The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation

This is adapted and expanded from the Inaugural Lecture I gave to the incoming class at Sciences Po école du journalisme in Paris, September 2, 2010: their first day. Presented to French students, it is intended for anyone studying journalism today, or attempting to re-learn it.

19 Sep 2010 2:57 am 1 Comment

Originally published at my Posterous blog, Sep. 6, 2010.

Typically when people like me—a professor of journalism who is deeply involved in the digital world—advise people like you—students just starting their careers in journalism—we say to you things like:

You need to be blogging.

You need to understand search engines.

You need to know Flash and perhaps HTML5.

You need to grasp web metrics like Google analytics.

You need to know how to record audio or edit video

You need to “get” mobile. (“Mobile is going to be big!”)

And all of those things are true. They are all important. But I want to go in a completely different direction today. Ready? You need to understand that the way you imagine the users will determine how useful a journalist you will be.

A shift in power

It turns out that the original title I gave myself, The People Formerly Known as the Audience and the Audience Properly Known as the Public, is a problem, because the word for “public” in French is the same as the word for “audience.” We have to work around that. And to help I have a clip from a movie I want to show you. It’s from the 1976 film Network, which is about a crazed television newsman named Howard Beale who begins to act out his craziness on the air. This is probably the most famous scene in the film. (It takes five minutes to watch.)

What is this scene “about?” In my reading of it, the filmmakers are showing us what the mass audience was: a particular way of arranging and connecting people in space. Viewers are connected “up” to the big spectacle, but they are disconnected from one another. Or to use the term I have favored, they are “atomized.” (See Audience Atomization Overcome.) But Howard Beale does what no television person ever does: he uses television to tell its viewers to stop watching television.

When they disconnect from TV and go to their windows, they are turning away from Big Media and turning toward one another. And as their shouts echo across an empty public square they discover just how many other people had been “out there,” watching television in atomized simultaneity, instead of doing something about the inarticulate rage that Beale put into words. (“I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the streets. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad!”)

The reason I showed you this clip is that it makes vivid for us a great event we are living through today: the breakup of the atomized “mass” audience and a shift in power that goes with it. What would happen today if someone on television did what Howard Beale did? Immediately people who happened to be watching would alert their followers on Twitter. Someone would post a clip the same day on YouTube. The social networks would light up before the incident was over. Bloggers would be commenting on it well before professional critics had their chance. The media world today is a shifted space. People are connected horizontally to one another as effectively as they are connected up to Big Media; and they have the powers of production in their hands.

The public becomes thinkable

This kind of shift has happened before. And now I want to take you back 250 years, to events in France and England that gave birth to the modern public.

Before there was a public that could be informed by the press, before there was anything like “public opinion,” before there was any political journalism at all, politics was considered the king’s business, le secret du roi. It was owned and operated by the king, and secrecy about everything that happened in government was the normal state of things. There was publicity too, but not about what was actually happening in the halls of power. In the words of Jürgen Habermas, it was “publicity that is staged for show or manipulation,” rituals in which the majesty of the crown and the glory of the nation could be vivified or put on display. Absolutism gave ownership of politics to the crown; and that included virtually all information about affairs of state.

In 1764, for example, the King of France ruled it illegal to print or sell or peddle on the street anything about the reform of state finances—past, present or future. It’s not only that there was no freedom of the press. That was true, but more than that: The king’s mystery was not considered the people’s business. The whole idea that the affairs of the nation belonged to the people of that nation had yet to be accepted. Without an idea like that (today we would call it “the public’s right to know…”) the very practice of journalism is impossible—in fact, unthinkable.

But by 1781 Jacques Necker, finance minister to the King of France, had published the first ever public record of the state’s finances, the Compte rendu. Three thousand copies were sold on the first day. Most historians say he failed to give a true picture of how deeply the crown was in debt, and that he hid the cost of borrowing. But simply by publishing the Compte rendu Necker helped to raise the curtain on a new idea: public confidence required transparency. Public opinion could not be ignored. There was a public “out there,” and even princes had to appeal to it.

So what happened between 1764 and 1781? The answer to that is complex and worth a book in itself. Fortunately we have one: Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Here I will simply list some of the factors responsible for the shift:

* The growth and spread of printing, which was bound up with the market for printed books. This meant, for example, that what was illegal to print or sell in France could be published in Holland and smuggled in.

* The rise of the periodical press. Newspapers and pamphlets—some legal and restrained, some clandestine and unrestrained in their rhetoric—spread the concept of public discussion of public affairs. This was difficult to contain.

* Closely related to that were the literary salons in which discussion of what was read became normal, providing a template for public opinion as commentary on what is in the press. (In England this role was played by taverns and coffee houses.)

