Today The Times launched its new online edition, which it will effectively be closing again late June when it starts to ask people to pay for it. Times editor, James Harding, was interviewed this morning on the Today programme desperately trying to justify how initiatives such as this represented the salvation of journalism and reporting.
Laying aside the nature of the journalism and reporting that such an initiative is expected to preserve and also the arrogance in many of the assertions that Harding made that essentially implied that news just can’t happen unless some bloke with a notebook is there to ‘make sense of it’, there is a huge flaw in the thinking that upon which the whole paid-for content approach is based. This flaw is the unquestioned assumption that journalism and journalist are one and the same. Or to put it another way, the only way that journalism can be achieved is through the institutional structures of one-to-many mass media.
What is going on in social media is that what used to be called the reader or audience, but which I call the connected crowd, is working out ways to do journalism that don’t involve the function of institutionalised news provision. And this isn’t about citizen journalism – citizen journalists don’t exist, this is simply a label that traditional journalists use to try and make sense of, and frequently denigrate, a phenomenon that they don’t understand.
The creeping redundancy of the concept of institutionalised news provision is the real problem Murdoch et al have to address. It is not about free content, it is about free distribution.
This is not just happening with news. It has already happened with music and it is starting to happen with financial services. The social media space is not now simply a medium of information (content) – it is a medium of connection and action. It is not a medium ruled by institutions it is a medium ruled by processes. Social media empowers the connected crowd to start to do new things or to do better the things which institutions used to do for them. Thus the connected crowd has worked out a way to do music much better than the way the music business used to do it for them. And it’s not just about the price of music (content), it is as much about the ability to share musical tastes and ideas as it is about sharing tracks.
Any institution which stands in the way of the connected crowd has a stark choice – it can either help them do what they want to do or it will be replaced by them. There is no other choice. The real opportunity here is that an institution that understands this can harness the power of the connected crowd to help it do its business. You can outsource operational cost to the connected crowd.
Listening to James Harding, and indeed to the more digitally enlightened such as The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, it is hard to know whether these people are ever going to fully grasp what is going on. There is so much invested in the old model, both in terms of capital but also prestige. At its heart is the death of the concept of the sanctity of publication. In the old world the simple act of publication conferred status upon content. But this doesn’t exist in social media, indeed that act of publication itself barely exists in social media. In this space, journalists are therefore no different or better that any other citizen and their content has to compete with everyone else’s. It’s not so much about citizens becoming journalists – it is more about journalists becoming ‘merely’ citizens. And they don’t like that.