Digital Media to the Rescue?
The Internet is both an existential threat to the survival of mainstream media, particularly the printed sheet, and a powerful reason to be hopeful about the future of news and information. The Web’s promise of being the electronic connector for all humanity means it may evolve into a superlative vehicle for providing the information citizens need. Instead of a few publishers, there are millions. Instead of one-way communication there is two-way, and multiple-way. Instead of a single medium there are many – text, audio, still images, video, animation. Instead of regularly scheduled broadcasts and newspaper and mail delivery, there is never-ending information. In theory at least, no voice need be unheard in an absolutely wired world. As Clay Shirky so eloquently put it in the title of his book Here Comes Everybody.
While the World Wide Web is not yet 20 years old, it has quickly shown what cyberspace can do to the quality of news and information Americans receive.Today, a user almost anywhere in the world can have instant access to tens of thousands of information sources. With few exceptions, all of the journalism of big global news organizations is available, fromThe New York Times to the BBC to China Daily. But that only scratches the surface. Most small to mediumsize news organizations are present on the Web as well. And even that is dwarfed, in size, by millions of bloggers who have joined the ranks of publishers. While some are adding little to the store of global knowledge, many others are contributing important morsels that add up to giant storehouses. Two cases in point: It was bloggers contributing information to Talking Points Memo that helped it report on the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in the Bush administration.14 And it was bloggers who discovered that CBS’ “60 Minutes” had relied on bogus information in questioning the National Guard service of former President George W. Bush.15
The digital revolution has added or enriched new forms of journalism: fact checking sites that let citizens go to trusted sources to sort out competing claims; micro-local reporting on communities and neighborhoods that had been too small to be served by traditional media; vast source material, including Wikipedia and original transcripts; historical data from governments and other institutions.
All of these riches are flooding into a networked world that is only starting to demonstrate what can happen when individuals and groups are in touch with everyone else. The 2009 public rallies and protests in Iran illustrate the power of individual witnesses to tell stories if only they were attached to the grid with a Twitter or Facebook account.The gripping video showing the death of Neda, who was a mere observer of the Iranian protest, went from a passerby’s cellphone to tens of millions of viewers in a flash.
Even some of the reporting arenas that have seemed most threatened because of cutbacks in mainstream news organizations have shown strength in the digital space. Foremost is the field of investigative reporting, an expensive but vital endeavor that newspapers and broadcast outlets have abandoned in large numbers in recent years. To the surprise of many, investigative work has been taken up by a growing number of nonprofits at national, state and local levels. Also of some surprise, foundations have provided increasing funding for nonprofit Web sites that are filling some of the gaps left by a shrinking mainstream media. These developments have led Dan Gillmor, a visionary in the digital news world, to declare that there’s no longer any doubt about the success of new media. “I’m completely sure we’re going to make this transition just fine,” Gillmor told a journalism educators conference in Boston.
Should the future be as bright as Gillmor believes, there may not be a need for government to play a role in slowing down or blocking the meltdown of newspapers, news magazines and other players in the news business. Someday we may look back and wonder why anyone worried about losing a news industry that proved to be significantly inferior to the one that replaced it. For now, though, it’s too early to know whether the digital world’s potential will be fulfilled, and whether as-yet unobserved problems could derail this movement. If everybody is coming, as Shirky says, we don’t yet know when they’ll arrive or what will happen when they do. Shirky, among others, believes we’re entering a period when accountability reporting has been severely reduced, and government corruption could run rampant. At a minimum, our society needs a good contingency plan.