* The emergence of international capitalism, which created what Habermas called the “carrier class” for the public sphere, the literate bourgeoise: merchants, traders and businessman who were not impressed by “publicity staged for show or manipulation,” but who might buy French debt if they were persuaded that the government could repay it on time. Necker no doubt had these people in mind when he published his record of state finances, and when he called public opinion “an invisible power that, without treasury, guard, or army, gives its laws to the city, the court, and even the palace of kings.”

* The spread of enlightenment ideas, in which reason was supposed to be sovereign, not the king and his court. Public opinion, when it was praised by people like Necker, meant reasoned, settled opinion, not the violent swings in mood that frightened so many aristocrats.

* The search for other sources of authority beyond divine right and despotism. Necker worked for the King of France. He was trying to find a way to reform and legitimate the continued authority of the crown as it came under increasing attack in the last decades of the ancien régime. That is why he called public opinion a “tribunal,” and said “princes themselves [must] respect it.”

This complex shift from one constellation of ideas to another was put into words by the historian Keith Michael Baker: “From the public person of the sovereign to the sovereign person of the public.” Something like that has to happen before journalism can even be conceived. In fact the rise of the periodical press, the emergence of the public as an actor in politics, and the power of public opinion such that even princes have to respect it, are not so much parallel developments as three aspects of the same event. Together, they made modern journalism thinkable.

The people out of doors

In England during the same period, a similar event occurs. If we could listen in on Parliament in 1750 we might hear a phrase in common use then, “the people indoors.” It referred to the members of Parliament themselves when they were gathered in session. In what way did this small and elite group represent “the” people of England? Not through popular election; that didn’t really happen until the next century. Parliament thought of itself as the people because the King had to consult with Parliament and when he did he was consulting with the whole nation.

This was a fiction, of course, but it was the ruling fiction at the time. “The people indoors” were quite aware that they were not representative of the whole population. That is why they also referred to the people “out of doors,” another phrase in use at the time. This meant everybody else. The king didn’t have to consult with them. Nor did the people out of doors enjoy freedom of speech or freedom of the press. In fact, it was illegal to publish what was said in Parliament or to attack the King in print.

For the “people indoors,” freedom of speech was protected within the halls of Parliament itself. A member could call the king’s policies foolish and not be held to account, whereas a printer who put that sentiment in a pamphlet could be arrested the next day. I am not going to go into the whole story, which involves the printer and politician John Wilkes and the right to report on debates in Parliament (established in 1771.) Suffice it to say that in England, too, politics as the exclusive possession of the king, his ministers and Parliament gave way to a much more open system, in which the newspapers could report on what was happening, a literate public could discuss it and public opinion could form.

Ignoring the public became harder, gestures toward transparency more common. Rights fundamental to the practice of journalism—politics as the people’s business, freedom of speech and of the press, the right to record what was said in Parliament and publish it in the newspapers—began to be established, though it took a long time for them to be secured. The people out of doors grew up and became the public, the one that has a right to know. These things have to happen before there can be a profession of journalism worth joining. That is why I am telling you about them.

The engineering of opinion

I am conducting this tour at the level of ideas. But one could also say ideals. The all-inclusive public that is fully informed about what is happening… and argues about it in public settings…. so as to form an independent and reasoned opinion… which is then listened to by the people in power… this has never been a description of how public life in a competitive democracy actually works. The fight has been to make it truer and truer for more and more people. That fight goes on. When we compare the reality to the picture, we can tell where we are, and perhaps where we need to go.

Meanwhile, there are endless complications to weigh. For example, the same tools that make an informed public possible allow for manipulation and propaganda on a national scale. As we enter the modern age this becomes very obvious. Let’s jump ahead to Paris in 1919 and the Peace Conference that ended World War I. Something new was seen at Paris. At previous international conferences intended to conclude wars and settle borders, the diplomats would negotiate in secret and emerge weeks later with a result which was then conveyed to the home countries as a more or less finished product. In Paris a new pattern was seen. The American delegation was accompanied by over 150 newspaper correspondents. They shocked the diplomats by demanding entrance to the opening session.

Even when their demands were resisted, the reporters were a factor in the event. Word of what was being proposed by one country or discussed by several would find its way to the correspondents, who would put it into their dispatches, which were then telegraphed to the home country to be published the next day in the newspapers. Over the same wires (but traveling the other way) came word of public reaction once the news was published. This increased the pressure on the statesmen in Paris, who in Britain, France and the United States (the victors) had to face the future prospect of elections and no-confidence votes. Just imagine how simple it would be for the editor of a tabloid newspaper to take fragmentary word of what was being discussed in Paris and use it to sell papers in London. As public opinion becomes more powerful, the incentives to engineer it also grow.

