Promoting a Flourishing Society
 

The Fall and Rise of Empires

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

June 15, 2009

I began the first draft of this essay by examining the emergence of the blogosphere as an alternative to traditional journalism institutions and the emergent practice of live blogging. As with all such investigations, the piece evolved as it searched for the appropriate context within which to place the analysis. By necessity, it has grown into a broader work that examines the rapid decline of traditional journalism through a technological revolution that is likely to have as profound an impact on media as that inspired by the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. It also probes the suggestion that the threat to traditional institutions is not entirely technological and can be linked to the maintenance of an intellectual architecture capable of supporting social capital assets.

Through this essay, which is both narrative and journalistic by turns, I hope that you will have value and understanding added to your perception of the world in which we live.

I began the first draft of this essay by examining the emergence of the blogosphere as an alternative to traditional journalism institutions and the emergent practice of live blogging. As with all such investigations, the piece evolved as it searched for the appropriate context within which to place the analysis. By necessity, it has grown into a broader work that examines the rapid decline of traditional journalism through a technological revolution that is likely to have as profound an impact on media as that inspired by the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. It also probes the suggestion that the threat to traditional institutions is not entirely technological and can be linked to the maintenance of an intellectual architecture capable of supporting social capital assets.

Through this essay, which is both narrative and journalistic by turns, I hope that you will have value and understanding added to your perception of the world in which we live.

LIVE BLOGGING - THE JOURNALISM TEST

Many years ago, a colleague wrote a fine newspaper column regarding the true meaning of art and how it can be distinguished from more mundane events.

The rather frank and confessional analogy he used was a description of how, as a young man, he found himself among friends in an establishment of the sort one’s mother always hopes one would never frequent. Beer was available, and every hour or so there was a free performance that involved music, dance, a faux fur carpet of some variety and, unique to its genre, a sort of firefighters’ pole.

“It was an arresting spectacle,” my colleague wrote. “But it was not art.”

Over the past two to three years, working journalists have identified live blogging as a form of event coverage that has emerged at the leading edge of their craft. Reporters don’t just write their reports as the event happens (a longstanding practice in sports coverage known as “running copy”); they actually file them directly via their Blackberry to the public via their media’s web portal. People can follow the news online as it happens.

One example is the live blog from the website of Canada’s leading news magazine, Maclean’s, and the reports filed by Macleans.ca reporter, Kady O’Malley, who captured Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to Governor General Michelle Jean at her Rideau Hall offices on December 4, 2008, to request a prorogation of Parliament following the formation of a coalition of opposition parties. The stakes couldn’t have been much higher: if the Governor General had chosen not to take the Prime Minister’s advice, the government most certainly would have fallen and some form of constitutional and/or electoral crisis would have ensued. Fragile stock markets were poised to react. Accurate and timely information was critical.

My critique relates to the genre, the medium and its pressures and not to Ms. O’Malley, who filed and updated her blog every three to five minutes. Dead time on a live blog is a dilemma that forces people to say something even when there is actually nothing meaningful to say. It’s a tough job. This need for constant data exists because online media need to deliver news quickly and hold the attention of viewers or readers in order to stimulate advertising revenue. Here are excerpts from O’Malley’s reports on Macleans.ca on Thursday, December 4, 2008. They have been edited for length.

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9:13:15 AM
. . . . Apparently, the PM will have a “sit down” with the GG, after which he will possibly have a statement for us. Or he’ll just stomp out in a dark rage.

9:16:48 AM
Kory Teneycke is dealing with a minor—but growing—media insurrection for his decision to block the cameras from filming the PM’s actual entrance. “Do you own this land?” One reporter asks.

9:18:51 AM
Poor Kory. He’s been surrounded. “I’m not going to have this discussion on camera,” he says.

9:24:58 AM
Colleague Wherry is here, and has joined us on the barricades! “We will have an arrival shot,” one producer says into his cell phone. Oh, it’s on.

9:26:31 AM
And apparently, the GG is meeting with the opposition leaders this afternoon.

. . . . 9:30:11 AM
The PM waved at us as he drove by. That’s nice, at least. Now Kory is telling the crowd that they’re waiting until they get an answer from the GG before heading to Woodstock for the auto plant announcement.

9:32:04 AM
Okay, so if they get an answer right away, it’s off to Woodstock, where he will have a media availability. If not, he’ll give a statement somewhere, at some point.

