I just got back to the U.S. from my first visit to Rome. The whole trip was great, but my favorite part was The Roman Forum. This ancient gathering place represents, as far as I’m concerned, the epitome of community facilitation given the resources available at the time. This may not seem like a relevant anecdote at first but the point is that I think members of the news industry who are looking for a role in this crazy Internet filled world may discover that the answer to their identity crisis isn’t so new after all.
This post is about where I think news organizations, especially local news organizations, need to take their digital presence. This is the conversation I hoped to seed with my analysis of the Anonymous activism against Scientology. It also turns out that this post will work nicely with the recent conversation on this blog about the need for news organizations to change the way they operate online.
Context and Clarification
In my posts about Anonymous I tried to identify some of the subtleties of online community coordination and pull out any lessons that could help us in our journalism-industry-wide quest to effectively utilize digital technology.
Based on a few of the comments to those posts it seems there was a little room for confusion. Some thought I was trying to provide a recipe for media outlets to take advantage of existing online communities or artificially manipulate the masses. In other words, not everyone understood what I believe the technologies should be utilized for. In a comment I wrote:
“[In these posts] I tried to look at what might have been a reason for [Anonymous] success and largely cite the fact that physical communities don’t utilize the kinds of digital communication tools that you guys have. This is where (for instance) local newspapers, which are desperately trying to find their place on the internet, could fill a role. Not for profit, but instead to get back to the public service that they were supposed to be providing in the first place – an outlet for community voice and an amplification of community issues.”
From what I understand, some of the original driving forces that inspired local news media were the demand for outlets of community voice and the need for amplification of important community issues. Ethics, practices, role, and tradition – i.e. hard news, public service journalism (which I will refer to as “hard journalism” from now on) – grew over time.
By focusing on those initial demands and drawing on “hard journalism” practices for reinforcement rather than direction, our adaptation to a new medium will hopefully becomes a little more manageable. That focus is what I wanted to develop with those posts (plus the whole Anonymous effort continues to fascinate me).
A New Community Medium
If my interpretation above is even partially accurate, it seems that local news operations are supposed to be information hubs for the communities they serve. When using a one-to-many medium such as Television or Print, reporters and editors try to represent their community by proxy. For old media that was fine because, realistically, it was the only way for the job to be done.
With digital media, as everyone seems to have figured out years ago, it isn’t enough to just have an online newspaper. What people are realizing now is that it also isn’t enough to simply enable comments, publish the occasional user-submitted-photo or blog, or incorporate a few pieces of interactive content. All of these things are small steps in the right direction, but small steps are slow and costly in the world of software.
This time around news organizations need to do more than just learn to use the media, they need to host a community with it – an idea that Richard Anderson put out there in his first post to this blog. People want a place, digital or otherwise, where they can gather and learn about the community in which they are a part, a place where they can get in touch with the issues, and a place where they can pick up on the “vibe.” They want a modern Roman Forum.
If news orgs don’t provide this then someone else will. What is troublesome is that the “someone else” won’t necessarily incorporate hard journalism in their vision. What makes THAT troublesome is that such services directly compete with the news.
Facilitating Community Agenda
In the words of Paul Monaco, much of media’s social influence comes from its ability to set agendas, not by “[telling] its readers and viewers what to think so much as it points them toward what to think about.” Social Media, Digital Media, many-to-many conversations, and all those other phrases that are thrown around describe the tools being used to push that task of issue definition back to the community.
For news organizations moving online this may seem like a conflict of interest but in reality the situation isn’t so terrible. All it means is that news organizations need to move past agenda definition and take on the job of agenda facilitation. In other words, they don’t have to work to reflect the community any more, now they can provide the communication tools needed to let the community reflect itself.
To put it in slightly different terms – I’m suggesting that local news sites facilitate “bottom up” agenda. The individuals (the bottom) can suggest issues and those issues may be picked up, prompting natural investigative attention and a swarm response. Anonymous shows that existing communities can do this if they have the tools. They also showed what can happen when a real community issue is met with effective information technology (for interested parties, there was another round of protests on March 15th).
As I said earlier in my quoted response, one reason physical communities are suffering in the digital world right now is that they don’t have the online hub set up for them. This is where local media (and global media too) should step in and start providing.
So far I have slighted an incredibly important part of the picture: the journalists. Pushing agenda definition onto the community does not mean we can forget about hard journalism. Communities still need the people who find the stories that have fallen under the radar, spend weeks researching the details, and double check the facts. Journalists should focus on what they have been trained to do best and news organizations need to invest in them or we will lose an invaluable part of the process.
I am suggesting we use the credibility of journalism to augment the democracy of social media and inform the interests of existing community. Paid professionals would still report on new issues to see if their community takes interest, but now the digital version of the physical community they serve can act as a living breathing tip-line.
This has been quite a mouthful and I probably I tried to say too much in one place. For those in Anonymous who are reading this (I’d be surprised if you made it this far down) I hope the topic was at least somewhat interesting to you. I would like to know what you think about “hard journalism” – and I don’t mean the mainstream gossip you see on network news. I ask the same question to journalists concerning collectively defined agenda.