Charlie Beckett Adds His Voice to the New Media Debate

I am suggesting that new media can be an adrenaline boost, a shot in the arm to journalists, and can be a way to create a more "powerful" media.
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London, England - Charlie Beckett has 20 years of experience under his belt, working in international news, and has recently published his first book SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World. Part textbook, part history, and part "manifesto," Beckett adds his voice to an ever-crowding dialogue on what it means to be a journalist, on both sides of the pond, in a new media world. After reading SuperMedia, Jeff Jarvis said "I second Charlie Beckett's contention that we, in the news business and in society, need networked journalism not just to protect but to expand journalism's future." I met with Beckett in London to discuss his new book about "Networked Journalism" and what it means for everyone from Michael Moore to Al Jazeera.

Kuhn: First of all, would you consider your new book a textbook?

Beckett: It is a bit of a hybrid, which is quite appropriate because the idea of "network journalism" is that it tries to get out of the normal categories and suggests different ways of saying things. I would say it is a book that you can teach to, but it does not give you a complete history of how new media has changed journalism, and it does not list every single aspect of it. It certainly does not give you a massive literature review, as an academic book would. But it does give a recent history and an analysis of the current landscape in quite a thorough way. I deliberately put in things like suggested readings, chapter summaries and footnotes because I wanted it to be a resource. It seem it does occupy a space I think has been ignored: there are lots of wonderful books about new media and lots of books about journalism and how journalism has changed. What I thought there had not been is one that tries to understand what is actually happening, which is a synthesis between New Media technologies that are being adopted, mainstream news in crisis and the result emerging out of this is a whole new form of journalism, a significantly different form of journalism, and I call it "Networked Journalism." That is what is actually happening in the New York Times

Kuhn: You defined "network journalism" but you also write in your book about "super media." Can you define "super media"?

Beckett: In a sense, the title of the book is meant slightly ironically. People tend to ascribe to the media enormous powers (or they used to): "The media distorted this" or "The media cased this war to happen." But at the same time people talk about the inadequacies of the media: "It is not as good as it used to be" or "quality is declining." So, slightly tongue and cheek, I am suggesting that new media can be an adrenalin boost, a shot in the arm to journalists, and can be a way to create a more "powerful" media. When I say "powerful" I do not mean it in the old sense of a powerful Fourth Estate, which can command policy. I meant an empowered media, empowered by public participation. I argue there is nothing inevitable about that and the results can be good or bad. Journalism can be a marvelous tool for communication and dialogue. But, in places like Rwanda and Kenya it can be a tool for genocide or conflict. So, there is nothing inevitable about the benefits. The media is definitely more significant in our lives. Journalism can be empowered and have benefits, but there is nothing inevitable in that.

Kuhn: Is there a difference, in your opinion, between "new media" and "super media" or "networked journalism"?

Beckett: "Networked journalism" is not the same as "new media." One of the things that I say in the book is that there is no "new media" now; everything is "new media." Everything is digital to some extent, even something like a good old fashioned book is now, in a sense, defined by the new media environment with production costs crashing down and through marketing books online.

All media, certainly if you look at production, has been digitalized to some effect: journalists use mobile phones or go onto the Internet to research stories. I would stress that production side more, because my book is about the journalism, not so much about the consumption of news. But, even 'Old Media', like feature length documentaries, are booming at the moment. This is partly because of lower production costs. It is much easier to make them because of digital technology. But, strangely, because of the new media environment and because there is so much fast, bloggy, subjective media, I think a demand has been created for the alternative: big, researched, feature length documentary films, such as Michael Moore's. Even where something is obviously not 'new media', I think the new media landscape is having an impact. I talk about new media technology, which can articulate and disseminate journalism, but it is not about new media vs. old media. Even where something appears to be terribly old fashioned, somewhere in there will be new media technology and production or it will be replicated. Take Michael Moore's films. He has a blog, web sites, he uses YouTube to trail his films and there are decisions around his films. People then spin off media from his films, they nick clips from it, make pastiches, they will discuss it on forums and that is where it becomes "Networked Journalism" in a way that was virtually impossible 5 - 10 years ago. His original act of journalism becomes networked into a whole series of other platforms and production processes, which means that the whole film has an almost kind of infinite life.

Kuhn: Is it different in the UK than it is in the US?

Beckett: Hugely. It is so difficult to generalize. America is a very distinct, highly commercial, very rich, highly educated media market. It has a particular recent history where your regional press, or as you would call it "city press," was incredibly pampered, rich and successful. Quite small cities would have one, two, three newspapers - unheard of in Britain and elsewhere. They have come crashing down, have been consolidated and their costs slashed. In Britain, the local press has never been as powerful and as rich. But Britain is an utter exception globally because of the BBC, which is 50 percent of British journalism.

There are different traditions in the US and the UK. This is important to seeing how "Network Journalism" and the idea of public participation in media, varies. For example, in the States there was a lot of Internet activism around politics. I think there were two reasons for that. One is because your national political media was really dull until Fox came along. Your national newspapers are pretty dull, balanced, sensible and objective - all those things that make for very dull political coverage. Along came the Internet which gave partisan, grassroots, lively, original coverage. In Britain we already have a very partisan press that does a lot of those things. The British political media was already quite 'bloggy', full of opinion. So yes - the markets are very different.

