Six roles, or job duties, of modern journalism

In the era of Packaged Goods Media, the journalist played a command-and-control role. He or she determined the news of the day (news judgment), organized it around his or her own sense of importance (news value) and published it to a compliant audience.

The role was linear and uncomplicated.

In the era of distributed media, the relationship between journalist and audience is asymmetrical.

As “audience” transmutes to “community,” and the level of communication and information increases exponentially, as news becomes less ecclesiastical and more egalitarian, the role of the professional journalist is changing.

Fortunately, there is still a role.

Here are six roles the modern journalist should serve:

  • The Ethical Role. Yes, journalists get bashed about because of real and imagined lapses in ethics, but the challenge now is to raise the bar on professional ethics, and then provide ethical guidence to today’s participatory audience. We should deal more swiftly and transparently with ethical errors within the profession, but we should also provide teaching tools on information ethics, what ethics means and why it’s important, and how to spot compromised ethics.
  • The Guide/Filter Role. Editors and reporters should assume some responsibility for providing their audiences with pointers to the best stuff on the web, be it the best-reported of the important news or the most interesting and entertaining articles and videos. In a command-and-control environment, we cared only about directing people to what we ourselves did. Now our role is to help audiences sift through the glut of information assaulting them daily by providing pointers. This is the value-add role, and if done right it can help overcome the digital-age tendency for people to focus too narrowly on their own interests. If done well, it will bring more people to your site or publication.
  • The Understanding and Context Role. Why should the best bloggers get to have all the fun? The best journalists should become the best bloggers. I know many really, really smart reporters and editors. These people should have blogs, and they should serve readers better by taking the news of the day and putting it in context, combing articles for the tidbits that need to be weaved together to make a bigger whole, and explaining what it all means.
  • The Conversation Leader Role. Already, our news reports start a lot of conversations with our without our consent. The conversation-starter role should become explicit in our job descriptions. Once started, we should guide it. We should thank and encourage the good contributors, and depreciate the bad contributors We should highlight the smartest things people say. We should provide our own insights and supplemental knowledge to any conversation we find. We should be full participants, not just the lurking overlords of top-down media.
  • The Aggregator Role. We should aggressively gather data related to the communities we serve. We should make sure that anything that is knowable about a community we serve is findable through resources we provide. While in the Guide/Filter Role we might provide pointers, in the Aggregator Role, we make data available and let people find it for themselves. This is a role that serves the long tail of information, because we never know what other individuals might find useful, important or necessary.
  • The Straight News Role. We cannot, even if we wanted to, and should not, cede our professional responsibilities to uncover news. We must know about everything important going on in the communities that we serve, and we should strive to be the first to tell our communities about the important news of the moment (note: no longer of the day, but of the moment). We must still be out in our communities gathering facts and organizing them in a way that is relevant and useful and then reporting the most important facts to our communities.

Previously: Journalism has evolved to fit society’s needs and demands

MSM and the struggle to balance user participation

Mark Glaser has a good post up summarizing the various positions and approaches media companies are taking to user participation.

“I think quality is more important than quantity,” Landman said. “You have to create a space where the conversation is the kind of conversation that appeals to the people in your world. There are places where the conversation gets really ugly and people don’t go to the New York Times to get yelled at.”

Mark was kind enough to include a couple of words from me.

Chris Tolles brings some stats to the anonymous vs. registration debate

Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, sent me a note and said:

I got sick of reading all the hand wringing by various newspapers around anonymous comments and had our development guys run some stats comparing anonymous comments vs. registered users’.

And that led to this blog post.

While anonymous posts have a roughly 50% higher kill rate, they also account for 3X the comment and commenter volume. If one asks, “where are we getting the most acceptable comments from?”, the answer is clearly the non-registered user base. As pointed out above, that there are as many registered users on Topix is partially due to offering anonymous comments

Also, its important to note that the ability to manage “anonymous” commenters and “registered” commenters is equivalent from a moderation standpoint. It’s just as easy to identify someone by their IP address for the most part as it is through a registration system. While a 50% difference is certainly something to look at, it’s not an order of magnitude, and we’re also looking at a grand total of way under 10% of total commentary.

Some quibbles:

I think there is a difference between “acceptable” and “accepted.” What the Topix numbers show is 3x as many “accepted” anonymous comments. That does not mean they were “acceptable,” if you define acceptable as A) adding to the civil discourse (as opposed to empty, ranting blather); B) providing useful information that advances the storyline of the article, which is the beauty of a really good user comment string.

