I’m in a class, Readings in Mass Comm., and it has stimulated my thoughts about news media. During lectures and class discussions, we have established the incredible amount of discretion entrusted to reporters and editors, the status of news as a commercial product, and the rapidly changing nature of communications technology. The ideal of objectivity is, at best, a fleeting mirage when one considers how many vested interests are involved in delivering you a CNN report about, say, the occupation of Iraq: journalists and editors with careers who try to do the best job they can, honoring story pools (whereby several news companies share their information to divide the workload and increase coverage), politicians and military commanders trying to save face, and even soldiers’ lives and public images. Given all of these factors, my purpose here is to provide a basic historical time line of media/news trends, to gain an understanding of what may happen due to the rapid proliferation of computer-based technologies into the hands of the public. We already know that newspaper readership is declining, due in large part to electronic media. I wonder if TV and radio news (and other content) haven’t already found themselves facing stiff competition. We call them dinosaurs but how well can we really conceive a world where they are truly extinct?
Problems with old communication
Going back a millennium, there was no printing press. People did not all receive the news at 6 o’clock every evening. They gathered it on their own time, by talking to neighbors and fellow citizens, at a pub/beer hall/market stall/village green. It might take a couple of days or weeks for everyone in town to find out that the king, who lives over those mountains, has decided to raise taxes. Many probably didn’t find out until the taxman knocked on their doors a few months ahead of schedule. The slow pace of communication presented obvious problems when important information needed to be distributed.
International news, or indeed, news beyond the borders of one’s county, came through outlets such as trade and military campaigns. Stopping off for a beer, an outsider could convey information about the tax rate or the invasion going on over the mountain. Of course, this news could already be days or weeks old; the present situation may be drastically different from what I have just been told.
The point of this is that information, though past its expiration date, was interactively delivered and received by people. As a receiver of information, I can ask direct questions to the transmitter, in this case the guy next to me at the beer hall, about what I need to know. Of course, this also presented problems; maybe I’m a sheep farmer but the guy who just showed up in town knows nothing about the state of the sheep economy in his county because he’s a blacksmith.
The developmentn of written language is handy to solve the problems listed above. Now that blacksmith doesn’t have to learn about sheep farming; the next time he’s in town, he might bring along a written correspondence from another farmer, informing me about a poisonous weed that’s spreading and killing sheep. The problems with this scenario are that a) My information may still be out of date, and b) it presupposes general literacy among a population. This was hardly the case even 200 years ago, let alone 1,000! Literacy in the Western world was limited to the church and its institutions, and perhaps some merchants (what few there were). Thus, my sheep news is lacking (and reported by a drunk guy).
The information middleman: printing presses and (old) electronic media
With the invention of the printing press, there was a change in dynamic. The cost of a printing press was prohibitive for most people to consider owning one, but if you knew someone who owned and operated a press, and could pay for his services, you could circulate information much more efficiently. Granted, this still depended on widespread literacy. However, developments were taking place to improve this situation, including vernacular Bibles and masses, as well as a growing middle/merchant class who needed literacy to conduct business, eventually resulting in widespread pamphleteering.
The introduction of newspapers was directly related to a social need and the presence of the technology to cater that need. Somebody, usually the owner of the press or his employees, went around gathering information from many sources, packaging it for the public. “Taxman’s coming twice this year? Thanks for the heads up!” This was important for a republican style democracy like the United States, where important decisions were made in capitals distantly removed from much of the population. The printer/reporter served a vital role in this society. It was no longer necessary to depend on one’s neighbors for information regarding important developments.
Paper and ink don’t come free, so charging for the news, and to have your voice put in print (ads and personals), helped to offset costs and provide a living income. This, in turn, gave rise to news media as an industry in its own right.
From the press, we moved on to telegraphs, telephones, radio, and television as mediums for transmitting information. Important developments, but still limited in some ways. First, they are expensive. Cameras, broadcast towers, and telegraph lines require a major investment of capital to start and operate. Secondly, they rely on a systematic feedback loop — public demand — to determine what will be covered and discussed. Niche markets are not well served because the costs of these mediums necessitate as large an audience as possible. If I need to know about sheep economics but most people raise cows and/or chickens, I’m out of luck. (This is one way that print media have adapted so far — by searching out and targeting proverbial sheep farmers.) Third, the interests of the audience may or may not be truly served; as mentioned previously, reporters and editors have discretion about what is considered newsworthy; media outlets exist to make profits and must always consider whether a story or idea will threaten their bottom line; and other people and organizations are trying to use the media to broadcast their own ideas and agendas (which they willingly pay for in the form of advertisements, political spin, press releases, etc.)
