The future of journalism and media

Last week, Deep Throat died. No, not the porn actress but the guy who was effectively in operational control of the FBI during the Nixon years. Mark Felt was a guy who was in line to run the FBI from his number three position, but was passed up by Nixon who brought in an outsider. Whilst people often remark that the Russian government is controlled by the intelligence services, it’s worth reflecting that the poster-child of the free world has its own domestic intelligence services yielding too much power over the presidents. Nixon broke tradition for the first time in 48 years, doing something other presidents couldn’t do: it was appointing an outsider to run the agency. And so lays the roots to his downfall, in one of the most dramatic episodes in the mass media’s history – a newspaper brought the downfall of one of the the most powerful men in the world.

Felt’s identity has been protected for decades, and was only made public three years ago, arguably because someone else was going to expose him and he beat them too it. In an interesting article by George Friedman at Stratfor:

Journalists have celebrated the Post’s role in bringing down the president for a generation. Even after the revelation of Deep Throat’s identity in 2005, there was no serious soul-searching on the omission from the historical record. Without understanding the role played by Felt and the FBI in bringing Nixon down, Watergate cannot be understood completely. Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee were willingly used by Felt to destroy Nixon. The three acknowledged a secret source, but they did not reveal that the secret source was in operational control of the FBI. They did not reveal that the FBI was passing on the fruits of surveillance of the White House. They did not reveal the genesis of the fall of Nixon. They accepted the accolades while withholding an extraordinarily important fact, elevating their own role in the episode while distorting the actual dynamic of Nixon’s fall.

Absent any widespread reconsideration of the Post’s actions during Watergate in the three years since Felt’s identity became known, the press in Washington continues to serve as a conduit for leaks of secret information. They publish this information while protecting the leakers, and therefore the leakers’ motives. Rather than being a venue for the neutral reporting of events, journalism thus becomes the arena in which political power plays are executed. What appears to be enterprising journalism is in fact a symbiotic relationship between journalists and government factions. It may be the best path journalists have for acquiring secrets, but it creates a very partial record of events — especially since the origin of a leak frequently is much more important to the public than the leak itself.

Now consider my own experiences as an amateur journalist.

After several years of failed media experiments, my university enterprise (I did it as a society, not as a company, because I want to treat this as my "throw-away" startup to learn but not be tied down when I left) at changing student media suddenly hit the gold mine: we created an online weekly "news digest" that literally became the talk of the campus for those in the university administration and the people surrounding it. An elite audience (not the 40,000 University of Sydney crowd), but the several hundreds of people that theoretically represented the campus and ran the multi-million dollar student infrastructure. Of the 23 editions we created that year, we literally had people hanging off their seats for the next edition: trying to predict the new URL, and e-mails with quotes of it sent out within hours of publishing.

The News Digest, October 29th 2004.

It was interesting because of how the product evolved during its first year. I started it thinking it would be a cool thing to have a summary of the news, once a week, in a "digest" format. The news was split arbitrarily as student, Australian and international. However within a few editions, the student news segment was no longer just about the latest party but about confidential information and the core reason why people read it. In the second edition I wrote:

USYD UNION : Chris Farral has been hired as the Union 's new General Manager. Farral has a highly reputable background in the ABC and various community-based groups. It has been a decade since the Union 's last General Manager was appointed, and as such we hope Farral will bring a new flair and vitality to the position. Chris also happens to be the father of Honi Soit editor Sophie. Does this mean an end to critical analysis in Honi's reporting of the traditionally stale and bitter Union ? No. That would require there to have been critical analysis in the first place. (EB)

Cheekily written but an innocent attempt to report news. Someone saw that, realised we had an audience, and in edition three we revealed:

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY UNION: Last week we reported that Chris Farrell was appointed the new General Manager of Sydney University’s student union. This week we can reveal that close to $50,000 was spent on external recruitment agencies to find Mr Farrell. Where was he hiding? The selection panel was evenly split for two candidates: Paul McJamett, the current Facilities Manager and previously expected next-in-line for the job, was supported by Vice-President Penny Crossley, Ex-President Ani Satchithanada, and Human Resources Manager Sandra Hardie. Meanwhile Farrell was supported by current President Toby Brennan, and the two senate reps (one of whom is new this year to the Board). Crossley is rumoured to have crossed the floor, and made the casting vote for Farrell. (Elias Bizannes)

And then we go threatened with a law suit (the first of many in my life, it would turn out) because we exposed some dirty secrets of a very politicised group of people. The reason I wanted to share that story, was to have you see how we evolved from a “summary of the news” to a “tool for the politicians”. The rest of that year, I had people in all the different factions developing relationships with me and breaking news. Yes, I knew I was being played for their own reasons. However it was a two way using: I was getting access to confidential information from the insiders. Our little creation turned into a battleground for the local politicians – and so long as I could manage the players equally, I won just as much as they did, if not more.

Up until now, I never realised (or really thought) that my experience in student journalism was actually how the big players of the world operate. Forget the crap about what journalism is: at its core, it’s about creating relationships with insiders and being part of a game in politics, that as a by-product (not a function) also creates accountability and order in society.

On the future of journalism
For as long as we have politics, we will have “journalists”. In the tech industry for example, the major blogs have become a tool for companies. I recently saw an example where I e-mailed a CEO of a prominent startup about an issue, and within days, two major blogs posted some old news to get exposure to fixing the issue. This CEO used his media credits with the publishers of these blogs, to help him with the issue. It’s the same dynamic described above: people who create news and people with the audience. Heck – we have an entire industry created to manage those two groups: the Public Relations industry.

So the question about the future of journalism, needs a re-look. It’s a career path being disrupted by the Internet and breaking traditional business models, with the new innovations going to have their bubble burst one day. Where we will find answers to the future, is where we can see in play the dynamics of news creators and news distributors, as that is where journalism will evolve.

Personally, I’m still trying to work out if the captive audience has now left the building. But my 2004 experiment in student media – targeting the same Gen Y’s that don’t read newspapers – is recent enough experience to prove the Internet hasn’t broken this relationship yet. If you are looking to see what the future of journalism and especially the media is – you need to follow where the audience is. But a word of caution: don’t measure the audience by its size, but by its type. One million people may read the blog TechCrunch, but it’s the same one-million early adopters around the world that are asked by their Luddite families to fix the video recording machine. There is an indirect reader of a publication, but they are just as much influenced and can be reached out to, if determined by the direct reader. Even though Michael Arrington who started TechCrunch was a corporate lawyer, his successful blog has now done what the mass media used to do. That’s something worth recognising as the core to his success, I think. Certainly, it validates that the future is just like the past – just slightly tweaked in its delivery.

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