9:50:18 AM
A sudden flurry of media movement to the front entrance. Apparently he’s coming out. Or not. Nobody knows everything, which is somehow comforting, since someone suddenly knowing anything would be a radical shift.

9:51:36 AM
. . . . New theory: if he doesn’t get his answer, he’ll go out the back door. Or the side door. Or sit there in her vestibule in a black rage until she makes up her mind.

. . . 10:00:20 AM
The camera throng—of which I am now a part—is becoming alarmed by my incessent teethchattering and trembling. Gloves are being offered. So gallant.

10:02:49 AM
Hmm. Kory never came back, did he?

10:05:32 AM
Maybe they’re trying to freeze us out. Still no word from inside—and no sign of anyone at all from PMO. 41 minutes and counting, y’all. Not that we’re counting.

. . .  10:17:04 AM
And he’s coming out! Or—people are coming out, anyway. Not sure if the PM is among them. Also, a tip to those organizing nonpartisan grassroots demonstrations: most of us who work on the Hill can recognize Conservative staffers—even when they’re all decked out like ordinary Canadians.

10:20:39 AM
We’re starting to wonder if the opening of the doors a few minutes ago was just an attempt to distract us from the fact that the PM is going to leave by the side door. We’re not that hard to distract, apparently.

. . . .10:29:31 AM
We just saw the flash of a camera inside the foyer, but nobody knows if that means anything. I thought I’d pass it on anyway, though.

. . .10:44:17 AM
Apparently, CTV is reporting that the Woodstock trip has been cancelled. Oooh. That doesn’t sound good.

10:47:06 AM
The atmosphere out here is getting downright festive, mostly out of a desperate desire to distract ourselves from the cold.

. . . . 11:02:32 AM
I am now huddled by the barricade, listening to Bob Fife do his standup in hopes of learning something—anything!—about what’s going on inside. Yes, it’s come to this. He seems to think that they “chatted” for a while, and then she went off to talk to her advisors.

11:06:40 AM
Update: According to someone who just heard Jean Lapierre, the GG’s advisors told her to tell the PM that she’ll see him on Tuesday. No idea if that’s true, or just Jean Lapierre being mischievous.

11:13:16 AM
Running! Camera crews running! They’re like gazelles, these guys—they can sense danger. Which of course means a good shot.

11:19:13 AM
The doors are open again! Still no sign of Kory or Dimitri, however.

. . . . 11:23:56 AM
Could they be calling in the Queen to settle this? If she says no, does he have any route to appeal?

11:26:11 AM
The podium is here!

11:27:12 AM
You know, I don’t think any of us have the slightest idea what he’s about to tell us. This is just—neat. Right now, the podium attendants are hooking up the mics.

11:31:11 AM
Again—for some reason that last bulletin didn’t go through—CTV is reporting that she *will* prorogue. No idea what that is based on, but it could well be true.

11:36:01 AM
PMO now saying the prorogue was granted, as per CBC. Nobody is telling us anything, of course.

. . . .11:50:06 AM
Yay, snow on the berryscreen. Best stakeout ever! At least it’s about to end. Okay, here he comes—sixty second warning.

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Parliament was prorogued, the opposition Liberals changed leadership, the coalition collapsed and the government passed its budget in late January 2009.

The live blog is certainly entertaining. O’Malley has a quick wit and manages over the course of her time on the scene to give a running commentary of three basic areas: the news events involving the Governor General’s consideration of the Prime Minister’s request; the rumours, banter, jokes and grumbling within the scrum of journalists outside awaiting the news; and the state of O’Malley’s physical discomfort due to the cold and whatever thoughts happen to be running through her head at the time.

During entire time O’Malley is live blogging on site (8:52:01 a.m. through 12:08:11 p.m.), there are only two things that actually happened that can be considered news. At 9:30:11 a.m. the Prime Minister arrives and waves as he drives by the reporters on his way in to Rideau Hall. At 11:52:00 a.m., a full three hours after the liveblog begins, the PM addresses the reporters until O’Malley signs off at 12:08:11 p.m. “News,” in terms of the PM’s conversation with the Governor General and her decision, constitutes only about 16 or 17 minutes of the liveblog. The other three hours of O’Malley’s work, bless her, is spent entertaining us—quite engagingly—while we wait for the news.

No journalistic skill or training is required for this. While it may be one of the exciting features of the Internet, this live blog contains the transmission of some items that are not only unsubstantiated rumour but completely false. Both were once considered fatal to the integrity of a journalist and the reputation of his or her medium.

