Adapted from an address to the Berlin International Freedom of Expression Forum at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy
David Brinkley, the renowned late U.S. news anchor, was once quoted as stating, “The news is what I say it is.” That statement, which may sound arrogant when taken at face value, was at once a reflection of the fact that someone had to choose which news to cover in a limited period of time or space – say, a half hour of television or a certain number of column inches – and a reflection of the subjectivity of the editor’s choice or choices. What is news? To a certain extent, it is a new development that is important to the consumer or the audience. It depends on the context. My cousin Steve has a company called “Shelves That Slide,” which is in the business of optimizing home storage. I think it’s an innovative concept. If he wins a major entrepreneurial award or his company becomes part of the Fortune 500, that is major news in our family; but to the population of California, where I live, the U.S. and the world as a whole, his accomplishment may engender barely a ripple. There has always been an ongoing debate as to whether news has to have a real impact on people’s lives or whether it can simply be something of interest. Take Paris Hilton. Please. By any standard her time in jail affected absolutely nothing but her criminal record; yet while I was on duty at KNX, the radio station where I work in Los Angeles, we had calls from stations as far away as New Zealand for interviews
So, who makes the choices of what news to cover? To paraphrase former President George W. Bush, it is the decider who makes that determination. So, what is news and who is the decider? I would argue that those questions are central to the future of journalism in a networked age and that the decisions we make as journalists and as citizens about freedom of expression and what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the “freedom to connect” are critical to the survival of the profession, to making journalism, as the title of this speech suggests, safe for the 21st century. As journalists we have done a pretty good job of chronicling how the world has changed, but have we really adapted to that world?
Manuel Castells has argued that we live in a network society. By that he means, quote, “a society where the key social structures and activities are organized around electronically processed information networks.” He goes on to say that “it’s not just about networks or social networks, because social networks have been very old forms of social organization. It’s about social networks which process and manage information and are using micro-electronic based technologies.” This is an important distinction. Castells uses what he calls “the global economy” as an example. That’s not the same thing, he says, as “the world economy” or “a highly internationalized economy” because it “is based on the ability of the core activities – meaning money, capital markets, production systems, management systems, information – to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale.” You don’t have to watch CNBC to see the global economy at work. Just open a bank account in Burbank, California, as I did, and take money out of it in Berlin, as I have, and you are participating in the global economy.
What do the network society and the global economy have to do with journalism? I would argue that we as journalists have to start looking at the world as Castells does, because we deal in information and knowledge. As we all know, information is capital and knowledge is power. In a network society, information, as a form of capital, travels through social networks that process and manage information and are using micro-electronic based technologies. People do not necessarily get their news from centralized sources anymore. They aggregate it, they share it, they pass it around and, when possible, they act on it. They act less like an audience or a readership and more like a community, a community linked together by micro-electronics. You might say that the cracker barrel is back, although in this case it’s a virtual cracker barrel. The important point is that it is interactive and participatory, just like the forms of governance that are beginning to emerge in the network society. People in a news community like to talk back. They like to help. Newspapers and radio and television stations have recognized this. Viewers email video that becomes part of the 11 o’clock news. Crowdsourcing the news has become commonplace. Wikinews uses volunteers from around the world to write and update its site. Gannett has inaugurated a pro-am concept that blends contributions from readers and viewers with reporting in its newspapers and on its television stations. Homebuyers in Florida were getting hit with massive bills – as much as 30 thousand dollars – for water and sewer line connections. One of Gannett’s newspapers, “The News-Press,” which is the newspaper of record in Fort Myers, Florida, decided to investigate. It began its probe with a short item in the newspaper and on its Web site, announcing that it was looking into those fees and asking if anyone had anything to share. Share they did. Documents surfaced, suggesting potentially illegal activity involving bids. Local engineers scrutinized bids posted online. These were posted and discussed in forums, which generated leads and drove follow-up coverage in print and on the Web. Executive Editor Kate Marymont called it “a whole different way of building a story.” If the “News-Press” had simply done a story for its readership, it might have done a good job. Who knows? By involving its community, it produced a story that was powerful.
We see some of this concept of community in the uprisings in Syria and Iran, when activists and citizens, often at the risk of their own lives, used the electronic tether that links together the network society to contribute video documenting their struggles to global news organizations, circumventing censorship and measures barring journalists from entering.
We live in a collaborative culture. Just as the core activities of the global economy work together in real time and are connected by micro-electronics, the core activities of information gathering also work together in real time and are connected by microelectronics. This collaboration involves citizens as well as journalists, and it was made possible by advances in communication technology. I would argue that this is the fourth wave of collaboration in journalism, and it differs from the other three because it involves the people who consume news as well as those who produce it.