Both A and B should be the goal of a adding comments to a story.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in a Wild-West approach to comments. The open conversation is better than no conversation. I would simply rather see interaction evolve to a higher level of utility. We catch glimpses of that sometimes in some anonymous comment strings now.

I have a great faith the the majority of a audience to be civil and intelligent, and that providing some tools, techniques and encouragement, we can draw more civic mindedness out of more people. Anonymity does encourage, I have no doubt, a certain level of glibness if not outright bad behavior.

I’m willing to accept some lesser level of participation in exchange for better conversations.

That said, I totally part company with those (referenced in Chris’s post, but original articles no longer available (now there are some newspapers using a bad CMS)) who say there should be no comments unless we enforce registration. At GHS, we’re building a registration-based system, but in the meantime, we’re using an anonymous system. I would rather have the conversation than not, even if that means we have to weed out some junk.

Chris is right on this point:

The “anonymous” issue is just a red herring. Really, what these journalists are threatened by is the nature of truly public discourse on the web. These people are not barbarians that appeared one day the net went up.

They’re your audience

I agree. You simply MUST enable the conversation on your web site (just don’t outsource it to Topix). And you must be a part of it. And you must learn to deal with it. That’s part of being a journalist these days. If it’s not already in your job description, it should be.

You simply must engage your audience. The benefits far outweigh the periodic bad actor post (one of the benefits of the Topix report is that it statistically demonstrates how little actual really bad stuff is part of the submission flow — journalists should be able to deal with this trickle as part of their duties).

One thing that would be interesting is if Topix ran an A/B test on registration vs. non-registration. Of course, it would only really be useful if we had some way of measuring the civic value of conversations, not just how many posts were banned. Also, I would like to see the test involve registration that sets some sort of expectation for real identity. Topix, at least, has the volume of participation to make such a test statistically valid if run over a long-enough period of time (and maybe in a couple of different periods). The A/B test would involve using the same content to spur conversation, but route half the people to an anonymous-allowed site, and half to a registration site.

It’s good for reporters to get involved in the local discussion communities

Here’s an example of a GateHouse Media reporter who isn’t afraid of the new medium, is entrepreneurial and forward thinking — Jessica Gaspar, a reporter for our weekly in Hennrietta, New York, has started her own section on an independently run town bulletin board.  She calls it Jessica’s Corner.

Jessica uses here posts to ask for story tips, get feedback on articles and promote her own weekly as well as the web site.

Her posts are fun and lively and some of them generate a bit of conversation.  She includes all of her contact information in all of her posts.

Many towns these days have these local bulletin boards that are usually frequented by the biggest news junkies and gossip hounds in town.  It makes a lot of sense for a reporter covering that beat to become part of that community.

If Jessica happens by this blog post maybe she will leave a comment about how this has all worked out for her — the upsides and downsides and what she’s learned.

(via RottenChester)

The modern journalism role includes guiding constructive conversations

Here’s another plea for news sites to require registration and some expectation of real identity from site participants.

But if news is moving from being a lecture to a conversation with readers, then readers must be as transparent and play by the same ethical rules as the media. Certainly, unfettered, ugly, racist, personal and similar sorts of rants do not contribute to civic discourse, but rather undermine it.

If we believe that professional journalism, however it might evolve, has value in the modern media world, then we need to accept a role that goes beyond merely posting the news.

We need to:

  • Start conversations — conversation starters includes our journalism, the things we relate and report, but we should also be offering context and questions that help guide conversations;
  • Participate in the conversation — be active in the conversations we start, adding context, information and clarifications as necessary;
  • Set standards — We make the rules, we enforce them, we offer guidance (including providing some ethical context) for civil, constructive participation, and we set the example for participation.

If we do these things, pre-screening comments becomes largely unnecessary. Healthy moderator participation — and I’ve had a lot of experience doing this — squelches most uncivil participation.

Technical solutions also play a role:

  • “Require” real identity (100 percent enforcement impossible, but the effort will go a long way toward keeping people civil;
  • Use reputation tools, such as thumbs up/down on posts and hiding unpopular posts;
  • Tie participation to socially networked profiles, which brings about greater transparency on identity and persona;
  • Make first-time participants go through moderation and e-mail validation;
  • Let banned users post, but hide their comments from everybody but themselves.

