SuperMedia: the future as “networked journalism”

About the author
Charlie Beckett is director of Polis, the forum for debate and research into journalism and society at the London School of Economics and the London College of Communication. His website is here.

From bloggers in China to "netroots" activists in the United States, new forms of journalism are reshaping political communications - and therefore politics itself. The success of Barack Obama's campaign for his party's nomination in the US presidential election has depended crucially on internet mobilisation. The unprecedented openness of the response to the Sichuan earthquake was also conditioned by citizen journalism and the hyper-textuality of modern media. The influence of new forms of communication is pervasive, the opportunities legion. But is the business of journalism up to the challenge?

Charlie Beckett is a journalist and director of Polis, the centre for research and debate in to journalism at the London School of Economics and the London College of Communication. He is the author of SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008). His blog is here.
For further details of Polis and extracts from SuperMedia, click here.

Also by Charlie Beckett in openDemocracy:
"The media and Africa: doing bad by doing ‘good'?" (18 June 2007)
New-media technology is only having a serious effect because of its impact on established journalism. The way that the vast bulk of public and commercial media is changing is more important than the emergence of citizen journalism or the independent blogosphere. Together they offer the opportunity to transform the news media into a more open, trustworthy and useful forum for information and debate. Saving journalism will not in itself save the world. That is down to people and politicians. But a healthier local and global news media is a necessary precondition for international development and security.

My book SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) is an attempt to move on from the rather tiresome trench warfare of "new" versus "old" media or "citizen" versus "professional" journalist. The public is now increasingly doing it for themselves. That is great. Traditional media is also showing great enterprise in going online and becoming more interactive. That is good too. The interesting question now is how these changes will inform each other. I think that the result will be a transformation of journalism production that is a much bigger and deeper challenge to the news media than it realises.

A process, not a product

As it becomes non-linear and open-sourced, journalism changes. This is about more than posting a comment on a blog or sending in a photo to a website. The claims that traditional media is made for authority, objectivity and quality will be challenged. I think that the business, moral and political case for journalism is best made when it embraces these changes. To retain value journalism must engage with the public. It must shift power from the newsroom to the connected online and digital world. It must become "networked".

We are in a world where data is vital to daily and lifetime decision-making for individuals. Interaction and analysis are crucial to community cohesion. Fluid information-flows are the lifeblood of the information-based economies emerging globally and locally. And in a complex world where multifaceted issues such as migration and climate change are both difficult and unavoidable, the media forum and its potential for dialogue and debate about such concerns is vital to a healthy public sphere.

"Networked journalism" means opening up the production process from start to finish - and beyond. It already has the tools: email, mobile-phones, digital cameras, online editing, web-cams, texting, and remote controls. This is channelled through new communication processes like crowd-sourcing, Twitter, YouTube, and wikis as well as blogs and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV).

Networked journalism is a process not a product. The journalist still reports, edits, packages the news. But the process is continually shared. The networked journalist changes from being a gatekeeper who delivers to a facilitator who connects.

Also in openDemocracy on journalism in the age of new media:

Sidney Blumenthal, "Walter Lippmann and American journalism today" (31 October 2007)

Philip Bennett, "The media and the war: seeing the human" (20 November 2007)

Tony Curzon Price, "The blind newsmaker" (26 January 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Charles Leadbeater, "Democracy in the network age: time to WeThink" (5 March 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

What does that mean in practice? At one level this a very practical thing that takes traditional journalism and liberates it through public participation. Take the example of the Fort Myers News Press newspaper in Florida. In the wake of hurricane Katrina the enterprising editor got her lawyers to force the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release all its data on relief payments to townspeople. The data provided was far too extensive for the paper's journalists to process. So instead they put it all online and asked their readers to do the searching. Within twenty-four hours, 60,000 searches were made throwing up all kinds of leads for the journalists to follow up and publish. Neither journalists nor public could have done this on their own. The combination of skills and resources opened up a story in a way that allowed both to challenge the authorities.

Just think about how many other ways you could exploit similar techniques to mine public knowledge. Imagine how that act of networked journalism added real value to that community. And in an era when regional newspapers in many countries (the United States included) are disappearing, I believe it offers a paradigm for established journalism to survive and thrive but with a new social role.

There will always be attempts to limit people speaking for themselves. Traditional journalists will patronise it as "anarchy" or "unprofessional" and "unreliable". Repressive authorities will recognise the challenge to their control over the established media. This is why it is so important that anyone seeking to sustain freedom of expression should seek to build networked journalism.

African lessons

Take Kenya. An excellent report on media coverage of the conflict that followed the disputed election in December 2007 makes it clear that all types of media made mistakes (see Jamal Abdi & James Deane, The Kenyan 2007 Elections and Their Aftermath: The Role of Media and Communication, BBC World Service Trust, April 2008). Everyone from the international news organisations to the local community radio stations contributed in some way to escalating tensions. Some journalists became voices for hatred as well as understanding. News cannot avoid reporting conflict. Networked journalism cannot give any guarantees of peace, love and understanding. But a journalism that builds in greater public participation surely implies a media that is at least more accountable to its community?

What Africa needs is support to build public participation in all types of news media. It needs to build on what is working, not western models of traditional journalism. For example, in Africa mobile-phones are transforming the way that people communicate. It is creating a platform that networked journalism could exploit in a way that could leapfrog western media developments.

Initiatives like the SMS polls project conducted by Media Focus On Africa (MFOA) tapped into this. Listeners to commercial radio shows were able to interact on the issues discussed. MFOA also created a network of citizen reporters that fed material via mobile-phone and video into an internationally accessible news website.

African bloggers like Cédric Kalonji are also doing networked journalism for themselves. He works for Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo but his own photo-based blog adds a whole new dimension to his work, linking him to the francophone blogosphere.

Networked journalism is about a shift in power. If you allow the public to help drive your agenda you are sharing editing. By gathering from the public you are compromising your ownership of editorial material. You are losing control of authority and impartiality. Some people see these as grave dangers. I do not.

Traditional media has always had power without responsibility. Journalism has resisted being held to account - often rightly, for the news media has to be allowed the independence to prod and provoke. But this means that it can claim no innate moral superiority over the citizen or networked journalist. The established media has been biased, incompetent and greedy for too long to complain now its monopoly has been broken (see Nick Davies, Flat Earth News [Chatto, 2008]). Instead, it should recognise an opportunity to reinvent what is good about journalism.

Stories will be more grounded in people's lives if the newsroom doors are opened up. The key concept here is relevance. This does not mean lowest common denominator journalism. If that were the case then outstanding media like the BBC or the Economist would not be thriving as they are. But it does mean that the journalist has to go where the public is. In communication terms, that means places like social-networking sites. That will change the "language" and techniques that journalists adopt. Just as advertising has become personalised and viral, so journalism will have to get closer to the communities that it is talking to, be they geographical or subject-specific.

Think about how this opens up the space for a more participatory politics at all levels. Imagine how it can inform a more deliberative democracy. Instead of claiming a special dispensation, the journalist will now become part of a network of responsibilities and relevance. It's where I have always thought good journalism belonged.