading information, especially bloggers. Newspapers have been far more awkward in threading their way through these new paths.

Yelvington argues that “finding those answers will be a messy process involving failure and, for many, great personal pain. For the thousands of journalists, press operators, delivery drivers, and others whose lives will be turned upside down.” Survival will depend on “how well they identify new ways to play socially valuable roles.” As to journalists, the challenge is to “adapt to a world where we share information power with activists, businesses, and the people formerly known as the audience,” and several are not only adapting, but reporting and debating what is happening, ongoing experiments, failures, breakthroughs.

Steven Johnson has a similar view, and his conclusion can be generalized: “whatever the underlying causes (…) the newspaper business—and thus its editorial product—is going to look fundamentally different five or ten years from now. (…) I think there is good reason to believe that the news system that is currently evolving online will actually be an improvement on the newspaper model that we’ve been living with for the past century.”

So, the news that is evolving online is not really killing journalism, it could well be just one of its new configurations. What about blogs? Are they spurious imitation of journalism, an amateurish and irresponsible form of spreading rumor, unchecked gossip, vain opinion and other virulent or corrupted content?

NYU professor, and blogger, Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu ) has a strong argument denying this view of blogging: “good bloggers build up trust with a base of users online. And over time, the practices that lead to trust on the platform where the users actually are… these become their ethic, their rules.” And he goes farther: “those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform that operated as a closed system in a one-to-many world. That’s why I say: if bloggers had no ethics, blogging would have failed. Of course it didn’t.”

Blogging journalists are becoming quite a massive presence globally. Some of them have already become must-read sources of information, sound opinion and theme expertise all over the World.

Steve Johnson tells us that he gets far more useful information from the new ecosystem than he did from traditional media alone fifteen years ago. But, he cautions, “I pride myself on being a very savvy information navigator.” Every journalist will have to become an expert “information navigator.” There are many navigation tools to help everyone on this travel through the brave new world of online information, RSS, bots, search engines, Twitter, and other social networking resources. Mastering them is as important as grasping the new principles of navigation.

Johnson correctly observes that there are “more perspectives, more depth, and more surface now.” Nothing is mature. In the future, he bets, there will be “more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches covered.” I wouldn’t place a bet against his. This quantitative and qualitative increase of content is already there for everyone to see, in all languages, on almost all subjects.

What should we do about it? Ride high the waves of change. Report the upheaval. Mainly think about it, discuss it with our audience that has become a very active community, where information flows, from brains and hands of both professionals and advanced amateurs, and is no longer passively consumed, but discussed, reprocessed, and more often than not recycled and reintroduced in the infoflow. News are a paramount part of this. Shirky reminds us of sociologist Paul Starr’s well taken point that journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories. “It’s also about assembling a public to read and react to those stories. A public is not merely an audience. For a TV show with an audience of a million, no one cares whether it’s the same million every week — head count rules. A public, by contrast, is a group of people who not only know things, but know other members of the public know those things as well.” A community, and for that community, “journalism is about the creation of shared awareness.”

Journalism is as much about news, as a community resource, and as both the social physiognomy of this community and its environment radically change, it has to recreate itself, maintaining the solid rules of the trade that are still the clue to its accountability and credibility; and adapting some of the old rules, to the new ways. The news must continue to flow.

On Frank Herbert’s extraordinary sci-fi tale Dune, spice is the key to the whole economic, social and political system. A catch-phrase is repeated by the narrator and several characters throughout the novel, as a mantra: “the spice must flow.” That’s it: the news must flow. Journalism cannot die because it is vital for the system to keep moving, to travel through, like the gigantic “worms” that process water on Dune’s desert to produce the spice. Journalism processes information now from far more sources, on far more complex ways, to convey the news to an enlarged news consuming community. On its life depends the flow of the news that enables the physical and online societal system to keep making sense of itself.

Well, is this the death of journalism as we know it, or its painful rebirth on the new infoworld? At the end of the long day it doesn’t matter. It will the there for as long as we can see. Of course, there is an economic equation that is proving very hard to solve to keep the news business alive, and paying journalists to do their jobs, particularly in the US and UK. It still has too many unknowns. So let’s keep critically looking at what those who take newsmaking as a business, not a profession, are experimenting with as tentative solutions.

Welcome to the revolution and beware that revolutions tend to turn against many revolutionaries that go astray. One thing we can be sure of is that, at the end, the results of these cycles within cycles of change will be far different from everything we guessed, and most of what we’ve wished for.

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