Part of the new responsibility of the modern journalist, of the wired news organization, is to foster a locally focus online community. It is our job, the way I see it, that we should be hosting all of the most important discussions in our communities. This isn’t just an audience growth strategy (though it will do that), it is part of our charter. In a way, it always has been.

The people in our communities know stuff. They’re smart. They have insights. They often have a greater institutional knowledge than many of the people on a newspaper staff. They can help other members of the community — including the paid journalists — grow, learn and understand. They can help us all make better decisions, whether it’s about who to vote for or which charity to support.

The whole community can become smarter through the conversations we host.

Isn’t it appropriate that a journalistic organization, which I’ve always believed has an obligation to illuminate and inform, should be the hub of community conversation?

If we look at online conversation from this higher-responsibility prism, then don’t we have an obligation to not only host the conversation, but to ensure we do our level best to keep the conversation civil and constructive.

If that is the case, then we need to do everything we can to keep the bad actors, the disruptors and the trolls out of our conversations.

This is why I support real identity for participation. And this is why I believe that every journalist has an obligation to be digitally literate. Real identity is necessary to a journalisticly sound conversation (it’s a matter of ethics and transparency), and only digitally literate journalists can be master conversation guides, leaders and participants.

And being a participant should be henceforth written into every reporter and editors job description.

UPDATE: I forgot to include appropriate credit — link via Martin Stabe.

The growing case against anonymity on the web

As I’ve said before, I believe newspaper web sites have a civic obligation to do their best to require contributors to post under their real identity.

Here’s a guest post on Ypluse about the problems with anonymity online.

I think I’d easily trade what’s left of my privacy for some major strides forward in eliminating abuse of anonymity. I say this as a person who truly resents the intrusion on my privacy. I just don’t know what to do anymore.

I believe in free speech. I think we ought to be allowed to say whatever we want to whoever we want. But if we’re not backing that up with our identity, it’s not fair to anyone on the other side of the conversation. We can say whatever we want, and go much further than manners allow. ….

I say this as a person who has kept a blog for seven years hidden under a pseudonym.

But I don’t know how much longer we can live in the wild west.

Anonymity is great in certain cases, but those cases probably should be rarer than we think. Anonymity is easy and it feels good, but maybe it’s something we’re growing out of. Bullying and abuse are not okay, and we’re seeing more of it everyday.

UPDATE: I’ll add this: Identity and profiles help add context. As this post points out, in absence of context, many people fill in the blanks with base assumptions, which leads to insults and invective.

To wit: When you “meet” someone in Halo online, you have only two indicators of who they are — their gamer tag and their voice. You never see their face, you probably don’t know where they’re from (unless you look at their profile), and you don’t know their age. Your competitors are probably from an entirely different city, state, or nation. Faced with this absence of context, people rely on the basest of psychological tropes, i.e., homophobia. How else to deny the sameness of the other than by inverting his/her sexuality.

UPDATE II: Tim D’Avis, in the comments, leaves a link to an interview with one of the founders of The Well, an early digital community.

Brand: Yes and no. I mean, one thing that we insisted on was no anonymity. And lots of the systems out there now like anonymity or encourage it, or individuals absolutely hold out for it. Personally, I would have preferred to see it go the other way. Not so much on the … I mean, The Well’s compromise is pretty good, I think, which is that people can have whatever amusing handle they wanted, but it was linked and it was linked publicly to a real person. That gave the accountability I wanted, which is, I knew that flame wars would go over unless somebody’s nose was identifiable so that if necessary, you could go punch their nose. And they would know that, and you would know that, and that would slightly ameliorate the otherwise extreparous (sp?) behavior. What it did probably, in reality, was connect cyberspace with real space a little better because you always had the sense there were real people and real places behind whatever they were doing online.

The opportunity for local newspapers to build online communities that lead to real-world affiliations is another reason to have some connection to real identity. It’s also another reason not to outsource your community building to Topix.

Outsourcing community to Topix is not a good idea

It looks like I’m not the only one concerned about newspapers outsourcing core-responsibility community building to Topix.

Rich Gordon shares his concern:

Still, I would argue that for news organizations, building online community should be more than an outsourced service. I’d go so far as to say that cultivating community is the most important step for news media to take in order to build online engagement. By partnering with Topix, news organizations are essentially making a statement that online discussions are not important enough to build technology and staffing capabilities around.

