I was invited to speak this week at an event on social media organised by Birmingham law firm Martineau. This is what I said.
Social media throws into exceptionally sharp relief what will be seen as the death throes of traditional media. And by traditional I’m not referring solely – if at all – to the decline of print.
I’m not talking about the physical format of the media – I’m talking about the approach, mindset and
ultimate business model of media organisations.
ultimate business model of media organisations.
Many, if not most traditional media brands that have made the transition from print - or broadcast for that matter - to digital have simply taken with them the same linear approaches to narrative and the same attitude to audiences that fed and watered them for the 150-year internet-free monopoly they thrived in before Tim Berners Lee got busy in a lab in Geneva.
As owners of the means of production, they were the ultimate capitalists, and could control the supply and the price at will. Presses cost – and still cost – tens of millions. TV studios and broadcast spectrum are affordable only to those with considerable capital to invest.
So it’s no wonder the messages delivered by the media have been essentially one way for more than a hundred years.
That’s all changed now, of course.
Wordpress is free, and people in this room right now are delivering relevant information to an interested audience via Twitter far more efficiently than any media organisation.
That strange thing – journalism – or as Paul Bradshaw and others call it – a priesthood – is suddenly stripped of its mystique just like the snake oil salesman at the end of The Wizard of Oz.
Ordinary people can now find, share and create news just as easily, if not more so, than traditional media organisations. The constant hum of tweets is for some people – me included – at least as reliable as are feeds from the BBC, Sky and others. In fact, they share equal billing in my Twitterfeed.
And this immediacy is undercutting the USP of the news organisations, by threatening relevance of the traditional news article itself.
As media commentator Jeff Jarvis says:
The article is no longer the atomic unit of news. It’s not dead, But in the age of online – of “digital first,” as the Guardian defined its strategy this month – we should reconsider the article and its place. No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information. . . .
Of course some media, the Guardian in particular, are embracing this digital challenge and through social media and data-led story-telling are showing how professional journalism can become the preeminent and trusted voice amongst the twitter chatter – by being immediate and inclusive in its newsgathering.
The print product, says the Guardian, will morph into a once-a-day or once-a-week home for longer, more reflective and analytical traditional articles, informed nonetheless by the immediate reader feedback garnered via social media.
Most media organisations, however, are not as enlightened, however, as the Guardian – or it must be said as fortunate to be funded by a not-for-profit charitable trust which tolerates losses that would sink any normal business.
So they inevitably – and I include myself in this – use social media perhaps a little more cynically.
It is, after all, a wonderful tool for helping a journalist:
- · You can monitor certain communities, prominent people and organisations and keep an eye out for story ideas
- · You can ask your social media connections what they would like you to write about
- · You can ask for more information or contacts
- · You can build relationships of trust with your audience
- · You can be transparent about your news gathering processes
- · You can publicise stories
- · You can get feedback on them
Media organisations do some or all of the above, of course, and I’ve seen the benefits and pitfalls of all of this at the Birmingham Post and elsewhere. There are mostly upsides, to be honest. Anything in my view that gets journalists talking to real people – even if they are the twitterati – has to be a good thing.
Social media has made traditional media practices more open, inclusive and conversational – but of course that’s not universal, even within the same newsrooms.
This is essentially because social media is in my view a personal activity. Not everyone uses or even likes social media tools, and those who do and are adept at them, are most of the time individuals who have found a voice and are extending their individual personality into the online world.
Sure, there are functional news and information service feeds that we can choose to follow or not, but Twitter and the like are fundamentally hostile environments for unthinking unsentient corporate brands, which are quite rightly crucified when they overstep the mark.
And therin lies the problem. The most influential media entities on Twitter are actually individuals – Charles Arthur at the Guardian, Nick Robinson at the BBC, Johan Hari at the Independent. Mostly coz they’re getting it right – by being personable, engaging, honest (well Hari excepted maybe). The branded tweets of their organisations are little more than well-followed utilitarian news feeds. What considerable corporate power these individuals suddenly wield over their employers.
The much-maligned Press Complaints Commission got its knickers in a twist a couple of months ago when it said it wanted to regulate the tweets of individual journalists – which I think is a wrong headed and ludicrous idea.
So the issues social media throws up for media organisation are identical in many respects to those faced by all organisations, but there are challenges that on today of all days I can’t possibly avoid – superinjunctions and press regulation.
Social media has in effect, made a mockery of them both.
Just as people-powered social media provided an energy source for the civil revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it also spectacularly swept away the cloak of secrecy afforded to a few rich men through superinjunctions and has played no small part in the downfall of Rupert Murdoch.
In the case of superinjunctions, social media has exposed the obsolesence of laws designed to prevent the few communicating to the many, when the many are already Tweeting the life out of the supposed secrets anyway.
This May’s twitter-superinjunction storm may well herald the end of such outdated approaches and lead to the use of more appropriate steps to protect people’s privacy – such as the existing laws of libel and defamation.
Turning to press regulation, the current storm over the abomination that was the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World has led inevitably to calls for the Press Complaints Commission to be abolished, a new statutory body created and more stringent regulations enforced legally.
We should at least be cautious, in my view.
Firstly, the transgressions at NOTW were as much criminal as professional, and I think criminal investigations take precedence over those of industry regulators, who now appear to have been misled both by NI and perhaps even the police. It is a little unfair, then, to automatically call for tighter press regulation as a matter of course, although the episode should clearly prompt a thorough review by the PCC.
Secondly, what does tighter press regulation look like in a world which gets more and more of its information via social media and via digital means generally? Who and what should be covered by regulation? Define a newspaper, define a newspaper’s website, define a broadcaster’s website, or that run by a law firm or a consumer brand, or an individual’s blog.
Attempts to neuter a press that mostly just irritates the powerful and delights many ordinary people (remember the News of the World was read by 4m people) can only succeed if they also stifle the freedom of speech of millions of bloggers and tweeters.
Think of the practicalities.
You can’t have one rule for one set of citizens and another for some other section of society – can you?
And I think that’s the key lesson for me – social media is breaking down the division between citizens and the media world. In many ways, that makes for a more transparent and more democratic world. But there are also clear dangers that members of the old world it is replacing will be tempted to try to regulate it out of existence, in which case we can say goodbye to our hard-won freedoms.