Thursday, March 03, 2005

The (journalistic) power of the network

There is an interesting discussion on Poynter's Online News discussion list that is worth every journalist's time to think about.

In a nutshell: The power of the blogging world in journalism may well be that it can bring to bear on a topic far more resources, incrementally, than can any single news organization (see the reflections of Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell on this in regard to the Jeff Gannon story).

Stephen Downes of Canada's National Research Council argues that under current models, however, the blogging network is just as susceptible to abuse as, in many respects, are current media. Particularly, he rails against the long tail, the contention that value in the future will come not from the mass but from aggregating millions of niches created by the interlinking of the network -- a concept that has become the darling of the digitorati lately. Downes contends (and I clearly am simplifying here) the power curve that characterizes the long tail is susceptible because a disproportionate area under that curve still is occupied by a relatively few sources. They occupy that position, he says, because they were there first and are relatively easy to link to, following the dictum of the net that linking is all. (Downes' post on his Stephen's Web should be read several times -- then put down and picked up every six months and read again for the power of the concepts and arguments he attempts to corral.)

Downes advocates for development of tools to replace the current hierarchical network structure with one that enables us to find information (define that term as you like) based on context built from markers that signify the way that information has been used by others -- in other words a truly distributed network. The critical distinction: While the long tail model still has its roots in aggregators that can reach into that tail and effectively associate those microlinks, "distributed journalism" (as Dan Gillmor has coined the term) would not under Downes' model rely on aggregation to discover semantically related material.

But, says Beau Dure, in a world (of blogs) where "the signal-to-noise ratio ... is staggeringly low," it's even more important for traditional media to step up the gatekeeping role. (Read his earlier master's thesis here.) The organization that does so, and that learns to integrate citizen journalism into its offerings, will be ahead in credibility, he says.

As is often the case in such situations, all of these views has probably got part of it right. Dure's probably is a better model of the current world where technological limitations make it unlikely most people would spend the time and effort to review thousands of information sources multiple times a day. The "traditional media" have a role in this world to sort and filter and probably do some production of journalism as an enhancement.

"Traditional media" have always been aggregators, not just of eyeballs, but of news as well. PR releases, police scanner broadcasts, tips whispered in reporters' ears -- all went into the maw to be spit out in a "product." It seems likely that, if those outlets acknowledge aggregation as their business (with journalism as a nice little sideline of that), they will find ways to shift their business model to encompass bloggers or whatever else comes along, and probably co-opt their share of these "new" journalists in the process.

While some segments wring their hands at the dilution and I suspect in some cases, disappearance, of the traditional reporter-editor production model ( Jakob Nielsen, for instance, has suggested that in the new scheme, editors could become more paramount than reporters) , Dure's suggestion is probably closer to the short-range truth: more distributed reporting, aggregated presentation. How much of that becomes mechanical versus human controlled remains to be seen. (Moral: If I were a reporter, I'd be concerned about bloggers; if I were an editor, I'd be concerned about Google, RSS and their successors.) One of the key flash points here will be Downes' argument that things shift to "pay to produce" -- that with distributed production, the producers at the end of the long tail put more value on being linked to and noticed than on receiving recompense for their work. (Clay Shirky has looked at this "fame vs. fortune" argument in the context of micropayments.)

Ultimately, if Downes' vision is achieved, the need for the aggregator diminishes sharply. Theoretically, we would be able to build a semantic network of sources and stories that would not depend on aggregation or on a hierarchy of A-list blogs. The question: Would we do it? Would we want to invest the time to be our own aggregators? The answer again is probably yes, and no. There are days, for instance -- or even hours of the day -- that I want a "quick read." At those times, there is value in aggregation (and with it the commission of "traditional journalism" to help me as a consumer make sense out of it). But there will also be times, such as now, when it will be enticing to wander about and discover seemingly random threads that when woven make a coherent tapestry. Downes' vision would make that more achievable.

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