While Topix is owned by three newspaper companies, I’m not aware of any Gannett, Tribune (see second update below — there’s at least one each for Gannett and Tribune) or McClatchy newspapers (or any companywide deals) outsourcing its community building to Topix. That’s telling. And my prediction, none of them will any time soon.

If you look at Topix leadership, you see these are not newspaper people, but Silicon Valley pros. This is just another bubble play for them. Their strategy isn’t aimed at helping newspapers, but how to harvest audience and revenue from newspapers.

UPDATE: 2007 NAA Online Innovator winner Steve Yelvington weighs in:

I’m in Howard’s camp on this one. This is not the same as outsourcing obituary guestbooks to (which I think actually makes sense). This is core.

This is a great opportunity to listen to the community that’s being thrown away. You can’t grow to understand what people care about, what’s on their minds, behaving like an absentee landlord.

We don’t listen enough. Voicemail systems and security guards separate our newsrooms from the real world. Beat reporters talk to beat sources, who have an agenda, and rarely to civilians. Normal life rarely shows up in the news report.

The Internet gives us a powerful opportunity to reconnect with communities of real people. Handing that opportunity to Topix, regardless of how well Topix might perform, squanders a treasure.

Yelvington points out that online news pioneer Steve Outing takes a more nuanced approach to the topic, but Outing does say:

If any news companies are looking at the Topix offering and thinking, “Great. We can outsource our audience interaction and get back to the news business as usual,” well, that’s nuts. User comments are just one small element of interacting and engaging with your audience.

But the problem is, for any news organization that doesn’t have the fortitude to handle community conversation itself, that is exactly what is going to happen, especially if it’s a companywide mandate, such as Media News is doing. It’s inevitable.

I realize my rhetoric has been a little heated on this topic, but it’s a major issue of survivability for newspapers on the web.

UPDATE II: Here’s a post about Topix planning to partner with local newspapers on hyperlocal news pages. Of interest, contrary to what I write above, it notes a Gannett and a Tribune paper that are using Topix to manage forums.

Newspapers should not outsource its community relationships

Local news is a vertical.

To succeed going forward, local newspapers need to treat local news as a vertical product.

Newspapers, traditionally, are horizontal, serving many interests and needs with a single product.

Web sites need to be more singularly focused.

Look at the way now owns the fashion vertical, or how American Idol has create a vertical for own product that now covers multiplatforms (TV, the Web, CDs, books, concert tours, mobile phones, etc.).

Local newspapers should aim for the same ownership of local news and information across multiplatforms, and especially dive deep on the Web — breaking news, video, community participation, databases, classifieds, IYP, and every thing else a publisher, editor or content producer can think of to ensure complete ownership of local. That’s what hyperlocal really means.

The last thing you should do is outsource community participation. You need to own your relationships with your best customers — your readers and your contributors, the people in the local community that make it what it is — a community. Letting another company own that relationship is a strategic mistake of monumental proportions.

That’s why Media News signing a deal to turn over commenting functions to Topix is just dumb beyond belief.

Ironically, Media News owns the Denver Post, which of late has been doing a fantastic job of trying to become the hub of community conversation, both through its main news site and its innovative Neighbors site. Those efforts are completely incompatible, as I see it, with the Topix business model, which Chris Tolles is quite blunt about: “We’re aiming to be the number one local news site on the web …”

There can be only one number one, and if it’s Topix, it ain’t your

I’ve written about Topix before. Topix is not your friend. If your serves small, defined geographic communities, and you are not actively prohibiting Topix from crawling your content, you are giving away your crown jewels for pretty much nothing in return. The last thing you want to do is turn over your commenting system to a vendor with an express intent of beating you in your own market.

UPDATE: Upon further reflection, my strong use of the word “own” could be misconstrued. I don’t mean “own” in the command-and-control sense of traditional business models, but rather being in such a strong position that you’re a the center of the community conversation. That’s more than a business model, to me; that’s a core mission of a healthy local journalistic enterprise.

And a point I forgot to make is that comments are just one spoke in the wheel of creating online community – – if done right, they lead to things like profiles and social networking and stronger bonds with the community and more contributions from community members. That’s why comments are so vital to a web site’s success and shouldn’t be outsourced.

And as the first commenter on this post has already pointed out — partnerships are great and necessary and should be pursued, but only where they make sense, and partnering core functionality to Topix makes no sense.