The electronic media listed above helped to make information-gathering more efficient. Now, a small-time printer/reporter could share information over telegraphs at great distance or over the phone. The AP sprang up around this development, operating as a resource pool for news agencies who bought in and contributed to the organization.
The main purpose of news agencies is information-gathering and organizing, something new media technologies now do more efficiently.
New media technologies
New technologies make gathering information and organizing it a simple task for the average user. They also make distribution of that information just as simple, as well as instantaneous.
Over the last three decades, we have seen a widespread proliferation of new, computer-based media technologies that give the audience more control over content: Starting with VCRs, ending up with digital cable TV and on-demand programming, and hand-held, web-connected devices such as Palm Pilots, Blackberries, and iPhones. The audience can now choose when and where to consume information, from whatever source it wants, in whatever format it wants.
Further, with the internet, cellular phones, instant messaging, and blogs, we have come full circle to the scenario of 1,000 years ago, but with more features. As before, the average person is a reporter once again, only now, one is no longer limited by his or her ignorance of a subject. If your blog doesn’t talk about sheep economics, it’s no big deal — some other sheep farmer has already been blogging on the subject. Everyone’s personal expertise in a single subject suddenly becomes an asset to the rest of us.
The cost of the so-called “means of production” has gone down. Instead of a bank loan and collateral, a week’s paycheck will buy an over-featured digital camera, or video recorder, or voice recorder. Or you can just use your cell phone’s built-in camera and voice recording, then connect to the internet and start reporting. Meanwhile, Open sourced software brings the cost of applications to zero.
The problem for corporate media institutions
If we are all reporters, from whence do so-called “professionals” derive their legitimacy as the gatherers of information and hoarders of access to people and events? This is a question that will become important, perhaps within our lifetime. First, information-gathering: My RSS feed can give me more varied, timely, and personalized information than any newspaper or TV news program. Furthermore, my Firefox web browser can recommend websites to me based on other visitors’ similar interests. Secondly, access to people and events: A concerned/interested citizen can also attend town council meetings (even those are being posted or streamed online), and possibly do a better job with coverage if the meetings impact his or her life. (Feature stories, concerned with those affected by news events, might be the first thing to go. Who needs to be interviewed when they now have a podium?) What about press passes? Bloggers have requested press passes to events like the Super Bowl in staggering numbers, with nearly all being denied. What makes Sal Paolantonio‘s interest in professional football any more legitimate or important than a blogger who coaches at the pee-wee level and has a good understanding of the game? Is it the ability to write an inverted pyramid story?
Media law is already scrambling to catch up. Myspace and Facebook, as hubs of social interaction, serve as rumor mills among friends and acquaintances. The problem is that instead of whispers in a friend’s ear, the rumors and half-truths are now made readable to the world. A newspaper can’t legally print lies (knowingly or not) but spiteful teenage girls can and do. In this case, professional journalists and corporate media outlets serve an important purpose as sources of credible and reliable information because they can be legally held to a standard. However, we can’t operate on the assumption that everyone who isn’t employed by a media outlet is automatically producing libelous or made-up stories.
On the other hand, these times have seen a lack of public trust in media outlets. This threatens the constitutional guarantee of a free press, at least when we think of the press as a privatized,for-profit, corporate institution. Were the drafters of our Constitution thinking of it in such a way? They almost certainly conceived of “the press” as a privately-owned public trust, but their rationale was probably not too concerned with the idea of the press as a profitable industry on the scale we now see. Now that we are all reporters, there will be less risk of the public supporting such measures from government; this doesn’t mean, however, that the government won’t still attempt to legislate against it in the future. Nor does it rule out corporate interference.
If the monolithic institution of “the press” can be boiled down to one thing, it is, “gatherer and organizer of information.” Now that we can do this ourselves, they have to fight hard to maintain the aura of legitimacy they have so far been able to maintain. Many news agencies now employee “bloggers” of their own, however, it remains to be seen whether or not this will be successful. Often these blogs amount to columns or stories that would have just been printed in the paper anyway (however, I prefer a fluid definition of “blog” and other web content). The best ones make full use of the medium. Given the often anti-corporate nature of blogs and internet content in general, readers looking for authenticity in their product will seek outlets that cut through the spin. There may also be a genuine interest in the creative work of “average” people.
With people embracing new technologies and getting their own stories out to the world, professional news media institutions (and entertainment media), will have to work harder to earn a return on their investments, hoping to stay relevant. There is no longer a need for the corporate middleman in human communication and the public is waking up to this fact very quickly.