Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Journalism's bright future: Blogging promises a more vibrant mediasphere

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 11, 2005

quilled Cavalry.jpg[This is a version of an article I wrote for the latest edition of New Communications Forum Blogzine--edited by the talented Jennifer McClure.]

The current debate about who is a journalist is due to the fact that the cost of entry into online journalism/publishing is virtually zero. At the same time, the online publishing business model is growing ever stronger due to a boom in online advertising.

In contrast, established media business models in print, radio and television have a high cost of entry and are growing weaker. Traditionally, this high cost of publishing kept out competition and limited the number of journalists.

Those barriers are no more, and that is a good thing - because each time the cost of publishing has fallen, it has helped to accelerate changes in society.

The revolution will be blogged

The Gutenberg press certainly helped Martin Luther; inexpensive publication of pamphlets helped in the American and French Revolutions; and low-cost newsprint helped in the Russian revolution.

I'm not saying blogging will cause such drastic changes in society. But I believe that the use if two-way [push-pull] media technologies such as blogging and RSS will undoubtedly lead to a more vibrant "mediasphere" - one that will trade in a broad currency of ideas, rather than requiring a lot of currency to broadcast ideas.

This upsets the balance of power in society. Wealthy organizations and individuals have always been able to exercise their free-speech rights to a far greater extent because the costs of publishing and influencing the media, have been high.

Those wealthy special interest groups now face a situation where publishing costs are low and the cost of influencing a fragmented mediasphere has gone through the roof.

PR companies know how to work with an established media in which the journalists are well known and tracked by media watch organizations such as Bacons. It is easy to find out the names of journalists, where they work, what they write about and how to reach them. And stories are "placed" by chatting to reporters, hosting news events and maintaining a symbiotic relationship.

The higher cost of influence

But the cost of reaching large numbers of blogger journalists through such PR channels would be extremely high. There would be too many relationships to establish and maintain.

One solution is to challenge whether bloggers are journalists. If bloggers are deemed not to be journalists, then their influence will be greatly lessened.

This challenge of blogger's rights to journalistic expression can be seen in Apple Computer's recent legal action, which sought to identify the source of leaked confidential papers.

A legal definition of "journalist" was needed because journalists have the right to shield the identity of sources, especially if it is in the "public interest". The "bloggers" in the Apple dispute claimed that journalistic privilege. But if they are shown not be journalists, then they have to reveal their sources.

No get out of jail free card

The judge in the Apple case neatly avoided answering the question of who is a journalist because this was not the key issue. He said that if a law was broken nobody, journalists included, has immunity from the law. He said that Apple could proceed with claims of violation of trade secrets law--a very loose term.

The judge also ruled that there was no "public interest" in revealing the trade secrets of a company. Just because there is a lot of public interest in a story doesn't mean a public interest is being served. He spelled out that the only protection journalists have is against a charge of contempt of court in refusing to reveal sources.

Yet somehow, journalists were running around thinking they had a "get out jail free" card in their back pockets that allowed them to publish anything they came across. And they thought they were working in the "public interest" by breaking news stories on future company products, acquisitions, and competitive plans.

Morrissey…not Bono

As such things happen, we (SiliconValleyWatcher.com) found ourselves in the story. As the Apple court case was unfolding and we were writing about it on our blog/news site, I received information that Apple had signed a contract for a new mobile multimedia chip, likely for the next iPod.

Apple's legal actions, however, did cause a delay in the publishing of our news story. Not because of a concern to protect material assets, (as a journalist/blogger I live a monk-like existence with few material possessions--just my simple icons of Steve Jobs :-), but because I didn't want to spend time with lawyers or in a courtroom. Plus, I didn't relish the prospect of colleagues and friends having to organize "Free the SiliconValleyWatchers" music concerts in Golden Gate park (BTW, if it happens, no Bono please... maybe Morrissey...)

A muzzle on the media

I sat on the story for a while but in the end, I felt I had no choice but to do what I was trained to do as a news reporter: seek out scoops and publish as accurately and as widely as possible.

I figured that if this issue were truly a significant one, then the big guns in the established media world would step in and sort it out. That's because Apple's legal actions would prevent the media from publishing anything about a company that could be defined as a trade secret, a very loosely defined term.

This would effectively muzzle the press, and I felt confident that the media giants would refuse to wear that muzzle.

However, Apple CEO Steve Jobs might just be tempted to try to put the muzzle on. He is sitting on top of the world, and hitting on all cylinders with spectacular performance at Apple and Pixar. If I were Steve Jobs I would have trouble resisting that temptation (clearly Mr Jobs is a much wiser and more evolved person than I :-)

Here comes the cavalry

SiliconValleyWatcher did join a "bloggers" Amicus brief on the Apple suit, along with a gallant band of others determined to stand up for the rights of journalists, online or print. And the cavalry finally arrived: Some of the large California newspapers filed an Amicus brief of their own.

The newspapers' brief referred to all as journalists or online journalists, no distinction was made regarding bloggers. This makes perfect sense because if a newspaper publishes a blog written by one of their journalists, then why would the blog be considered something other than journalism?

Journalism--a definition

I have a simple definition: if it looks like journalism then it is journalism. No legal definition of journalist is necessary because there is no immunity from breaking the law.

And since anyone can be a blogger/journalist and publish a web page as easily as send an email or read a web page, the cost of publishing free speech plummets.

Do we now have the makings for a true democracy of ideas?

Do those with money no longer have the same ability to shout their free speech (significantly) louder than others?

Will this grease the wheels of cultural change in similar ways to past "revolutions"?

Let's see what happens.

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