UPDATE: Editor’s Weblog linked to this post, which is where Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, chose to respond. And I responded back. And he responded. And I responded. And there may be more. Of course, I can’t share our much more entertaining behind the scenes private e-mail exchange.

Real identity helps foster healthy online communities

Comment trolls — the nasty, often race baiting, empty-headed-bashing people who often pollute online dialogue — are the bane of news sites that allow comments on stories.

One of the most effective, and proven methods, for bringing such behavior under control is for a newspaper staff members to closely monitor comments and have the power to delete and ban. It’s kind of like fighting graffiti — the quicker you paint over the marred wall, the less likely it is to be hit again.

Some good technology, such as profanity filters, comment rating and reputation, help, too. That only gets you so far.

I’ve long believed that the most effective, and so far least employed, tool is tying comments to identity.

When we brought participation to, we tied participation to “persona,” by that we meant allowing a person to create whatever identity he or she wanted, weather real or pseudonymous. The theory being that if people have an identity to protect, they will behave better.

My desire to do that grew out of my experience with comments in Ventura.

Here’s some psychological research to suggest that this is the right track (via techcrunch):

Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity – a process called deindividuation – we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called “suicide baiting” – when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders. Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. Psychologically, we are “distant” from the person we’re talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we’re more prone to aggressive behaviour, he says.

So, the more we can engineer participation so that we close the gap between loss of individuality and sense of identity, the better chance we have at maintaining civil dialogue.

After leaving Bakersfield, I came to the conclusion that “persona” wasn’t enough. This is no reflection on anything that has happened in Bakersfield. I just have come to believe that news sites should require real identity. No more explicit acceptance of pseudonymous participation.

Journalisticly, I think this is the responsible thing to do. Many of the conversations news sites host are important to the civic life of our communities, and people who read these comments have a right to know who their friends, neighbors and leaders (no sock puppets) are who drive the conversations.

In a news story, we wouldn’t allow an anonymous comment without a good reason (and there are far fewer anonymous sources in local news columns than major news outlets), so why allow them, unvetted, in comments on stories?

Comments on stories are supposed to serve a primary purpose of advancing the story, not just providing a forum for rants and raves (though, by default, they do that, too). Anonymity, pseudonymous or otherwise, runs counter to the spirit of robust, honest, civic conversation.

That’s part of the journalistic case for requiring real identity.

But returning to the psychological case above, it seems to me that if we make our forums a place where people expect to be dealing with each other on a real identity basis, especially in smaller communities, won’t they more often naturally be more civil?

While the psychological research makes it apparent that even persona is better than anonymity, real identity should work even better. I think.

As for enforcing real identity:

  • Facebook is kind of showing us the way, and lessening the barrier for full disclosure (especially for younger readers, who are less hung up on privacy than older readers).
  • In my own experience with user registration systems, local users of a local newspaper sites are surprisingly honest about their real names and addresses when they register to read news. I think we’ll see only a slight drop off when registration is tied to participation.
  • When you require real identity in terms and conditions, you know have another tool to justify banning trolls. Trolls almost always try to game the system, and they’re easy to spot.
  • Generally, it’s easy to spot people who are trying to participate anonymously. You can spot check your registration database and delete obviously bogus accounts. It’s quick and easy to do in a well designed system.

I think over time, we are going to see fewer and fewer online communities that allow completely anonymous participation. Most are going to follow the persona model or the real identity model. Users will increasingly accept these requirements, either because they are common, or because they recognize the value of identity in maintaining a vibrant community.

Most people don’t like seeing their communities trashed. They are more than willing to help us keep things neat and tiddy, but they also look to us to provide the manpower and technological solutions that makes running healthy communities possible.

BTW: You’ll note that nowhere in this post did I use the term “virtual community.” In healthy communities, there is nothing virtual about them. They are very real, and very important. The old term “virtual community” demeans online communities, which are just as important to the participants and members as any off-line community.

The myth of the UGC fad

Scott Karp tackles “the myth of UGC.”

The reality is that “average people”? don’t create a lot of content — at least not the commercially viable kind. Most people are too busy. Those that do “create content” — and who do it well — are those who are predisposed to being content creators. The have some relevant skills, training, raw talent, motivation, something.

“User-generated content”? sites like YouTube are much less a platform for armies of average people to create mountains of content and much more a platform for real talent to be discovered.

I think this is far too complex and nuanced a subject to generalize into “the myth of UGC.”

