Wednesday, September 26, 2007

comment is free -- so free even i can do it

I was recently given the opportunity to write a piece for the Guardian's Comment is free. It was odd writing in a format that I knew wouldn't be on a blog with a smirking avatar on the footer. They even asked for a professional-looking photo. I was a little disappointed they didn't go with this version. Oh well.

All in all, it was a great exercise. You can read the article here, or if you're the kind of person who buys/downloads the "director's cut" DVD, you may want to read the un-edited version I submitted (note the reddit propaganda baked right into the original headline):

"I read it on reddit" -- the future of news?

Thanks to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study published last week, there’s been a flurry of discussion about “social” news lately. The report compared the top stories from the major user-news sites with the headlines of the mainstream media. Several commentators have noted “the interests of users was markedly different to that of traditional editors.”(1) This shouldn’t shock anyone. Traditional news sources rely on editors to try and supply content their readers demand -- we’ve just got a much more efficient mechanism for it (click the up/down arrow) and a much broader range of content.

What most people writing about this report overlooked is the impact this movement is having (and will continue to have) on how news is consumed. Admittedly, while sites like reddit more effectively deliver the news their readers want, they presently still rely quite heavily on the traditional media as sources (and whipping boys, depending on the day). However, as these online destinations become the front page for more people, news-seekers will no longer be reliant on editors’ choices. With a medium as fast and as rich as the Internet, combined with proliferating sources of accurate and timely news, the value is shifting away from the corporation. For instance, the Gray Lady can’t keep getting by solely on her reputation. Brand matters less and less -- power is shifting toward the individual journalists in her newsroom and across the world.

It means that news organizations must acknowledge they cannot monopolize the news as easily as they used to. Counting on people to read the front page of the X, "because it's the X," won't suffice. Quality of content -- not branding -- will become the metric for reputation. And why not?

Furthermore, there is something to be said for the content that can only be found when hundreds of thousands of people are scouring the web. The traditional media can’t replicate the delight one feels when serendipity conjures up an interesting link. How else would I have found a picture of the Milky Way from Death Valley, laughed about this newspaper gaffe, or learned the math behind dating pools?

As I see it, the greatest threat to this fledgling movement is from within. These sites are communities like any other, and can become just as insulating. It's part of the dilemma behind giving readers news they want versus news they ought to know (according to editors). We've deftly avoided solving this problem by letting readers decide for themselves. From our perspective, active consumers of news are inevitably better informed than passive ones.

Not to bring up a sore point with my gracious hosts, but back in 1776, thirteen rowdy colonies championed freedom of the press – today we’re all struggling for freedom from the press. Let’s hope we can do some good with it.