The first wave began with the invention of the telegraph. This technology, which began the first wave of globalization, was significant for journalism because it enabled the creation of the wire service. There were two models for this new innovation. One was the cooperative. The best example of that was the Associated Press. It started with Moses Yale Beach, publisher of the “New York Sun,” who created a pony express to deliver news of the Mexican War. The pony express took dispatches from Mobile to Montgomery, Alabama, from which mail coaches brought them to a telegraph point in Virginia. Beach offered an equal interest to newspapers in New York, and four of them (“The Journal of Commerce,” “The Courier and Enquirer,” “The New York Herald” and “The Express”) accepted. Menahem Blondheim argues that Beach’s decision to share news with rivals was “neither altruistic nor cost-driven” and that it recognized that “nothing could compete with the telegraph for speed, and all newspapers, rich and poor, would now be on a par.” The telegraph, as an equalizer, prompted the creation of a journalistic community of professionals who worked cooperatively as well as competitively.
The second model of a wire service was Reuters. It differed from the Associated Press in its business model, which was client-based, and its focus on information that had an impact on financial markets. Reuter followed the example of Charles Havas, who started a lithographic news service in Paris in the 1830s and for whom Reuter became a sub-editor. He offered targeted news services to bankers, newspapers, departmental prefects and French government ministers, then began selling news to subscribers in other countries. In the words of Donald Read, ”Havas, in short, was the innovator who first organized the wide collection and sale of news as a marketable commodity.”
The second wave of collaboration was made possible by the development of the telephone. American Telephone and Telegraph used radio station WEAF, which it owned, as a laboratory for its manufacturing and supply outlet, Western Electric, which made transmitters and antennas. The Bell System, AT&T’s telephone utility, was developing technology to transmit voice and music programming over short and long distances. WEAF linked with WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island and WCAP in Washington, D.C. in a sort of ad-hoc network. Radio Corporation of America tried its own linkup using telegraph lines, but the quality was marginal. Eventually, AT&T decided to concentrate on telephones and sold WEAF to RCA, along with the right to lease its lines for network transmission. In 1926 RCA announced the creation of the National Broadcasting Company.
Content was needed to develop this technology, so news and entertainment programming grew. This programming was produced in the population centers of New York and Los Angeles. A new culture of collaboration grew involving the companies that produced the content and the affiliated stations, which in many cases were owned by different companies. The network and its stations functioned as a sort of confederation. They traded news and entertainment, all within the family, so to speak.
The third wave of collaboration began with satellite broadcasting, which hit its stride in the 1980s. The satellite made possible the cable networks and the concept of niche broadcasting, or nichecasting. It also made possible the global 24 hour news network. As the cost of news gathering fell, due to this technology, the volume of news increased; and it became possible to supply a vast array of stations around the world. The result was the non-market-exclusive affiliate. CNN content was on multiple stations in the same market.
The distinguishing factor of these three waves was that they were all professional cultures of collaboration. Readers, viewers and listeners were the beneficiaries of these cultures of collaboration, but they were not participants. In each case an advance in technology led to a modification of an existing business model. The telegraph spawned the wire service, which was accompanied by the news cooperative in the case of the Associated Press and the emergence of information about capital markets as drivers of news production in the case of Havas and Reuters. The telephone spawned the network, a confederation of stations not necessarily under the same ownership but united in producing and carrying programming. The satellite spawned narrowcasting, the 24 hour news network, the CNN Effect and the non-exclusive market affiliate. In each case the business model changed.
The fourth wave differs from those three models in that the rise of the Internet, the World Wide Web, mobile technology and electronic text has spawned a culture of collaboration that involves the consumer as well as the producer. The task of researchers, journalism schools and the industry itself is to discover the business model that fits the latest culture of collaboration.
One starting point may be to go back to the cracker barrel, to an era when the news of the day was discussed in the country store or the town square. Rather than speaking to an audience or writing to a readership, we need to gather the community to read, to watch, to listen and to collaborate with us. The only difference between then and now is that our news communities are gathering around a virtual cracker barrel.
This model can work on many levels. At the local level, the concept of a news organization as a rallying point or a town square is almost as old as movable type. I would argue that we moved away from that model when the Industrial Revolution created the need for the more impersonal mass newspaper to carry news of commodity prices and other information that had an impact on capital markets within large port cities and from those cities to the farms that supplied the products. The community model of journalism also works at the global level. Witness how the world came together when a devastating earthquake hit one of the planet’s most vulnerable nations: Haiti. Amateur video of the destruction supplemented traditional news coverage. The courageous amateur videographers of Iran, Syria and other nations in the throes of change also became part of the community.
What about the bottom line? Some news organizations have become gated communities, at least in part, although even they haven’t been immune to the cutbacks in reporters and writers that threaten the industry’s vital role in checks and balances. I’m not a marketing expert, so I wouldn’t presume to offer any answers or panaceas. I would suggest that one possible solution may lie in some of the innovations that are emerging in social media. Google Plus, for example, has inaugurated the concept of circles, based on the belief that users may want to share some of their information with only some of their online friends. Suppose that concept were adapted to a news community. Some content would be free. Other, more specialized content might be offered to subscription-based circles of interest. A subscriber interested in travel might join a news organization’s travel circle and receive not only content but targeted offers and deeply-discounted bargains. I’m not suggesting a blurring of the line between news and sales; but just as classified advertising has always been a selling point for newspapers, targeted discounts could be an incentive for a subscription. Groupon, for example, has used this concept to very profitable effect. The technology exists to customize content for each individual. After all, a community is made up of not only the town square but also shops and parks. Perhaps a virtual community concept could become the bottom line for news organizations.