I long ago realized that YouTube was a great outlet for aspiring media producers. I found there a community of people with aspirations to audience and discovery. They were developing either segmented productions or mini-documentaries.

I also saw a lot of conversational video (there are people who seem to do nothing but record video responses) and random bits of cheaply and hastily produce video, some of it entertaining, most of it horrible.

There’s more going on at YouTube than obvious assumptions reveal — more than aspiring professionals, more than random UGC, more than stolen content, more than viral productions — it’s more stone soup than Cesar salad.

And there is a whole community of video and audio content producers, let alone bloggers, who operate outside of YouTube or other aggregation platforms.

The motivations for why people do what they do are as diverse as the human psych and vagaries of natural talent. There are people who can produce slick video with no aspirations to quit their day jobs, and people devoid of charm and wit who think they might become the next Jon Stewart.

Then there are people who amuse themselves cruising around the net dropping their insights and opinions where they seem to fit, and they would not think of themselves as content producers at all.
There is a myth that publishers think of UGC as something they can get for cheap/free to replace/supplement staff-derived content, but I’ve never met one of those publishers (and I’ve met dozens and dozens).

We are developing a “ugc platform,” but we call it that not because we’ve bought into some UGC myth, but because we believe in the democratization of digital media, the lower barriers to entry, the idea that good stuff can come from anywhere, that community engagement is a win-win for society and our business, and because if we don’t, somebody else will.

There is tendency among some pundits to speculate whether YouTube or Facebook or MySpace are just fads.

While it’s possible that any one of those sites might blow up under the weight of trendy backlash, by concentrating on the spikes in popularity, or hipness of particular brands, critics miss the fundamental truth that for the past four decades of digital history, networked communication consistently gravitates toward community, collaboration and communication.

Communities of the moment (the Well, CompuServ, AOL) come and go, but the conversation endures.

That’s why I think wedding community and conversation tools to established media brands, such as our small community newspapers, is a long-term EV+ bet. The UGC/community tools mesh with what people clearly want, and the established brands lend stability and trust.

It’s really a rather obvious thing to do.

Part III: Andrew Keen and the Cult of the Amateur

My plea to professional journalists: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, calls his blog “The Great Seduction,” but the real seduction here is the idea that UGC, amateur content, can and should be resisted, that somehow, if only professional news organizations would fight back — not use UGC, charge for content, create walled gardens, not go online — do something, anything that doesn’t involving soiling our mastheads with UGC — we can somehow beat back the hordes of Visigoths pounding on our gates.

That’s magical thinking.

I know there are editors and reporters out there who fear the changes in their midst and think if only we would hold a stronger line, we would could save newspapers.

But if you’re like me, and you believe that the reason you got into journalism in the first place was to help make society better, to help shine a light on truth, to serve communities and the afflicted, then I hope you’ll recognize that intransigence does nothing to help the cause.

As I argued in my first post, amateur content has always had its place in the world, and in my second post I asserted that we are part of evolving ecosystem that will get better for content producers and consumers over time.

In this post, my metaphor is a fast moving train, at full steam, with no brakes. We’re on it, baby, and there ain’t no getting off. Jumping off is suicide, so we might as well figure out how to get along with all of the other passengers, some of whom we’re guaranteed not to like.

It’s adapt or die.

And by adapt, I mean, figure out how to play within the new rules, not by insisting the rest of riders follow our old rules – such as demanding that readers pay for our content or that we can be the only authoritative voice.

The media train is hurtling forward, but journalists are not driving. Even the biggest traditional media companies are not at the wheel. In fact, there is nobody making sure we stay on the rails. The train is propelled by collective action — the action of ambitious entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and investors, technology researchers and engineers, computer programmers and amateur hackers and curious and demanding audiences, as well as some of us in the media, with our constant demands for new, different and better. All of these swirling forces create the turbulence that keeps the train on its collusion course with our collective destiny.

And I have no idea what that is, or if we’ll ever really get there.

Scary stuff, to be sure, but that’s the reality of the situation.

So it’s adapt or die.

By adapt I mean, be part of the conversation. We can’t back away from turning our web sites into platforms for community participation.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean we need to surrender to unmoderated, unfiltered, undifferentiated noise. We can play a role as conversation leaders and mediators. We can train ourselves to be guides and helpers. We can continue with our mission to help the public be better informed and more enlightened.

In fact, the cool thing is, we get to do it with a whole sheath of new tools that journalists never had before, and we can help design the tools and define how they are used in a professional media environment. We can be part of the evolution, if we’re willing to embrace change.

