Sunday, August 16, 2009

It has been a few weeks since anything has captured my interest to the point at which I wanted to delve into it, uncover what can be laid bare, and report. At the moment, in this trendy Brooklyn neighborhood, a lot of things are happening. But this was never a personal journal; instead I wanted to give context for the discoveries that do merit note.

Michael Massing, in the latest New York Review of Books, observes that digital media need not spell doom for the traditional norms (sometimes ignored) of integrity and accountability and the commitment, stated but less often practiced, to “fact-checking.” Instead, he writes, we are at a fateful crossroads, a hinge point. Massing approvingly cites the work of Clay Shirky, who observed much along the same lines. The latest Columbia Journalism Review is also full of seasoned observers who seem to cohere along a practical solution: charge for access. Before that can be explored, first it is necessary to bemoan the fact that print and Web journos feel respectively like dinosaurs and the small mammalian critters that herald the evolutionary future, for good or bad.

One paradox that is not-so-often pundited captures the issue of journalism “as content,” as a “monetizable” product that is one part original reporting, which involves depth, expertise and field work, and another part soulless aggregation of the reportage. It is paradoxical for the same reason it is so ubiquitous: all of the time the dispatches of real observers are linked, disseminated and repackaged; all of the time the predominant majority of consumers heavily depend on being fed constantly-updated information, which can entirely bypass the very working people without whom the news cannot arrive in the very medium that is “corroding” the old models.

There is a lot of buzz around the topic of erecting pay walls, for example, which contains positives and negatives. On the plus, it generates more revenue for the providers than can be supplied by ads. On the other hand, millions of people expect information to be free. A key assumption is that quality journalism is integral to democracy. Yet that very democratic impulse represented by the internet is challenging the institutions that are supposed to foster informed decision-making. What the current climate may lead us to is highly specialized super-niche markets in which microaudiences pay for content suited to them. To survive the major media entities will have to go much more local, just to differentiate themselves. The idea of a mass media may soon disappear in the process.

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