The idea of communicating as a community has been embraced by the so-called Millennial Generation, the generation born roughly after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President of the U.S. If you subscribe to generational theory, you know that the Millennial Generation is a civic generation. Members of that generation are optimistic, and they believe in institutions and community service. They are constantly connected. They function as a community. And who are their heroes? 63 percent of young men surveyed said they would choose to be stuck in an elevator with Jon Stewart or another comic, compared to 15 percent who would choose Eli Manning or another athlete. 88 percent said that humor was crucial to their self-definition. According to Tanya Giles, executive vice president for research at MTV Networks, “One big takeaway is that unlike previous generations, humor, and not music, is their No. 1 form of self-expression.” In a 2007 survey, Stewart and Bill O’Reilly were tied as the top pick for favorite journalists among people under 30.
Why is this? One possible answer is that sources of news are so ubiquitous that you can get the basics online or by surfing the 24 hour news channels. You don’t have to rely on an evening news program. Jon Stewart then puts that news in an entertaining perspective. More importantly, perhaps, the bits on “The Daily Show” or on “The Colbert Report” are share-able. People use email, YouTube, social media and the shows’ websites to trade bits. They’re much more likely to ask whether a friend saw a bit on “The Daily Show” than to discuss how Scott Pelley or Brian Williams characterized gas prices. They consume the content as a community. That’s not to suggest that Jon Stewart should replace Wolf Blitzer or any other anchor. The takeaway is that people today consume news not as an audience but as a community. It is a virtual community, but a community nonetheless.
For public diplomacy professionals this transformation poses a unique challenge and a momentous opportunity. As virtual communities become the media for the exchange of information, practitioners of public diplomacy must develop program architectures that invite and, indeed, welcome participation and interaction. It is no longer enough to market a nation brand. Public diplomacy must facilitate the conversation rather than simply honing the message. As nations recognize the importance of this task, public diplomacy is bound to get the recognition and budgetary support it deserves.
I would suggest that the penultimate challenge of our time is to ensure that this a community in which everyone can participate. Globalization has its points, but it has not benefited everyone. If you want to see a dramatic illustration of how globalization can marginalize, as Manuel Castells suggests, travel from Wall Street in Manhattan to the South Bronx. You will be traveling from what is arguably the nerve center of globalization to an area that has been marginalized by the global economy. Perhaps even more disturbing are the statistics from the Freedom House Index. According to the report Freedom in the World 2012, 43 percent of the world’s population lived in countries that were designated as free in 2011. 22 percent lived in countries listed as partly free, and 35 percent lived in countries described as not free. According to the report Freedom of the Press 2011, 15 percent of the global population lived in countries in which coverage of political news was robust, the safety of journalists was guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs was minimal and the press was not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. According to the report Freedom on the Net 2011, bloggers or Internet users were arrested for content they posted online in 23 of the 37 countries assessed. Governments have stepped up efforts to regulate and, in some instances, tightly control the medium. Measures have been proposed in such robust democracies as the United Kingdom and India that could potentially have a chilling effect on Internet use.
For those of us who cherish freedom of expression, the biggest challenge may be ambivalence rather than outright repression. We need to end the repression and the ambivalence with a strong statement that guarantees the right of all to access information and to associate freely.
Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are good starting points. Article 19 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” According to Article 20, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.” These worthwhile passages were written before the Internet and mobile technologies became ubiquitous. It could be argued that if only the nations of the world would actually observe these guarantees, everything would be fine; but nations aren’t the only actors. When a search engine voluntarily or involuntarily filters content at the request or requirement of a nation-state, freedom of expression is compromised. When Twitter develops the ability to censor within a country, freedom of expression within that country is compromised. Some argue that those are simply the decisions of private companies, but when the protocols developed by those companies can affect freedom of expression, something needs to be done to create ground rules that will guarantee everyone a voice. This is a development those search engines and social media companies would probably welcome, since it would take the burden off them.
Perhaps an amendment to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is needed, an amendment that would prohibit governments, search engines, web hosting services and Internet service providers from filtering content or blocking the ability to associate. Here’s one possibility: “Everyone has the right of access to the Internet, the right of freedom of expression in any medium and the right of peaceful assembly and association regardless of frontiers. No law or policy shall be enacted by any entity that abridges those rights.”
In the 21st century information is the most valuable commerce of all. Anyone who tries to suppress information is guilty of restraining free trade. Cyberspace is unprecedented. It is both the Royal Library of Alexandria and the village square. To be isolated from it is to be excluded from the human community.
In that community the news is no longer what I say it is. It is what we say it is: all of us.
Jerry Edling is an editor with CBS Radio and Editor in Chief of “Public Diplomacy Magazine.” He has been nominated for three Emmy Awards, two Writers Guild Awards and a Mark Twain Award and has won two Golden Mike Awards and three Associated Press Awards. He is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Writers Guild of America, west. This article was adapted from a keynote address he delivered at the Berlin International Freedom of Expression Forum.