News 2.0 : journalism, wikileaks and beyond the fourth estate

It’s not every day that you attend a book launch. It’s a once-or-twice moment to launch a book you’ve actually written.

Today, 16 December 2010 on a pissing-down evening in Auckland is one of those moments for me.

Today is roughly – give or take a week here and there – also an anniversary of sorts. In January 2007 I started here and this is the end of my fourth year at AUT.

More of that later, but first I should probably think about answering the inevitable question I will be asked about the book: “Do you think journalism can survive the Internet?”

So far I’ve usually responded with a qualified “Yes.” Almost a “Yes, but…”

As The Beat tell us: “It’s cards on the table time.”

My considered, thoughtful answer now is: “Journalism must survive.”

The bigger issues are really What? How and Why?

What sort of journalism will survive, or thrive on the Internet?

How will it survive – what changes will finally shape the journalism of the immediate, proximate and distant futures?

And finally: Why should journalism survive when it seemingly has low levels of public trust and it is economically in trouble?

Journalism is too important for the social fabric and the public sphere to be allowed to disappear, because of the Internet, or in spite of it.

The demand for journalism is strong — all sorts of news and news-like information is consumed around the clock by audiences around the world and across many platforms.

It seems obvious that news is a human need. The circulation of news and information is crucial to so much of our daily life; from simple things like weather forecasts and news headlines to more complex decision-influencing interactions with media: taste recommendations, tribal and communal affiliations, social, cultural and political allegiances.

In short, news and journalism contribute to our global world view. Many of these insights, reports and analyses might be partial. Some will appear biased or advocacy-based rather than ‘news’ and some will make our blood boil; but they inform, educate and entertain.

Journalism and journalists have a proud history of – under the right circumstances – speaking truth to power. At the same time, it is criticised for being too close to power. There’s a contradiction in that couplet. This fault line is expressed in many ways:

  • journalists and news represent the fourth estate, based on bourgeois ideals of freedom of expression, rights and democratic representation
  • the Internet represents a new ‘fifth estate’ or sorts that is more democratic, or at least should be outside of traditional media structures and systems of control
  • the news industry is the free market of ideas where the value of an idea can be measured by commercial success
  • #wikileaks is the new journalism – or a threat to national security
  • easy access to user-generated content means that the MSM is becoming irrelevant in many peoples’ lives
  • social media and digital technologies will kill newspapers sooner rather than later and television eventually
  • journalism is a mirror reflecting society back to itself
  • journalists and news cannot be trusted to always tell the unvarnished truth
  • news is compromised by ideological values that support the status quo
  • twitter beats the MSM for speed, but has a low signal to noise ratio
  • journalists are caught in an ethical minefield because of the contradictions
  • the spin doctors are in control – journalism is just churnalism
  • commercial speech is chewing up the space free speech used to occupy in the public sphere
  • which business model is going to work best?

Funnily enough, enough of these common sense insights are true – or, put another way – there’s enough partial truth in these ideas to formulate a greater understanding.

I try to capture some of this in News 2.0 and argue that journalism can survive the Internet. More precisely journalism and the Internet will get on just fine. What’s less clear for me at the moment is the future of professional journalism versus amateur or alternative models; the stability of the industrial news model; and what Rupert Murdoch might do next if and/or when the paywalls fail or succeed.

I am encouraged by experiments in crowd-sourcing and collaborations.

I believe in and will fight for good investigative journalism

I want to encourage greater democratic input to news and journalism and to empower the people we formerly called the audience.

I also want to celebrate and invigorate the fighting, democratic and committed journalism of my heroes, past and present.

I actually got to celebrate my book moment in a different way earlier today. I had a long chat with National Radio’s Mediawatch producer Colin Peacock about #twitdef, which I covered recently. You might recall the incident when a senior News Ltd editor threatened to sue a hackademic blogger reporting on a journalism education conference in Sydney.

Twitdef and The Australian

A week in the Twitterverse

#posettigate as it became known in tweets raised interesting questions about tweeting and blogging and when someone might be considered to be a journalist and able to claim privilege for fair reporting of someone else’s potentially damaging comments.

Did it count in Julie Posetti’s favour that she has been a serious MSM journalist and can claim an understanding of the rules? Did Julie in fact stop being a journalist when she became a full-time educator and academic? She may well argue that she hasn’t given up journalism and I would be among many journalism educators that feel the same way.

Journalists are people like us – trained, schooled in newsrooms, perhaps even university-educated; but at heart a reporter, a ‘newshound’.

Most of us hackademics like to think we still think like hard-nosed journalists; we still have some good news instincts and we ‘get’ journalism.

But we also bring something else to the mix; a fresh(ish) and more distanced, nuanced perspective. We don’t just ‘do’ journalism, or ‘teach’ it; we think it and analyse is and many of us question it too. To some extent, we are now outside journalism, but looking intently inwards.

For the most part our intentions are honourable.

We love journalism and we actually like lots of actual journalists.

We love news and believe in its powers for both good and evil

But do we really know what journalism is today?

This is the question at the heart of the contradictions I’ve been talking about.

You will notice now that I haven’t defined journalism really. Except towards the end where I describe people like me.

I am acutely aware that this is only one definition today.

Seismic shifts in technology and in the social relations of news production have rattled the foundations of the fourth estate and wikileaks is just another example of ongoing after-shocks.

I end my book by arguing we have to move beyond the fourth estate conception of journalism and news in order to save both as areas of professional and intellectual practice.

I’ve begun to look to Gramsci and the history of public intellectuals for some possible clues.

But that’s a project for next time.

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