Again, it is quite different than Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet Union. However, for all nations, new media technologies are reconfiguring production (alongside other trends) and network journalism is not a global model or template, but a way of understanding how journalism is changing.

Kuhn: In your opinion, how has the blogosphere changed the newspaper?

Beckett: It has already happened. The New York Times and newspapers in Britain, and in many other places like Scandinavia and Australia, have been very quick to go online with extraordinary success. The Guardian newspaper, a tiny minority newspaper in London with sales of 200,000 - 300,000, has 10 million online readers in America. That is an extraordinary fact. The Guardian is now absolutely networked in the States in a way that was just impossible for a paper newspaper. It has transformed itself from something you would pick up at a Tube station to something that is read around the world. It is an online community with blogs, comments and big plans for increasing their online digital networks in the next year. I am not suggesting they are going to leave behind the newspaper bit, because it is very nice, still sells, and is a good way of branding themselves. But, the best have transformed themselves, turned their structures into 360 degree newsrooms and into mainstream Networked Journalism organizations.

Kuhn: So the state of current journalism is...?

Beckett: It is a complicated position. Forgive me, but I do a kind of flip-flop (a switch back). I think we have more good journalism than ever before in human history. There is a great amount of data, analysis, and original and investigative journalism going in the mainstream media alone. Then add in what is happening in the blogosphere. Take the Economist, which has gone from selling two or three hundred thousand magazines to over a million. That indicates to me that there is a real market for real news. The fact that Al Jazeera and a host of other stations exist in the Middle East is a huge expansion of journalism. Great, you think, but all around us we witness newspapers that are in financial crisis and revenue streams such as advertising shifting and decreasing. The business model is certainly in crisis and that is a profound change. The advertising is not just shifting platforms, but - this is never talked about - there is a crisis in advertising. The previous model of, effectively, you put a billboard up and hope enough people saw it to buy your product, is gone. Now advertisers realize they can come to you personally and advertise to you in some way. Although they have not figured out how, there is huge opportunity. And, they may cut out the news media as their vehicle, which is a huge threat.

There is a huge business model crisis and there is also a distribution crisis. We used to stick out this thing called the "9:00 News" or stick out this thing called a "Newspaper." That is what we did for 30 to 40 years. I did that. Suddenly, people, to a significant marginal degree - especially younger people - do not want to communicate like that. They want to be given news and information in a different way. They want to partake in this and do it online especially, but also do it on their phones, and so on, and also want it in different packages and accesibilities. That is partly because of their experience with new technology, social networking sites and so on, but it is also how they want to live their lives. They are much more autonomous, better educated, believe in exercising choice and they are going to do regarding journalism along with everything else. In turn that change in consumer behavior is provoking a crisis in how you do the journalism.

Kuhn: Has the actual journalism then changed because of the Internet?

Beckett: It definitely will. I don't think it has changed enough yet, actually. Journalism used to be an incredibly formulaic thing: you had to read newspapers (we still read newspapers) and they speak in a different language, they package stuff in odd ways. It is really a bizarre way in communicating, but an effective way. I have great faith that journalists will adapt to the new media. However, in terms of style it is quite different. Partly it is simple things. If you are writing for a blog you have to be more direct and more personal. But more generally - and this is where it gets more profound - if you are going to change your journalism so there is more public participation, then the journalist plays a different role. Instead of being a top-down gatekeepers who will give you the benefit of their knowledge, it is going to be journalists who try to control the process of how information flows. They are going to be someone who is much more of an enabler, a facilitator helping you towards the news that you want. Rather than saying "Here is the news today, consume it in different platforms, but we are going to give the news to you." It is going to be more of a two way process and that will have an impact on the journalists conception of their own authority, what they mean by objectivity and how they set the agenda on what they are going to do journalism about. Sometimes - and this will be on the margins - people will still want journalists who have a sense of what is important to tell you, and tell you.

Kuhn: Does it worry you that the public will play such a role in journalism?

Beckett: No. It does not worry me at all. I was talking with Steve Richards (Political Correspondent of the London Independent newspaper) who kept talking about the "anarchy of citizen participation." He meant that the public voice was innately anarchic. The public may be diverse, confused, may be shallow at times, but anarchic? Listening to people? People being involved? How is that anarchic? I see it as the most wonderful business opportunity. Imagine if you had a product and your customer says "I am going to make some of that product for you for free. I am going to send you my photos, comment, contribute texts and postings on your product. I am going to tell you how to give me the products and tell you which bits I like and want more of. When you make that product, I am going to offer a free consultation and give you more data to make your product." Any other business in the world would be delighted! Obviously there are transition costs and thus the business will still be a delivery thing ("Tell me what's going on?"). But even in that way of delivery, it will be more networked. So, if you are frightened of choice, be frightened. If you are frightened that the public is going to choose rubbish, be frightened. But, I think in a sense, up to a point that has always been the case. That is what people have been complaining about for 15,000 years. In my book SuperMedia I quote from William Wordsworth, the Romantic 19th century poet, complaining about the modern media in the 19th century because he thought it would devalue civilization and people would just want rubbish. And he was responding to the use of engravings in magazines! That is the condition of modern democracy: if you give people the choice, they may choose badly. It is up to the journalist to provide stuff that they think is somehow better quality and more ennobling. The evidence shows (like in my the example of The Economist) there is a market for it.

Buy SuperMedia here.
Visit Beckett's blog here.

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