A couple of years ago, my Senior Fellows paper focused on trends in media and the declining role of mainstream media as “gatekeepers” who got to decide what is and is not news. The broad point was that the Internet and its various tools were creating radically democratic platforms for public participation in the dissemination and creation of “news” and that “the barbarians” once held back by editors were now fully inside the gates and running wild. I did not see that as a bad thing—rather as something refreshing and likely to keep legacy journalism structures honest.
This is an update. Newspapers are essentially dead. Some are managing the transition to becoming online media platforms with, if not great success, at least the hope that the strength of their brand will get them through. Others lack the intellectual adaptation capacities to survive and the difference is primarily due to ownership structures, some being more inclined to short-termism and the maximization of profit from the declining but still significant revenue generated in legacy print titles. Those whose business models were primarily based on readership/circulation sales, such as in Europe, have far better odds, as do those who have tried to maintain quality content, which will be the value proposition necessary to support pay windows. Those that have treated newsrooms as nothing more than cost centres requiring rationalization have no hope whatsoever, although their brands and goodwill may allow them to be sold at a modest price once they have been depleted of profitability.
Social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter, are increasingly influential in the world of journalism and public debate, although my own anecdotal observation is that Facebook remains a place primarily for social friendship while Twitter is where the real wars are fought.
Most news organizations appear to have recognized Twitter as the most urgent platform for news and political junkies and use it as a means of delivering or promoting upcoming stories on their own platforms with teasers. Others use it to monitor what they think is “trending” and is therefore popular among the masses.
This is where I remain hesitant. Twitter may or may not be useful as an insight into that which is popular. Case in point: despite its rapid growth, still more than 75% of Canada’s population does not get involved in it. As that link indicates, the number of Twitter accounts in Canada, if each account represents an individual, is equivalent to about 22% of the population. As some individuals have multiple accounts and many accounts are corporate or dormant, the individuals regularly involved are certainly somewhat fewer than that. Also unknown is how “active” each account is. It is also clear that its influence and that of other online platforms in the “Arab spring” and other news events in that part of the world—while not to be dismissed—is most certainly hyperbolic. Twitter is, it appears, used by less than 1% of the population in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, etc. Broadband speeds are inefficient for online video viewing, and state censorship of the Internet—primarily aimed at pornographic and blasphemous material—is not uncommon in the Islamic world.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt Twitter in North America is a growing and influential phenomenon if for no other reason than almost all journalists are Twitterati and that which influences the media influences the polity.
Twitter is also the primary focus for bloggers and “citizen journalists” whose work, particularly in politics, can have a great deal of influence on the polity. In the recent Alberta election, for instance, it was an anonymous blogger who dug up the now notorious “lake of fire” quote by a Pentecostal pastor/candidate that most post mortems see as a critical moment in the campaign. Other non-anonymous bloggers have built respectable followings and are commonly represented as “independent” despite the fact they earn their livings as communications professionals for organizations with an interest in influencing public policy. That certainly doesn’t disqualify them from presenting their viewpoints (they are inside the gates) and the Twitterverse appears to be highly effective at holding participants to account and getting all of its honest players’ conflicts and cards on the table.
If Twitter is a harbinger of the media world to come, it would appear to be a society capable of creating order out of its chaos, by which I mean finding the balance between freedom and order which is necessary for societies to function as liberal democracies. Mainstream, professional journalists remain deferred to and the best of them—those that remain capable of recognizing the difference between holding strong views and still producing work that displays fairness and an independence from party affiliation—are learning to manage their reputations well. Many others, unfortunately, have allowed their political biases to become so naked that they have hopelessly damaged their own professional credibility and in some cases that of their employers. In other words, instead of rising above the noise of the crowd, they have disappeared within it as common party partisans, melting into the pot so to speak.
Overall, the barbarians are being heard, order is being maintained by critical voices, the best of journalism appears to be surviving and the worst of it, thankfully for the sake of the craft, is destroying itself. Freedom reigns and order is emerging in the blissfully chaos Twitter creates.