Thoughts on the digital revolution

The future of mass communication is digital. Although tech evangelists from the 1990s onwards such as Postel, Negroponte, Gibson, O’Reilly, and John Perry Barlow have long imagined various paths forward towards digitaldom, the Australian media industry is struggling to cope with the emergence of new realities.

The boss of Australia’s leading media player News Ltd, Rupert Murdoch, does understand those realities. In 2005 he told the American society of Newspaper Editors that “as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably complacent”. He knew that the future course of news was being altered by “technology-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways”. Yet Murdoch’s foresight and deep pockets are struggling to deal with the constant quarterly business need to turn a profit.

Doing relatively well at minding the future is the ABC. The public “broadcaster” (now a multi-media publisher) is in a strong position to ride out the approaching digital storm with its online entity, its successful podcasting and its proposed uptake of digital TV channels. Managing Director Mark Scott said last month “No other media organisation is doing more with user‐generated content or using the web more to encourage robust local content.”

Fairfax Media however, is in a very state of health. The company is struggling with half-year losses of $365 million and haemorrhaging money as it loses its “rivers of gold” classified advertising to Internet sites. Last week Tim Burrowes pointed out the stupidity of Fairfax’s miserliness with outgoing links. Fairfax Digital thrashes the quality of the brand with aggressive chasing of downmarket content driven purely by number of hits to the website.

Australian commercial television is no healthier. The shares of Channels Seven and Nine are virtually worthless. With analogue television to be phased out by 2013 and the proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) on the way, the future does not look bright for Australia’s two main commercial networks. Media commentator Mark Day has called the NBN a “television killer”. The only hope of digital survival for these networks is their portal alliances with Microsoft (Nine) and Yahoo (Seven).

Channel Ten will survive the digital transition despite current financial difficulties and the lack of a digital alliance partner. Its controlling shareholder CanWest could face bankruptcy under the crippling weight of $4.5 billion debts it mostly incurred when buying Conrad Black’s empire in 2000. Yet Ten has the brightest future of the commercials and remains an attractive takeover target thanks to its investment in digital technology (Channel One) and its dominance of the 16-39 audience demographic.

Telstra’s infrastructure casts a huge shadow over the Australian digital media landscape. The telecommunications giant may beat the NBN to the punch if it starts building its own high-speed network. As well as its massive phone business, it is also Australia’s largest ISP and owns half of Pay TV operator Foxtel which provides de facto digital television coverage for two million Australians.

While these big players fight it out in the Internet High St, there is a growing ‘long tail’ of other participants in the back alleys. The change to the information architecture is reflected in the growing range of tools available to get messages into the public sphere. The world can be “googled” and Google itself has become a multi-national communications giant. There is also a growing personalisation of news in the tools of Web2.0 which is all about sharing, collaborating and pooling resources. These tools include blogs, wikis, videos, RSS, file sharing, social bookmarking, and social networking which all enhance creativity and interactivity. The microblogging facility Twitter takes viral networking to the next level allowing users to follow leaders in their field as well as network with peers in real-time speed.

Blogging is rapidly becoming a mature technology. Technorati says they are pervasive and part of our lives. By June 2008 they had indexed 133 million blogs in six years in 81 languages. While the vast majority of blogs are used as personal online diaries and social interaction with friends, it is the news-related blogs that have become prominent in recent years in J.D. Lasica called “random acts of journalism”.

Usually written by media outsiders, one of the great virtues of blogs is their ability to aggregate distributed knowledge and challenge accepted media narratives. Ward and Cahill called them a “fifth estate” with their fact checking and analysis of mainstream news media output. Newspapers still do the heavy grunt work. Clay Shirky said society doesn’t need newspapers. What it needs is journalism.

Margaret Simons says there are four types of journalism: investigation, storytelling, basic reporting, and conversation. Of these four, blogs do conversation the best. A discussion on one blog can quickly spread across the web with bloggers referring, linking and commenting one another. Mark Bahnisch says the value of Australian political blogs is the public and political conversation they create, which migrates beyond the blogging platform itself.

Thinking like a journalist involves making sense of large amounts of information, making products out of it and then marketing these products. Blogging makes the first two parts of that production chain easier with its hyperlinking functionality and the ease of publishing. Getting a name is the hardest part. Industrial journalists have reputations but they are also dealing with the consequence of blogging. The only thing differentiating them from independent bloggers is how they use a contacts book. Michael Schudson says news in America is a form of a culture; a “strategic ballet” produced by exchanges between journalists and sources. This is true also for Australia. Schudson defines interviews between reporters and those sources as “the fundamental act of contemporary journalism”.

Kevin Kawamoto says the reason the rules of journalism are in a state of flux is because of the difficulty of how to define the “real media” in a digital age. In Far North Queensland Michael Moore runs the muckraking Cairnsblog.Net site. The site provides valuable fourth estate coverage of local politics in a town where there is not much competition. Moore is in every sense a journalist and is on the circulation list of Cairns Regional Council media releases. But he says he has been barred from attending their media events. Council told him media conference alerts are only issued to “accredited news agencies and their representatives”. But as Moore commented, accredited news agencies are a “modern invention, up there with crop circles”. There is now no universal codes for establishing who qualifies as a journalist.

Anyone can call themselves a journalist but few will be trusted to act. One way of getting that trust is via Jurgensmeyer’s influence model for newspapers (quoted in Meyer’s The Vanishing Newspaper). Hal Jurgensmeyer (1931-1995) was a business-side vice president of publishing company Knight-Ridder. His maxim was newspapers were not in the news or information business but in the influence business. Jurgensmeyer’s influence diagram posited a direct relationship from content to credibility which in turn provided influence and circulation. It is the combination of influence and circulation that makes profits. Profits make quality content.

None of this depends on the medium, but on regular, accurate, and newsworthy content from someone an audience deems credible enough to provide it.

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