This is an excerpt from my chapter for Don't Dream It's Over: Reimagining journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, a collaborative title exploring the past, present and future of journalism in New Zealand, commissioned and compiled by the good people at Freerange Press. I was an editor on the book, which is out this week.
The way in which truth and fact are conjured is once again evolving, and who and what qualifies as the media is being redefined. Legacy media - the traditional honchos - are far from dead, but social media networks have become profoundly influential in a relatively short space of time. It has been claimed that the rise of networking platforms has simply facilitated a switching out of one set of gatekeepers for another. Facebook and Twitter et al. - and increasingly messaging apps like WeChat, Telegram, WhatsApp and Line - are the new agenda-setting portals and curators of information, entertainment and 'the news'. In response, a growing number rely on some sort of digital device to stay connected and to stay informed. Whether you're a kid in Dunedin watching music videos or a refugee staying in touch with family via smartphone, being able to tap into the mainframe matters. What's more, in 2016 Google collected $67 million in advertising revenue in New Zealand, equivalent to a winning 37 percent of the market; Facebook took second place with $29.5 million, or 16 percent. Traditional media - and even established new outlets like BuzzFeed and Mashable - are struggling to compete as commercial operations, particularly as mechanisms for bartering online advertising space and ad blockers become simultaneously more and more intelligent.
New Zealand's big media outlets aren't exempt from the pressure this engenders. Redundancies, resignations, mergers and the rest have made the fact they're struggling to retain audiences and market share - and the authority and credibility they were once more or less regarded as holding - hard to hide. But perhaps the whittling of ascendancy this represents isn't all bad. Digital tools, online spaces and the new avenues for communication they offer, allow a wider range of views to be presented and potentially heard, strengthening - or diluting, depending on your take - the pool of thought. Social networking and user-generated content platforms have blurred, and in some cases entirely removed, distinctions between consumers and producers of media content. For journalists this is of course a double-edged sword: on the one hand it offers opportunities to more effectively connect with audiences and source some types of information; on the other, new media can be overwhelming and downright time-consuming to manage. And, as video continues to prove king - with the likes of Snapchat, Facebook Live and Periscope making it very easy for laypeople to broadcast - what does that mean for professional story production? How can working journalists stand out?
Cultivating a culture in which people are prepared to pay for media content is tricky for many reasons, including the fact that for a long time its true cost has been unseen - rolled into taxes, or advertising, internships and very long hours. A similar interrogation of value is underway in a number of other industries that have also been disrupted by the internet, apps and a proliferation of other new technologies. Should we pay for music? Photos? Why? Indeed, the very notion of what it means to have a clearcut profession is in flux in many fields, and even whether being professionally or academically qualified matters. The growing dominance of social media networks and messaging apps as routes via which people get all sorts of information, including news, complicates things further. Why pay to use one source, when really you want to hear from a mix - and you've come to rely on friends and others to help you filter the enormous range of information that's out there?
2016 hasn't left us wanting for examples of the complexities of a more anarchic fourth estate. In a relatively gentle illustration of this, Facebook recently fielded fire from Republicans and other conservatives in the US, who were adamant that the platform manipulates its 'trending topics' app to favour a liberal agenda. Ironically, the network responded by claiming it only brought human editors in to monitor the app when its algorithms were blamed for over-representing the Ice Bucket Challenge over #blacklivesmatter in 2014. Facebook has received much flack for disrupting the media, and undermining serious journalism, but it takes two (or 1.09 billion) to tango. The company increasingly needs to think and act like a news source because in a short space of time we've come to rely on it to be one.
But not everything's happening on Facebook. The increased use of messaging apps not only as routes for communication but as news portals emphasises that, particularly in non-Western markets, there are alternatives to the white and blue. Collaborative citizen journalism, like that conducted by Latin American journalist collective Mídia Ninja is on the rise, providing a counter-narrative to news as reported by the mainstream media. Established media are exploring the potentialities of new tools too; the Guardian's use of Google Docs to collect suggestions from readers as to how to deal with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (after BP admitted they were flummoxed) saw them gather ideas and advice from professional divers, marine engineers, physicists, biochemists, mechanical engineers, petrochemical and mining workers and more, which they then analysed and reported on.
The Panama Papers were big news in 2016, but it wasn't the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)'s first scoop. Another of their recent projects was collaborated on over the course of 11 months by more than 50 journalists from 21 countries, representing 20 media outlets from around the world - and investigated the World Bank Group's role in displacing millions of the world's poor through its funding of so-called development initiatives that ultimately had adverse effects. The results of the report were published on a microsite hosted by The Huffington Post, one of the world's largest media platforms. Collectives like Everyday Middle East have risen out of frustrations with essentializing narratives, to show alternative representations of life in the Middle East and North Africa. The group operates predominantly on Instagram, and is contributed to by photographers from the MENA region (there are now also versions in other territories). The feed has over 135,000 followers, many of whom actively interact with the group's posts. In New Zealand, citizens banded together to raise enough funds to purchase Awaroa beach in the Abel Tasman so it is publicly owned, an effort supported and driven by media coverage, indicating it is possible to connect and mobilise our own public at scale.
And let's not forget that a number of social networking services - and the internet itself - grew at least in part out of activist efforts to create alternative, independent spaces for communication and information-sharing. The idea has always been to diffuse hierarchy and give greater agency to a greater number. This is a particularly meaningful aim in contexts where marginalised and vulnerable groups have little or no access to formal routes for social and political involvement. Connection to the World Wide Web - provided of course that connection is achievable in a practical sense - can not only help people to overcome barriers like limited knowledge of official processes, or simply the intimidation of having to meet with someone in a sanctioned role, it can also link them with allies and media beyond their immediate communities, categories and geographical regions. In theory, the scope for confronting and dismantling exclusionary social stratification is a shift that should excite journalists, at least those that consider journalism a service to all publics, not just elite groups and the middle classes.
A reimagining of what journalism is, and how it should happen, demands a re-visioning of the purpose of journalism - or to more clearly identify its multiple and varied purposes under changed conditions, without losing the possibilities offered by a mixing of forms and disciplines. Actively, responsively engaging with publics to map what comprises a quality media today could go a long way to re-establishing the value of professional journalism. We are starting to see the impact that peer-to-peer and sharing movements, combined with the rise of big and open data, could have. Indeed, cooperatives like The Bristol Cable (UK) and Freerange Press (NZ) are examples of journalists and non-journalists - though the latter may be writers, and expert in their fields - teaming in response to the implosion of the media industry by taking on the role of collective media ownership and publishing. Rather than defaulting to disciplinary silos, the professional world is starting to dismantle walls not only between academic disciplines but sectors. There's a broader ideological, systemic battle underway, as technology upends industries, tiers and linearity across the board.
In a world where the rules are constantly changing, and fast, what it means to have a robust, professional fourth estate may be changing altogether. Now that citizens are able to engage more substantively than through occasional letters to editors, perhaps the role that the press originally filled can now be performed by actors other than, and as well as, journalists. If so, what does that mean for journalism, as institution and as career?