Can newspapers & journalism survive?
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For starters, swap the newspaper for a computer, Jenkins said. "We follow links sent by our friends. We catch news on apps we read while riding the bus to school or work. We check out blogs or Twitter feeds from folks we know have a good track record of identifying news content which matters to us. We are constantly checking news because news comes to us through every conversation we have throughout the day. So, until the business models for news are aligned with how people are consuming news, rather than trying to discipline us to continue old practices in a new context, they are going to fail to capture much of the public interest in news, and they are going to seem increasingly odd to younger readers who have come up in a much more participatory culture."
Journalism remains important even to new media entities. And actually, some new Web-based organizations are successfully accomplishing some of what newspapers and journalists have traditionally done.
In the violent aftermath of the disputed presidential election in Kenya in 2007, a small group of activists, technologists, and bloggers created a crowdsourcing website called Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili. It collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by e-mail or text, and created Google maps, so people would know what was going on and could try to stay safe. Ushahidi was also used following the tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti to allow citizens to collectively report urgent or dangerous situations or where people needed to be rescued. The technology is free and open-source, so it is being used by more and more organizations in pressing situations where mapping and crowdsourcing can make a meaningful contribution. Another website, mySociety, provides people in local communities with simple websites and tools to track what their local politicians and elected civic leaders are doing, opportunities to communicate with them about problems in the community, and mechanisms to create e-petition drives and connect with other members of their community. Still another entity, the Harry Potter Alliance, uses its website and social networking to mobilize its growing community of Harry Potter fans and issue-conscious activists to take civic action in a variety of social issues. In the summer of 2007, for example, the group convened gatherings around the country intended to increase people's awareness of the Sudanese genocide. The group has also marshaled its community in the fight for workers' rights at Walmart, against Proposition 8 in California, and to promote literacy for underprivileged children.
Newspapers and news organizations "did not anticipate that networks would afford many-to-many communication, not just act as a more efficient channel for few-to-many broadcast," said Howard Rheingold, author of two prescient books on the digital age, Smart Mobs and The Virtual Community. "I think that was the most important oversight." Rheingold is an Internet pioneer and a genuine fan of the new connectivism brought on by the digital revolution. "New forms of journalism are arising," he said. "A great deal of experimentation is occurring. Journalists are multiplying in the digital ecosystem." And yet: "Real questions remain about how long-form investigative journalism will be supported. I'm neither a knee-jerk pessimist nor a digital utopian. We need to remain concerned in many ways over the health of the public sphere."
Santa Clara University's Chad Raphael, an associate professor of communications and a scholar in the history of news, says journalism is a more diverse field than it used to be—a good thing—and has a bigger audience than ever with the Web. But, he says, the technological and economic issues are very real twin threats. "I'm mainly concerned that journalism be able to support democracy," Raphael says. "That means informing citizens, acting as a watchdog on powerful institutions, circulating political opinions, and fostering a conversation that connects different elements of society. We need to find new ways to pay professional journalists, not just amateurs or self-interested experts, to do a good deal of this work … We need to support journalists in ways that insulate them from pressure—political, economic, and even some kinds of popular pressure."
SOS means "Steal Our Stories"
Back in 2007, Stephen Engelberg was managing editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., where he'd landed after a distinguished 18-year tenure at The New York Times as an investigative editor, foreign correspondent, and national affairs writer. He recognized that difficult times loomed ahead for all newspapers, especially regional metropolitan papers like The Oregonian. Then came a rare opportunity to build from the ground up a new, digital-era journalism startup called ProPublica. A nonprofit funded by the Sandler Foundation, it was to be devoted exclusively to journalism "in the public interest." It was formed specifically because of the gathering fear that serious journalism was being gashed by digital age disruption. Experimental and eyebrow-raising when it launched, ProPublica has already won many of journalism's top awards and has garnered wide respect well outside of journalism circles. Its sustained focus on police abuses and lethal force against citizens in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, has led to numerous indictments and may trigger a federal takeover of the New Orleans Police Department.
What's fascinating is that ProPublica simultaneously epitomizes two things: (1) the promise of what journalism might morph into thanks to the coercive powers of the digital revolution and our rapidly changing world; and (2) how absolutely integral journalism remains to our society as a check on the forces of corruption, exploitation, and wrongdoing, which require reckoning regardless of how much the world around us changes.
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