The Blogosphere Pushes the Media to Ponder Change

may2005_glocer_portrait.jpgTom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, published an op-ed in the Financial Times yesterday that represents another educated guess, this time from a traditional news content provider, of what the future holds.

Last year, Glocer’s crystal ball told him the media needs to expect its consumers want to be their own editors of multiple streams of content–news “my way.” Now, Glocer says, the pace of change has accelerated. We don’t just want to read the news we want to read. We want to create our own content, using the mainstream media’s content as one element:

(W)e have seen an explosion of creativity. Conservative estimates suggest 80,000 new blogging sites are launched every week. David Miliband will soon be the first British cabinet minister to have his own blog site.

But it is not just bloggers – it is citizen journalists armed with their 1.3 megapixel camera phones, people “mashing” together music and images to create new music videos, kids making their own movies and posting them on sites such as Stupidvideos.com or MySpace.com. In fact, Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of MySpace.com, one of the most popular of the online forums, is probably the best indication yet that home-made content has made it to the boardroom decision-makers.

What can the mainstream media add to this outburst of creativity? Glocer suggests three things:

  • “(M)edia companies need to be ‘seeders of clouds.’ To have access to high-value new content, we need to attract a community around us. To achieve that we have to produce high-quality content ourselves, then display it and let people interact with it. If you attract an audience to your content and build a brand, people will want to join your community. This is as true for traditional “letters to the editor” as for MySpace.com.”
  • “(W)e need to be ‘the provider of tools.’ This means promoting open standards and interoperability, which will allow a diverse set of consumer-creators to combine disparate types of content.”
  • “(W)e must improve on our skills as the ‘filter and editor.’ Media have always had these functions. The world will always need editing: consumers place value in others making decisions about what is good and what is not.”

He’s on the right track, but I have concerns about each of these suggestions.

True, if every news story and opinion piece on (the example I’ll use throughout) the LA Times‘ website was open to comments, you might get some engaging discussions going. But there are good and bad online communities. I’m thinking of one site that covers LA politics whose reader comments are heavily weighted toward anonymous accusations and rumor-mongering. Some bloggers are also pseudonymous, but their “brand” must be accountable or they will lose audience. Not so with commenters, who can freely hit-and-run. I’ve heard of comment boards where “trolls” assume two different fake identities and argue with each other, just to whip everyone else into a frenzy. That gets boring. So, if Glocer wants media outlets to create a community around them, community members need to accept some level of accountability.

A better idea might be to open the doors to citizen journalists (CJ’s) who would take responsibility for what they write under their own names. Adding a corps of CJ’s to the Times‘ website who would file their own reports as well as commenting on the staff’s work could give their site significantly greater depth and reach. How well does the Times even pretend to cover the Inland Empire, Orange County or the South Bay? CJ’s could fill in the many gaps in the Times‘ coverage. How well do Times’ reporters understand the industries they cover? I got particularly exercised a few weeks ago about an LAX story that betrayed little knowledge of the airline industry. This town is full of aviation, aerospace and defense specialists. Wouldn’t one of them make a great CJ?

As for having the media outlets become “providers of tools,” my question would be, what value do you add? WordPress lets me blog here for free, and they make it easy. If I want to post a photo, I can, or I can insert a link to pictures on Flickr. I haven’t messed with video, but if I did, I could put up my content on Youtube.com, and point you toward it. Within a year or two, I bet WordPress or its competitors will incorporate the ability to download or link to video directly into their templates.

To be sure, the state-of-the-art will change. Perhaps the media can run ahead of the curve to find new and better tools that aren’t already available. But if you owned stock in the Tribune Co., would you feel comfortable if the Times invested money in developing or picking the next generation of tools? Maybe.

The “filter and editor” role that Glocer suggests throws up a yellow flag to me. It’s precisely because so many intelligent people no longer trust the media to be a fair, comprehensive or accurate “filter and editor” that political blogs get so many hits. (For a good example, read the item “Cherry Picking” from this column).

I’m not entirely happy about this. The perception of an unfair media has right wingers reading only right wing sites that apply a right wing filter. Likewise, the left-wing sites. Their most loyal readers live in ideological bubbles now. Will these readers suddenly start trusting the LA Times to tell them, “these blogs are good, those blogs are bad?” It’s analogous to criticism of government industrial policy. Government is not qualified to pick winners and losers among competing technologies. Newspapers might be qualified to pick winners and losers among blogs, but they aren’t trusted with that role.

wheel on fire.jpgThe fact is, the blogosphere doesn’t need any favors from the mainstream media, except to get out of the way. This wheel’s on fire, it’s rolling down the road and no one going to stop it or co-opt it. However, the media can learn from what works in the blogosphere, and make their products more valuable by creatively integrating part of what has been developed out on the frontiers.

(A major hat tip to Jeff Jarvis’ Buzz Machine, for pointing to this op-ed, which he heard first as a speech Glocer gave at the Online Publishers’ Association.)

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