By Ryan McGreal
Published January 19, 2010
I just returned from an engaging and energetic panel discussion on the future of local media organized by Western Connect (the UWO alumni association), in which I shared the mic with David Estok, editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator, Connie Smith, the host and supervising producer of It's Always Good News on CTS Television, and Bill Kelly, talk radio host on AM 900 CHML.
The event was moderated ably by Paul Benedetti, a lecturer in Western's Faculty of Information & Media Studies, who turns out to be every bit as nice a guy in person as he comes across in his bi-weekly Spectator column. He also came across to me as a member of the professional media who really gets it when it comes to the challenges the traditional media face and the institutional obstacles to addressing those challenges in either an effective or timely manner.
I have to admit that, sitting there with these heavyweight professional journalists, I felt like a bit of an impostor. It didn't help that the overriding focus of the evening was the fate of the traditional media and I was the guy giving away for free what they're trying to sell.
Nevertheless, the mix of panelists made for a spirited discussion that got a little heated at times but was never disrespectful.
I was struck - again - at how frightened the traditional media are about the disruptive consequences of the internet. I don't mean frightened in a narrow sense of self-preservation, but frightened of what will happen to the profession they love: journalism as an essential institution of liberal democracy.
To be sure, they're well aware of the challenges they face and are trying, in various ways, to embrace some idea of what the internet offers as a medium. However, I couldn't help but notice a sharp disconnect between how they see the internet and how I see the internet.
The strategies they articulated for their web presence seemed stuck in the idea of internet-as-broadcast-medium. Maybe it means a radio station can go multimedia and post videos in addition to streaming audio. Maybe it means a newspaper can use its website as a source of headlines and breaking news items, with the more in-depth coverage held over to the print edition.
What they seemed to be missing, to my mind, was the revolutionary idea that the internet is not a broadcast medium at all. Rather, it's a medium of discourse.
David Estok - who incidentally also seemed like a really nice guy - explained that the Spec's strategy is to have different content models for the web and print editions, with the web reserved for breaking news and headlines, and the print edition reserved for in-depth coverage, investigative reports, opinion pieces, and so on.
It struck me right away that he has the two models exactly backwards, for the simple reason that the web is where discourse happens. It's a rabbit hole with no bottom: there's all the room in the world for as deep, broad and comprehensive investigative reporting as a group of people can manage.
Further, it's the medium in which readers expect to be able to talk back - not only by posting comments on other people's articles but also by posting their own articles, either on their personal websites or as contributors to collaborative websites like RTH.
On Raise the Hammer, the discussion that goes on in the comments is a huge part of the value of this site's content. As we have implemented tools of community self-moderation, the overall quality of the comments has improved even more.
At heart, RTH is not a group of journalists talking to a group of readers; it's a group of engaged citizens talking to each other - and that makes all the difference.
Maybe that's the real future of local media: moving from a one-way communication run by professionals to a two-way communication among citizens.
Another issue that came up tonight was the matter of accountability. A member of the audience suggested that blogs are unreliable because they're not produced by professional journalists. Bill Kelly jumped on this and argued that blogs just post a lot of personal opinions whereas the traditional media have professional checks and balances in place to ensure accuracy.
Again, I found myself looking at the issue exactly upside-down. I argued that RTH is the most accountable news source in the city, because our mechanisms of direct accountability are baked right into the site design.
If I write something in which I play fast and loose with the facts, or commit a fallacy of reasoning, or state something factually incorrect, RTH readers will call me on it in comments that permanently live right on the same page as the article.
The feedback we receive is immediate and public, which means everyone else can see it as well. That's where our accountability comes from.
We're under enormous pressure to fact-check vigorously, chase references back to their sources, assess the logic and reasoning behind opinion pieces, and generally ensure that articles published to this site are accurate, fair and honest so that we avoid being called out for failing to do these things.
When we do make mistakes - and we do make mistakes - we can't just silently fix the error, because Google crawls this site constantly and caches its pages. Instead, we note changes in three ways:
A notice at the top of the article saying it has been updated.
An update at the bottom of the article detailing the change and citing the person who pointed out the error.
An anchor link from the update straight to the changed paragraph.
