Apocalypse 20: Some ruccus in the new media ranks

By , 29 March, 2009, No Comment

As a silver lining to the recessionary cloud, I’ve been trumpeting the boisterous and robust debates taking place among newshounds over new business models for media.

Among the internet evangelists, these debates are usually taken as signs of professional media’s last breaths before the dictatorship of the proletariat (aka a citizen-driven “gift” economy) comes to save us. So of course, the internet evangelists yippee’ed at the announcement from the HuffPo that they are creating a fund to finance investigative reporting that will then be gifted to anyone who wants to run ads against it on their own site. They yippee’ed again at the new bill in Congress to make it easier for news outfits to claim nonprofit status.

Now all of these ventures, while helping to take down the existing structures of professional media, take their cues from the same value system that professional media folk claim–that journalism has a civic role to play, as a watchdog on those in power, as a forum for debate and a cultivator of public opinion, etc.

Yet the project of dismantling the mainstream media and claiming the legal rights of journalists on behalf of a citizen-activist runs directly counter to that value system. The civic function of journalism is enshrined in constitutional laws that, with the rise of computers, have lost their clarity: is a blog free Speech or free Press? There are ways to untangle that mystery, but most of them, as I’ve angsted before, seem to lead us into anarchist terrain. My angst seems justified in light of this essay in Slate–the author thumbs his nose at any democratic use for journalism and bemoans the journalism-as-civil-society theory as an old media meme.

The real battle, it seems, is not old media vs. new media but, as I continue to argue, institutionalism vs. individualism. If you think (as I do) that journalism has a civic value, then your solutions to the industry’s current struggles might turn towards to redefining journalism for the digital age in a way that separates those who report (ie journalists) from those who just make noise. If you think the journalism-as-public-service argument is maudlin junk, you might simply hail the demise of journalism as an organizational category.

While these two camps of new media thinkers duke it out, there’s room for old media organizations to experiment–I’ve blogged before that I think the NY Times is onto something in its merger with the Herald Tribune. That merger takes another small step today–the Times rebranded the IHT’s website as the “Global Edition of the New York Times” months ago; now they have rebranded the international pages of the Times’ own site with the IHT logo.

Obviously, a website redesign does little for the Times’ bigger problems, but the merger yields a reporting structure that any future model should take into account.

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