For instance, at 11:06:40 AM, we learn that “according to someone who just heard Jean Lapierre, the GG’s advisors told her to tell the PM that she’ll see him on Tuesday. No idea if that’s true, or just Jean Lapierre being mischievous.”

This simple sentence violates several fundamentals of the “old” journalism. The source for the information is not named, nor is a reason given for protecting their anonymity. It is merely “according to someone” and the information “someone” is passing along is their understanding of something said by (former member of parliament and French language broadcaster) Jean Lapierre. Whatever Lapierre said (probably in French) had to do with what he heard the GG’s advisors had told her to tell the PM.

The information transmitted in this live blog is not first hand, nor is it from a verified, identified and reliable source as befits traditional standards of good journalism. Quite the contrary: it is fifth or sixth hand, probably subject to translation, and has an anonymous, or at least unnamed, source.

O’Malley does insert that she has “no idea” if the information she’s passing along is true “or just Jean Lapierre being mischievous.” We never hear again on efforts to establish whether or not they have some foundation in fact. Was it true? Was it not? The allegation is left hanging for 45 minutes until the Prime Minister appears and clarifies the situation. Nor did the Governor General ever meet with the opposition leaders. O’Malley’s genre demands that she file constantly, which means she has no time to verify her facts.

Compare this with the rigour emphasized in earlier traditions. The phrase attributed to the Chicago City News bureau (which, poignantly, filed its last report after more than 100 years of operation on December 31, 2005) and drubbed into young journalists for years was: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Live blogging is an arresting spectacle. But it is not journalism.

SO WHAT?

Or, in the words of blogger Warren Kinsella, formerly of the Prime Minister’s Office in the Jean Chretien era, on warrenkinsella.com:

At the hospital last night, someone introduced themselves to me. We chatted.
She: “Are blogs going to replace the news media?”
Me: “No. We’re entertainment, not news. There’s a difference.”

In that sense, the live blogger is more equivalent to the hockey play-by-play announcer such as Bob Cole than the Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins (Washington Post Watergate reporters) of the world. It is helpful, informative and entertaining, but is a genre unto itself that has yet to be fully recognized as such, by either the consuming public or—frequently more grievously—the “news” organizations that use them. At its worst, it is inane banter used to fill dead air with the gossipy, rumour-filled and sometimes catty chatter of a scrum of journalists.

But none of this means that bloggers can not be journalists. Nor does it mean that journalists can’t effectively use the blogosphere.

Jay Rosen, writing in 2005 on Pressthink, put it this way: “The question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers ‘are’ journalists. They apparently are, sometimes.”

The practice of exchanging information with colleagues, friends and the public at large certainly isn’t new. What is revolutionary is the blogosphere’s ease of access and the creation of online discussion boards where information can be posted and debated. This can be enthusiastically viewed as a revival in the old traditions of letter writing (which appeared to be on its deathbed for a period of time that coincided with the ascendancy of network TV) or journal-keeping. It certainly has and will continue to have an impact on traditional notions of journalism. Its most profound impact, however, is what it is doing to traditional power structures.

Rosen’s essay quotes Orville Schell, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school, from an article in Business Week magazine. Schell said, “The Roman Empire that was mass media is breaking up, and we are entering an almost-feudal period where there will be many more centres of power and influence.”

Herein lies the key to the transformation that is taking place. Traditional media built their power base on their ability to access and control the flow of information to the public. First newspapers, then radio, and then (in Canada) public and private network television were the sole suppliers of the information that was required to meet public demand.

Certainly major events—elections, wars, assassinations, and so on—define themselves in terms of the news agenda. But on a normal day, the news agenda was, and still is, defined based on assessments made early in the cycle by assignment editors. They generally make their decisions based on what they believe you should know, must know or will find compelling. These local assignments combine with news flowing in from regional, national and international bureaus and agencies (where assignments are similarly made) and get pared down guided by strategic content objectives into the serving you find in your newspaper and newscasts, or even their online versions.

A senior editor once told me when I was fussing about trying to find room in the paper for a story I thought was important, “Don’t worry, kid. No one knows what doesn’t get in the paper.”

Commentary has similarly been dominated by these traditional media structures, so that endorsement of a candidacy, or an idea, on the editorial pages of a newspaper (the bigger, the better) has been fervently sought. These media had dominated the flow of information, had built trust and credibility within their communities, and even when they weren’t respected, needed to be treated as if they were.