Please note that this direct accountability doesn't mean we can simply outsource quality control to our readers. We don't always get it right the first time, but if we get in the habit of publishing sloppy, poorly-sourced stuff, we will quickly lose credibility among our readers, who have lots of other places they can go to learn and share information.
In contrast, accountability on talk radio is a fallen leaf borne down a stream. Someone is always talking, but there is no permanent record or canonical home for what they say.
Newspapers are better, but corrections in print appear days later and aren't closely bound to the original error. Unfortunately, the Spec website (it's powered by a proprietary content management system mandated by Metroland West, the corporation that owns the Spec) is similarly crippled in its ability to link related content across time.
I still remember a report last summer by Howard Elliott, the Spec's Web Editor, in which he detailed the plight of a man who was wrongly implicated in a troublesome activity that was reported in the paper.
The man was later found to be innocent, but anyone who searched for his name found the original news article as the first search result. It was affecting his reputation among acquaintances and business associates.
At the time, I contacted Elliott and suggested adding an editorial update to the original, higher-ranked article stating that the man in question was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and including a link to the follow-up article.
He replied that they were looking into that option; but the real problem is that the Spec treats its web articles as atomic, standalone documents with no context to related content.
There's an enormous amount of rich value in the Spec's archives, but they're locked away behind a benighted corporate policy that insists on using a crappy tool that doesn't work the way the web works.
But this stuff is really a no-brainer. The fact that the Spec is so late to implement such an elementary web idiom as a hyperlink shows just how far they have to go to really understand and accept the nature of this disruptive technology.
At several points, other panelists talked about how the traditional media have a "revenue problem": lots of viewers/readers/listeners, but shrinking revenue streams, mainly from advertising and classifieds. As a result, the traditional business model in which advertisers pay the media for access to eyeballs is failing.
In my introduction, I made a confession: RTH doesn't have a failing business model, because we don't have a business model. We don't have a revenue problem, because we don't collect revenue.
The reason we can do this is because our operating costs are miniscule (some $10-15 a month for web hosting and bandwidth) and our content is created entirely by passionate volunteers.
So once again my take on the issue was upside-down compared to the other panelists. I argued that the media don't have a revenue problem, they have a cost problem. The cost to deliver content to an audience has collapsed, but the traditional media still operate in the high-cost, high-value-add environment that obtained when publishing was scarce and expensive.
Of course, the answer won't be found in panicky cost-cutting, either. Every time a newspaper cuts the newsroom or outsources copy-editing without transforming its overall workflow, those employees who remain end up more dispirited - and great journalism demands spirit.
I don't mean to beat up on the Spec over radio and TV; truth be told, I don't listen to the radio and I haven't had cable TV in about a decade. (Yes, I'm that guy.)
I focus on the newspaper because I think it has the best chance of surviving a transition onto the web and embracing the inexpensive power of that network.
I still have a newspaper subscription, and I have a lot emotionally invested in text-based media (printed on paper or pixels or otherwise) - mainly because it's where my own passion lies.
Text is searchable, findable, linkable, citable, and aggregatable in a way that streaming audio and video are not. It's both persistent and portable. As such, it provides the best opportunity for the kind of juxtaposing and recombinating that drives innovation.
Text also has an incredible content-to-bandwidth ratio, so it provides the best value for a media outfit trying to cut costs.
It seems to me that there may be a real opportunity to cut away whole swaths of unproductive busywork in at least some media forms if they give up on the bizarre, indirect system of revenue generation that has obtained since newspapers started carrying advertising.
The connection between how networks get their money and what their audience wants to see is squiggly at best, and the result is a pretty gross mismatch.
TV is a canonical case. I may buy the odd TV series on DVD, but I'm damned if I'm going to pay for a whole bundled stream of channels when I only want to watch one show.
Viewers should be able to subscribe to the shows they want to watch and pay directly for that access. Think of what this would do for quality, if the people watching the show were the customers buying the product and not the product being sold! Shows would win or lose based on whether they had enough subscribers to pay for the cost of production.
Or maybe I've just let myself get caught up in an updated version of the "micropayments" nonsense the newspapers were crowing about in the 1990s.
It could be, instead, that all content creation gradually moves away from expensive, one-way, monolithic production and toward cheap, two-way, diverse productions by determined amateurs.
After all, if the internet has taught us anything it's that people like to create things and share them.
You can see how that would make media professionals defensive.