I think it is in our best interest as people with economic responsibilities to our families, ethical responsibilities to our co-workers and employers, and social responsibilities to our communities to take an active role in defining what media looks like tomorrow.

Don’t follow Andrew Keen off the back of the caboose. Follow your audience. Keep moving forward, even as the wind blows off your derby, with its jaunty press pass. This is our mission now.

Part II: Andrew Keen and Cult of the Amateur

In his post arguing that we should take seriously at least some of what Andrew Keen (author of Cult of the Amateur) has to say, Clay Shirky writes:

What Wikipedia (and Digg and eBay and craigslist) have shown us is that mature systems have more controls than immature ones, as the number of bad cases is identified and dealt with, and as these systems become more critical and more populous, the number of bad cases (and therefore the granularity and sophistication of the controls) will continue to increase.

In this Business Week video interview with Keen, Andrew keen postulates his primary thesis that amateur content is diluting the market for professional content, and that amateur content is, by default, unreliable. His solution seems to be, people need to be made aware of it and turn away from amateur content.

To me, this isn’t an issue of pro vs. am; it’s signal vs. noise. Unlike Keen, I don’t believe that amateur content is intrinsically bad. Nor do I believe that pro content is always good. People get paid for lousy stuff all the time.

The point I think Keen misses is that digital media is an evolving ecosystem. Like all evolutionary processes, it begins as struggle and strife and perfects itself through increasingly complex solutions to problems. The net is barely out of the primordial soup phase. The amphibians are only now developing legs.

Keen, however, has sliced off a sliver in time and says, “we’re all doomed if we don’t do something.”

Outside of “pay better attention,” I haven’t yet figured out what Keen thinks we should do. (If the solution is in his book, he didn’t articulate it very well in the BW interview, nor have I seen it pop up elsewhere.)

Yes, we need to be more aware and more discerning. That’s part of how this ecosystem will evolve. It is an obvious natural progression. In the BW interview, Keen says that there’s already evidence that people are getting over “this internet fad” (my words/paraphrase). I don’t buy it. UGC is not going to chase people away from the internet. People are not suddenly going to start switching off computers in favor of newspapers and network television (though some might). Kids are not going to stop using SMS out of fear and loathing. That’s magical thinking. The technology is not going away.

But as the shine begins to dull on web 2.0 participation, people will naturally become more discerning. Nobody can consume all the media that is out there. Some where along the line you must make choices about what you like and don’t like.

Individually-derived choices is part of the solution to the signal vs. noise problem, but the ecosystem will also evolve through technological improvements in tools that help us find, sort and filter content; and publishers will also engage in some social engineering and human power solutions, because helping people get better information is a good business practice.

In the BW interview, Keen asserts that if we don’t do something, in 25 or 50 years, we will no longer have mainstream media.

I think he’s wrong. First, if that were to happen, the time line is more like 10 or 15 years, or sooner, as rapidly as technology is evolving, but secondly, the economic models may change, and established players may disappear, but there will always be a market for good content (whether it be informational or entertainment).

There will always be a class of people who make their living producing content. They may be self employed, or part of pod-like collectives, or even now working for new startups that eventually become the big media of tomorrow, but rest assured I don’t see professionalism dying so long as people feel the need for reliable information or good entertainment. Quality and reliability will always have value.

If Keen’s point is that amateurism is going to kill professional content, thereby making us all dumber and less informed and not nearly as well entertained, I don’t buy it. But let’s just say, we reach a point where content producers can no longer get paid for their work, and all content is produced by amateurs, then my questions are:

  1. Will audiences accept undifferentiated crap, or will they migrate toward the best stuff?
  2. Can amateurs only produce crap, or will they get better?
  3. If people stop getting paid for their good work, won’t they be forced to find another line of work, meaning there will be less content produced, meaning the economic value of the best stuff that actually is produced will rise?

Those are purely rhetorical, leading questions, because I think you know the answers. In a free, dynamic market, competing forces are always changing the equation, but money is always part of the equation. People will get paid. It just may not look like it does today.

In other words, I’m not buying Keen’s main point: That UGC is ruining the world. There is no economic model I can imagine (not in a free society) where such an assertion makes sense. Things may change, established companies may die, new economic models may arise, but there will always be good stuff, and good stuff will always have an audience. I don’t see how that point is rationally assailable.