Individual commentators have also been figures of influence. Throughout most of history, they were staff members of the media organization that published or broadcast their work. Only towards the latter part of the 20th century (when media began to get a sense that the public was bristling under their dominance) were citizens given access to “op-ed” pages through guest columns, rebuttal columns and the like. Prior to that, the public could only become part of the conversation by writing “letters to the editor.”

The Internet and the blogosphere have completely changed all that. Now everyone can find out (if they are willing to do the work) what doesn’t get in their hometown paper or on the newscast. Everyone can have their point of view published. Anyone can pretend through their blogging that they are Alan Fotheringham or Andy Rooney.

If, as Orville Schell pointed out, the mass media is really analogous to the Roman Empire, then its demise may indeed constitute freedom from oppression. On the other hand, it might mean that the barbarians—a lot of whom, this time, have MBAs—are at the gates.

THE SACK OF ROME

Traditional news media structures are under assault. Some will almost certainly die. Indeed, they must, for business too has a circle of life that insists on a process of birth and death, fall and redemption.

Thirty years ago the citizens of most major cities had access to no more than two dozen sources of information—a couple of newspapers, 12 or 13 cable channels and a number of radio stations. Research could only be done through the local paper’s archives or the public library. Obtaining information was a very deliberate and time-consuming exercise best left to someone else to conduct on the consumers’ behalf. Thus did media operators build “captive” audiences which they were able to monetize.

The “Big Bang” advent of high-speed Internet and broadband cable has blown that world into billions of pieces. Audiences are no longer captive and have fragmented into areas of specific interest. Television is now much more like a traditional magazine newsstand from which one chooses those items in which one has the greatest interest—golf, cooking, running, gardening and so on. And, just as with print magazines, the best of these TV specialties are highly effective advertising tools due to their ability to match audiences with very specific interests to products specifically designed for them.

Newspapers have traditionally been divided into sections devoted to specific interests—news, local news, entertainment, sports, business and lifestyles. The traditional network TV content model, while overwhelmingly dedicated to dramatic and other entertainment programming, nevertheless had a similar model for its media component: national and international news, local news, sports, business, health/lifestyle and weather.

All of these component parts of old media have now been plundered. Today there are media that serve only news (CNN, Newsworld), sports (TSN, Sportsnet, The Score, ESPN), business (BNN) and weather (The Weather Network). The list goes on. Sports, for instance, is further fragmented into magazine channels specializing in golf, cricket, rugby, soccer, auto sports, fishing, hunting, hockey and more.

One no longer has to check the morning paper, hourly radio newscast or supper time evening news for the latest sports or weather highlights. It is now there—through TV, computer, Blackberry or cell phone—any time you want it.

Audiences once “captive” are running freely in the streets. They are bombarded with information they used to have to seek out and around which they built their daily schedules. No longer: they have laptops and Blackberrys, and are prepared to use them.

Rome is burning at their fingertips.

THE ASSET OF TRUST

The old media model clearly lacked the freedom and flexibility of today’s world. But like lots of old things, it had its merits.

The greatest of these was that it represented a common ground from which people drew their information. And media companies knew that in order to win the loyalty of these mass and financially lucrative audiences, they had to build and maintain loyalty. Most of all, media knew that the key to attracting people to their supper time newscasts and their morning papers was a social capital asset called trust.

The great news anchors and newspaper commentators of their day were men and women who citizens felt were trustworthy people whose work displayed high levels of integrity and who worked in trusted organizations. The most preeminent of these was Walter Cronkite of the CBS Evening News in the United States. Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” (an allegation backed up by polls) and his ability and that of others like him to build massive evening audiences for what was a mere 23-minute newscast had enormous consequences. The evening newspaper, for instance, disappeared in North America.

Citizens also trusted these personalities and organizations because their information was reliable, founded in fact and presented in an ethical and unbiased way. It was very clear to news organizations that sound professional standards and an ethical environment were components necessary for the construction and sustenance of the levels of trust and credibility that were required to maintain mass audiences.

So successful were CBS and Cronkite in building this trust that when the latter editorialized following the Tet Offensive in 1968 that the Vietnam War was not winnable, it is believed that U.S. President Lyndon Johnson said words to the effect of “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Trust, as we have seen recently, is also a commodity necessary to the maintenance of other, even more expansive structures, such as financial systems. Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente pointed to this in a recent column:

“Paul Volcker was in Toronto the other night to have dinner with a bunch of well-heeled people who hung on his every word. Everyone looks up to the former U.S. central banker, because he whipped inflation in the ‘80s and also because he’s over six and a half feet tall. He genially admitted that the old system is finished. “Finance doesn’t work without some sense of trust and confidence,” he said.