In the twentieth century we have the rise of the modern mass media—cinema, radio, television, followed by cable—all of them huge industries that are intimately connected to state power. So much so that the way you make a revolution in the twentieth century is not by storming the king’s castle but by taking over the broadcasting tower. The idea of the informed public and public opinion as the final court of appeal never got extinguished, but it had to compete with a related formation: the mass audience and the business of appealing to that.

The journalists formerly known as the media

But today the mass audience is breaking up. This makes new things thinkable. And that’s why I wrote my 2006 post, the People Formerly Known as the Audience:

The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people of our existence, and of a shift in power that goes with the platform shift you’ve all heard about. Think of passengers on your ship who got a boat of their own. The writing readers. The viewers who picked up a camera. The formerly atomized listeners who with modest effort can connect with each other and gain the means to speak— to the world, as it were.

Today I want to introduce a companion idea. Because the people formerly known as the audience have arrived, the journalists formerly known as “the media” are here, too. And this is what you—the next generation of professional journalists—have a chance to define for the rest of us. The digital revolution changes the equation. It brings forward a new balance of forces, putting the tools of production and the powers of distribution in the hands of the people formerly known as the audience. And so you have the opportunity to become the journalists formerly known as the media, carrier class for a new understanding of the people “out there” on the receiving end of what journalists make. I say “new,” but it is really just another chapter in the long struggle to make good on the idea of a public that knows what is happening because it pays attention, informs itself and argues about what should be done.

Let me try to sharpen what I mean by “the journalists formerly known as the media” by calling on one of my favorite lines in all of media studies. They originate with Raymond Williams (1921-1988) a writer and sociologist in the U.K. who was well known for his studies of mass media. “There are no masses, “ Williams wrote in 1958, “there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” To illustrate, Williams compared the way local newspapers addressed their readers—as inhabitants of a common world of homes, schools, jobs, streets they walked, politics they could participate in—to the way those same readers were addressed by the mass circulation dailies and tabloids that sell throughout the U.K.

Seeing people as masses is the art in which the mass media, and professional media people, specialized during their profitable 150-year run (1850 to 2000). But now we can see that this was actually an interval, a phase, during which the tools for reaching the public were placed in increasingly concentrated hands. Professional journalism, which dates from the 1920s, has lived its entire life during this phase, but let me say it again: this is what your generation has a chance to break free from. The journalists formerly known as the media can make the break by learning to specialize in a different art: seeing people as a public, empowered to make media themselves.

My advice…

Now I will explain what this phrase—seeing people as a public—means to journalists for your generation. Here are some of its implications.

1. Replace readers, viewers, listeners and consumers with the term “users.” What do we call the people on the other end of the journalism transaction? My suggestion is to be less platform-centric; rather than naming them for the tool you are using to reach them, just call them the users, a term I borrowed from the way Dave Winer employs it. Users is a more active identity, it works for all platforms, and as I said earlier: the way you imagine the users will determine how useful a journalist you will be.

2. Remember: the users know more than you do. I adapted this from Dan Gillmor’s famous declaration: “My readers know more than I do.” It means that, in the aggregate, the people on the receiving end have more knowledge, more contacts, more experience and more good ideas than a single journalist can ever have. This was always true, it was true in the 1950s, but the Internet allows those people-—the ones who know more than you do—to actually reach (and teach) you with that knowledge. Look at it this way: The most valuable thing the New York Times owns is its name and reputation. The second most valuable thing it has: the talent and experience of its staff. The third most valuable thing the Times “owns” is the knowledge and sophistication of its users. And if it cannot find a way to get some of that flowing in, so as to improve the editorial product, then it will have failed to capitalize on an immense strategic advantage. And I am convinced the editors of the Times know this.

3: There’s been a power shift; the mutualization of journalism is here. This is Alan Rusbridger’s idea: “the mutualised news organization.” He’s the editor of The Guardian in the U.K. What he means is…

We bring important things to the table – editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers. The members of that community could not hope to aspire to anything like that audience or reach on their own; they bring us a rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.

We bring important things to the table, and so do the users. Therefore we include them. “Seeing people as a public” means that.

4: Describe the world in a way that helps people participate in it. When people participate, they seek out information.  Information providers would do well to recognize this connection.  As I told The Economist:

My own view is that journalists should describe the world in a way that helps us participate in political life. That is what they are “for”. But too often they position us as savvy analysts of a scene we are encouraged to view from a certain distance, as if we were spectators to our own democracy, or clever manipulators of our fellow citizens. Weird, isn’t it?

