Revolutions on the net happen at the edges

“There’s a revolution already underway, but it’s one that’s easy to miss. It’s quiet. Revolutions on the net happen at the edges, not at the center.”

It’s a line from the report We Media – How audiences are shaping the future of news and information and I believe it is symptomatic for the current discussion, or lack of, in Sweden regarding the future of journalism. While media are studying the center, debating the pros and cons of j-blogs, the real change happens somewhere else.

There has been an intense debate the last weeks among Swedish journalists about the value of blogging, in particular the need for journalist blogs. Johan Croneman at Dagens Nyheter got the ball rolling with a post titled “Blogs have become the trash can for the middle class”. He wrote that this new medium is mostly occupied by people who already have a platform for opinion building, like journalists.

Men vilka är det nu som ockuperar och kommersialiserar den här ytan också? Jo, chef- och nöjesredaktörer, journalister och krönikörer som redan har plats i stora, etablerade, bredkäftade medier, med spaltkilometer till sitt förfogande.

His point seems to be that the only texts these columnist are able to publish on their blogs are the trash that does not fit in the regular paper, the unsorted rambling thoughts about diapers, daughters and daily life. Unsorted, without any reflections, just published from the top of your head.

Den nyfrälsta medieklassens blogg betyder att man inte längre behöver tänka något nytt, inget alls faktiskt, inga eftertankar, inga reflektioner, man tänker bara lite högt med varandra, pratar tankspritt för sig själv.

This article sparked a lively debate among journalist bloggers and bloggers in general. Viggo Cavling at Resumé, Linna Johansson at Expressen, Fredrik Virtanen and Helle Klein at Aftonbladet are just a few examples. And although I encourage media to start blogging, I don’t believe that these blogs are the perfect examples of the future of journalism.

What fascinates me, and some other bloggers, is the fact that the debate among these journalists primarily covers the thoughts of, that’s right, other journalists. They leave out the rest of blogosphere which is quite revealing as to who they think should be allowed to shape the debate. My response to this is, you’re up for an unpleasant surprise. Media consumers today are not only listening to journalists anymore. We have other sources of opinion and information, like non-journalist bloggers. Your gatekeeper role is changing for good. To quote Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis: “Media futurists have predicted that by 2021, “citizens will produce 50 percent of the news peer-to-peer.” However, mainstream news media have yet to meaningfully adopt or experiment with these new forms.”

OK, there has been an incredible hype the last months about blogs, but while Swedish journalists are experimenting with personal blogs the debate about the future of journalism in the US seems to be on a completely different level. I haven’t read many articles in Swedish media about for example participatory journalism. Sure, there is a Swedish site called Sourze where readers can publish articles but it costs them 100 SEK to do so and I think the web site has had a minor impact on the market.

Swedish media must start discussing on a higher level how blogs, wikis and other personal media affect their core business and how media can include citizens in the journalistic process. From my survey of Swedish blog readers I found that half of all blog readers spend more time reading blogs per week than Swedes in general spend on the daily newspaper. What does that mean? Well, today the number of media consumers in Sweden that consume blogs on a regular basis is just a few per cent of the total population. But what happens to our media consumption when a third of all media consumers spend time reading blogs? When half of them do? When they all do? Are media prepared to deal with a situation where their readers spend more time on blogs than on newspapers? I don’t think so, and although we have seen a growing interest from the management of leading media corporations, there is very little open debate regarding the future of journalism. I might be wrong in this assumption, so please prove me wrong.

Dale Peskin, Co-Director of The Media Center asks in the introduction to We Media (pdf 3.1 MB): How does the world look when news and information are part of a shared experience? My advice would be to at least start reading this report.

Another example of how hard it is for media to accept that their exclusive role as gatekeeper is a thing of the past is this article in Nerikes Allehanda a few days ago: “Bloggfebern grasserar – då kommer sanningen i kläm” (something like “Blog fever hurts the truth”).

Det allra värsta är dock den betydelse och värde man tillmäter bloggen. Som om den var sanningen därför att den antas ligga nära den “sanna” privata personen som skriver den. Medialt är det ett mycket större och allvarligare problem eftersom det i förlängningen egentligen hotar medias hela trovärdighet. […]

Ju större blogg-fenomenet blir och ju mer det tillmäts vikt, desto mer undergrävs den traditionella nyhetsförmedlingen. […]

Det är inte oviktigt vem som anser sig ha rätten att definiera vår världsbild. Alldeles för många tror sig kunna skaffa en egen på nåtet. Men det kräver mycket av brukaren i form av breda kunskaper – något de flesta tyvärr saknar. Istället stirrar vi alla in i ett färggrannt kalejdoskop vars uttydbarhet inte bara är begränsande, det förvränger och ger olika svar varje gång vi skådar in i det.

These three quotes all point in the direction that blogs are a threat to the truth, because only journalists can sort of what is true and not in society. I think that is a dangerous assumption and it’s insulting to conclude that readers do not have the ability to sort out good information from bad.

Why do journalists have the exclusive talent to interpret and filter events in society? Is it due to a couple of years at j-school, or due to the journalistic process. Peer-reviewing? If that is the case, then how come only 36% of respondents in a US poll in 2003 believe the news media generally “get the facts straight”? Or why do only 31% of Swedes have high or relatively high confidence in journalists at daily newspapers (trailing behind 15 other professions like doctors (81%) and policemen (65%)?

Of course there are other ways for media consumers to become well informed than relying exclusively on journalists. In the new era of journalism, media consumers will be used to another type of publishing of news, something like the bottom-up news model below.

The article in Nerikes Allehanda illustrates a medium stuck in an old publishing model where blogs are merely seen as chaotic biased rants that only confuse readers and threaten “real media” with its lies. But what if the new journalism where readers participate in the journalistic proc
ess, is also able to filter out good from bad, truth from lies, but it is done in the opposite way? Maybe each citizen isn’t smart enough to filter the information on the net by himself, but the network is.

This quote (in We Media) from Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University, gives us an idea of what we might expect from future publishing models:

“The order of things in broadcast is ‘filter, then publish’. The order in communities is ‘publish, then filter’. If you go to a dinner party, you don’t submit your potential comments to the hosts, so that they can tell you which ones are good enough to air before the group, but this is how broadcast works everyday. Writers submit their stories in advance, to be edited or rejected before the public ever sees them. Participants in a community, by contrast, say what they have to say, and the good is sorted from the mediocre after the fact.”

My point is that Swedish media should invite readers to participate even more in the news making process. We all know that media have limited resources to do investigative journalism. So what will happen when media start to use the power of ordinary citizens, networked via blogs and other online tools? You cannot quote Dan Gillmor often enough when he says “my readers know more than I do”. Use that resource creatively. And those media strategists that are only looking for the future of journalism in the center might find themselves outsmarted – by the edges of the net.