“But all the trust and confidence are gone. The smartest people in the world thought that financial markets obeyed mathematical laws. They believed that people, in the aggregate, acted rationally. It turns out that they don’t. The markets are only human after all. And so are people.”

The fall of the old media and the liberalization of audiences mean, at the very least, the decline of institutions which people once trusted to deliver reliable information upon which they could base decisions about their lives. If the institutions disappear, people will inevitably seek out new institutions in which they can place their trust. The need for a renewed social architecture is evident.

RENAISSANCE OR DARK AGES

At this stage of its evolution, the North American news industry is generally following a pattern that is unlikely to maintain, let alone build, the trust and therefore loyalty it will require to create the audiences necessary to ensure its survival.

Companies faced with the threat of audience fragmentation generally trend toward expanding their holdings. This has led to intense consolidation of ownership in media, which involves considerable investment. One of the chief methods used to pay for that investment has been the reduction of staffing levels in newsrooms. Even as media operations have expanded their delivery from traditional forms into new media (the Internet), many have been doing so with fewer resources. While this has short-term economic merits, it also tends to weaken the strength of the core product—trustworthy and contextual information—that the platforms are designed to deliver.

Journalists once had the relative (albeit highly demanding) luxury of gathering information throughout the day, verifying it, including additional and contrary viewpoints and establishing present and historical context for the news before filing their story. Being first with the news (the scoop) was always important. The primary component, however, was accuracy. There was always great tension, even when the world operated on a  48- or 24-hour news cycle, between the need to be first and the need to accurate. New media have created a 15-minute (or in the case of live blogging, a 3-minute) news cycle.

The time that once was available to exercise professional due diligence on information has disappeared. Further challenging this is that journalists in today’s environment are commonly expected to file audio, video, blog and text versions of their stories for use across multiple media platforms. Though journalists may not have always fully utilized this time to conduct the checks required to ensure the delivery of accurate information, that argument is now moot. It is no longer a question of whether time set aside to ensure the trust and credibility vital to the genre was appropriately allocated. Today for an increasing number of journalists, the time doesn’t exist. And when no time is set aside to verify information and the tension and balance between speed and accuracy becomes distorted, the natural outcome is that while there is more information available faster to consumers in the new era, a much higher percentage of that information will prove to be false at worst and incomplete at best. This creates a product that inevitably proves to be unsatisfactory, and erodes rather than builds trust.

Similarly, the blogosphere is rife with “citizen journalists” who represent the local militia leading the information revolution. Perhaps they do—but while their challenge to the status quo is certainly valuable, like any militia, they lack professional standards and generally have strong partisan leanings. This is not to say they shouldn’t have their place, but they are not always people who seek the truth or conform to a predictable set of professional standards; instead they believe they have found the truth and are on the lookout for information that reinforces it.

The outcome of this ever-blurred line between opinion and fact is that savvy consumers become even more wary and less trusting of the information they receive. Little bits of information can be dangerous for everyone. Trust, the moral component most vital to news media’s ability to build, maintain and monetize audiences, is continuing to erode. And structures that fail to maintain their social architecture die.

On the other hand, the organizations most likely to survive will be those that adapt to new technology and fragmentation while maintaining their reputation as a trusted source of reliable and useful information. Those institutions that maintain and renew the elements vital to a healthy social architecture will survive. The rest of Rome will burn.

CONCLUSION

“What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.”
- American abolitionist Wendell Phillips   (1811-1884)

The blogosphere and other Internet developments may be every bit as revolutionary as the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Although the printed word was initially denounced as vulgar by the upper classes, it proved popular with the middle and lower classes and inspired increased levels of literacy. It destroyed the clergy and upper classes’ dominance of ideas and the interpretation of Scripture. Its ability to distribute alternative and often revolutionary thoughts is widely credited with inspiring an end to the Dark and Middle Ages, the dawn of the Renaissance, the foundation of Protestant Christianity and the emergence of liberal democracy.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Against Indulgences received much more widespread distribution than would otherwise have been possible, thanks to the printing press, and his publication of the German Bible gave people, for the first time, personal access to the word of God in their own language. The consequences were considerable.

