Thursday, August 19, 2010

Three Digital Myths

My favourite morning reading is Chris Wallace's simple list of links she calls Breakfast Politics. It is an easy way to pick the eyes out of the daily media - and being totally neutral and not pretending to be anything other than mediation it doesn't have the source biases of The Punch or The National Times.

It provides many of the stories on which I blog each day - but by no means all. Though I must admit it is often the easiest way for me to find an on-line link to something I've already read in print.

More impressive is the collection of five or six international links she provides that range from politics to art to sport. This morning had a beauty - a story on Three Digital Myths. The story has been partly inspired by recent activity at Wkikileaks. The three myths identified are;

Myth 1: The power of social media
Myth 2: The nation-state is dying
Myth 3: Journalism is dead (or almost)

My own view is that, like most universal statements, there is a degree of truth in the statement but the application is nowhere near as broad as is claimed nor is the consequence necessarily that that would follow.

Anyhow, the article points out the following simple facts, that Wikileaks isn't social media, that Wikileaks isn't stateless - in fact it carefully manages what states it does things in, and Wikileaks still relied on journalism to have an impact with the Afghan story.

The more nuanced view is that social media is grossly over-blown in terms of its ability to be a real "news breaker". It is, however, often incredibly influential in affecting how rapidly something is spread - we need to understand bandwagon effects better and how they affect democracy. Professionally I see lots of people promoting "social media" as a new marketing engine. I have two thoughts. The first is that it doesn't work to simply translate old world media ideas to the new world...prettied up company facebook pages are just another website. Secondly social media works well if you can "go viral" but it is a hit and miss affair.

The place of the nation-state is also a far bigger issue. I've written before of my admiration for Phillip Bobbit's Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent. This positions the "nation-state" as merely one phase of a whole sequence of "constitutional orders", and there is no doubt that we are in need of a new such order to cover what he calls "the market state of consent". But exercises like Wikileaks simply emphasise the need for the evolution, not the demise of the state.

Finally, the story about journalism is also complex. Many of us think it is already dead. Few journalists "report" anymore the simple who, what, where, when story. They do spend an inordinate amount of time on "why" - trying to ascribe motives to individuals. The call about the end of journalism is often pitched as the end of "investigative journalism" - a long term commitment to a story to dig out hidden facts. The end of this is meant to be that there is no business model to fund the investment. The reality is possibly more mundane - given the economics of information it doesn't make sense to have so many separate "brands" of investigative journalism.

I have no idea what the management consultants have told Fairfax. But my suggestion would be to "divisionalise" around frequency. All the real-time (on line) and daily news resources acrioss all the titles should be conflated. The Age and the SMH should continue to be different papers and have their unique State/Ci9ty coverage (ditto the Illawarra and Newcastle papers). The Business Section should be renamed the Australian Financial Review - but be very slim - the bulk of the AFR content should be subscription online only.

Then be very very good at delivering news in that model. Don't try to charge for an on-line version of the daily paper, don't try to charge for access to a spewing "Just In" feed. Do charge for a structured "push news service that is user controlled - both by selection of key terms and by a learning algorithm that learns from readers ranking of stories).

There are many more than three digital myths. They all share the trait of over-reach.

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