As a writer for The Economist said after this was published: “Perhaps ‘political’ is unnecessarily limiting. More generally, it is the job of journalists to describe the world in a way that helps us participate in all life—political, local, civic, cultural, etc.” Correct.

5: Anyone can doesn’t mean everyone will. Students of social media and behavior on the Net are highly aware of the one percent rule, which has been observed in a wide variety of online settings:

It’s an emerging rule of thumb that suggests that if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will ‘interact’ with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it… So what’s the conclusion? Only that you shouldn’t expect too much online. Certainly, to echo Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. The trouble, as in real life, is finding the builders.

My way of putting this is, “anyone can doesn’t mean everyone will.” But the fact that “anyone can” is still important because you can never predict who will accept your invitation. Knowing this rule helps us keep our expectations in check. Seeing people as a public doesn’t mean deluding ourselves about what they are willing to do. It’s important to neither under-estimate nor over-estimate what the people formerly known as the audience are up for.

6: The journalist is just a heightened case of an informed citizen, not a special class. Journalism isn’t like brain surgery, or piloting a Boeing 747. A professional journalist knows how to get information, ask questions, tell stories and connect isolated facts. These are not esoteric or specialized skills, just heightened versions of things any smart citizen should be able to do.  We see this most clearly when citizens have a chance to substitute for reporters and ask questions of candidates during debates. They generally do as well as or better than professional journalists. That is a clue.

7: Your authority starts with, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” If “anyone” can produce media and share it with the world, what makes the pro journalist special, or worth listening to? Not the press card, not the by-line, not the fact of employment by a major media company. None of that. The most reliable source of authority for a professional journalist will continue to be what James W. Carey called “the idea of a report.” That’s when you can truthfully say to the users, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”  Or, “I was at the demonstration, you weren’t, let me tell you how the cops behaved.” Or, altering my formula slightly, “I interviewed the workers who were on that oil drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let me tell you what they said.”  Or, “I reviewed those documents, you didn’t, let me tell you what I found.” Your authority begins when you do the work. If an amateur or a blogger does the work, the same authority is earned. Seeing people as a public means granting that without rancor.

8: Somehow, you need to listen to demand and give people what they have no way to demand. The Web effortlessly records what people do with it. Therefore it is easy to measure user behavior: what people are interested in, what they are searching for, clicking on, turning to… right now. What should a smart journalists do with this “live” information?  I just told you: you should listen to demand, but also give people what they have no way to demand because they don’t know about it yet. In fact, there is a relationship between these things.  The better you are at listening to demand, the more likely it is that the users will listen to you when you demand of them: pay attention! You may not think this is important or interesting, but trust me… it matters. Or: “This is good.” Ignoring what the users want is dumb in one way; editing by click rate is dumb in a different way. Respect for the users lies in between these two. Get it?

9: In your bid to be trusted, don’t take the View From Nowhere; instead, tell people where you’re coming from. Treating people as a public means refusing to float “above” them. Instead of claiming that you have no view, no stake, no perspective, no (sorry for the academic term) situated self, try to level with the users and let them know where you are coming from. As David Weinberger puts it. “transparency is the new objectivity.” You may find that trust is easier to negotiate if you don’t claim the View from Nowhere, but instead tell them where you’re coming from. (Here’s my attempt to do exactly that as a critic.)

10: Breathe deeply of what DeTocqueville said: “Newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers.” Alexis De Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited the United States in the 1830s. Among the observations he made was: “newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers.” What I think he meant was: wherever people have a common interest and wish to discuss it, there lies an opportunity for a smart journalist. Today one of the things that is fast changing our world is the falling cost for like minded people–people who share the same interest, problem or fascination–to locate each other, share information, pool what they know, and publish back to the world the results of their interactions. The Net makes this act increasingly common. For example, people with a health problem that medical science has been unable to treat will find each other over the Net and begin to discuss their condition. They’re an association. Smart journalists will pick up on this and realize: there’s a story there. Want to be useful online?  Find a previously atomized group that shares a common interest and create a space for their association.

I conclude: The struggle to make the fiction of an informed and engaged public more factual—that is, realer—continues on. When technology and markets change, new things become thinkable within that struggle. And so journalism itself has graduated to the next stage of its development. Bonne chance!

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[…] And finally, a new post from Prof. Rosen today – The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: … A post from Sunday that continues on his look at how online media is transforming the relationship between audiences and journalists. This entry was posted in Chapter 2, Chapter 6 and tagged civic journalism. Bookmark the permalink. ← 10/10/10 New Media Conference in Omaha […]