So it comes as no surprise that—just as those who benefited from the status quo of the 15th century denounced the emergence of the printing press—those whose businesses and power bases are intertwined with the 20th century’s media status quo are quick to denigrate what they fear is the mob rule of the blogosphere.

The free flow of information should not be a matter of concern in cultures that share traditions and have built institutions based on values founded in liberal democracy. Further, the interactivity of the blogosphere and its ability to provide a forum for debate and discussion between individuals and groups is clearly a welcome development that has happily restored, inspired and multiplied the intellectual innovation created through the tradition of letter-writing both privately and publicly through “letters to the editor.” Although unproven at this stage, this has some potential for an expansion of “the commons.”

The threat, such as it is, comes from fragmentation and the even stronger potential for reduced common ground. Writing in the Toronto Star this past winter, associate professor Kelly Toughill of the University of King’s College School of Journalism put it this way:

“ . . . . Mass media builds community. Or at least it did. . . . It is the fragmentation of the marketplace that is hurting newspapers most, not new technology. Very few general-use products are created these days. Even toothpaste and toilet paper are marketed to niche groups, as are everything from house paint to cereal and custom vacations. The problem for a newspaper is that all of its targeted sections (Life, Business, Sports) are delivered to everyone, which makes the paper very expensive to produce.

“. . . . Network television is suffering from the same problem. Why advertise on a network when you can place your ad for less money on a specialty channel that caters to your specific market?

“. . . . But they won’t create the community-building function of mass media. When readers look for a sports story or a horoscope in a newspaper, they browse through all sorts of content they wouldn’t necessarily choose to see on their own. The same thing happens with local and network news; viewers must wait for the stories that interest them, and learn about other things in the meantime. All of that wasted time is actually part of building community, a way to make us listen to each other.

“Sure, big newspapers and network television aren’t the only place that happens. We share public schools, parks, playgrounds and sidewalks. And some argue that the Internet is the biggest commons of the intellect we’ve ever had. But you don’t have to browse through much foreign thought to find your own tribe on the Internet.”
This trend towards “tribalism” is well worth considering. Interestingly, the online responses to the professor’s argument laid the blame squarely on the doorstep of the traditional media. Here are some excerpts.

“. . . . People are abandoning big media because they know they’re being fed a pack of half-truths, if not outright lies, as part of political and social agenda. It wouldn’t be so bad except the media continue to tout itself as objective. The media have, by and large, betrayed the trust of the public and the public have, in turn, gone searching for the truth themselves. And they don’t have to pay for it. Want to regain your lost ground, Ms. Toughill? Return to objective, fact-based reporting and proactively seek out opposing viewpoints on contentious issues.”

“As a journalism student, and blogger, I can vouch for the type of brainwashing that mass media tries to indoctrinate its people to deal in. The focus in journalism school isn’t on free-thought, development of ideals, or expression of progressive ideas; but rather on toeing corporate lines, fitting into the box, and being churned out directly into a job with some cookie-cutter publication. Journalism lost its way for the same reason other professions do: greed. Once the corporate elites got their filthy claws into every major publication, any credibility once-fine papers had was lost forever. There is indeed much more free speech, creativity, and room for new ideas now on the Internet. This is a necessary change. People deserve to be exposed to a multitude of voices, not just that of tired old institutions trying to maintain their control over societal values.”

It is easy to imagine a similar conversation taking place 500 years ago, when Gutenberg’s technological development began to threaten the common ground that had been established by clerical and monarchist institutions. Many of those institutions were able to survive the spread of ideas ignited by the printing press, but they did so either by having a secure social architecture or by renewing it in order to sustain the levels of public trust that were, and are, necessary to their survival. However, other institutions died or were diminished as new structures arose.

Gutenberg’s galaxy unleashed the power of human ingenuity and ideas. Both are powerful, potent things. As a result, structures and institutions emerged that could not possibly have been foreseen. Some, such as the equality of each of us before God, are rich with beauty and light. Others, such as racial supremacy, are dark and morbid. Releasing ideas is sometimes like releasing the hounds; one is never quite sure what scent they will choose to follow.

What is known is that the emergence and spread of ideas has prompted and will likely continue to inspire enormous battles—physical, theological, philosophical, economic and ideological—in the effort to establish the ascendancy of one over the other.

There is no reason to believe the same won’t apply to the next set of ideas released by the technology of the 21st century. Prepare for the unexpected.

 

Topics: Journalism