Credibility & Responsibility in an Age of the Individual's Media

    [What follows is the text of our speech today at Exploring Freedom of Expression in a Digital World, the 2nd Annual Fall Symposium of the University of Missouri’s Center for the Digital Globe, a joint project of the University’s schools of Business, Human Environmental Sciences, Journalism, Law, and Political Science.]

Things change, even things that we think won’t.

One hundred years ago, a primitive automobile rumbled through here in Columbia, Missouri, probably at less than 5 m.p.h. People must have though it was ridiculous. And they probably scoffed at anyone who predicted that evolved versions of such sputtering contraptions would become humanity’s primary form of transportation. Those scoffers knew that the horse had been humanity’s primary form of transportation for more than two millennia, and knew it seemed ridiculous that anything would ever replace horses.

Likewise, when 100 years ago this December 3rd, Wilbur Wright laid down on a canvas wing and opened the throttle of his 3 horsepower gasoline engine, who knew that his technology was creating an entirely new transportation medium? For millennia, we’d used only land and water as transportation media. But thanks to the Wright Brothers’ application of technology, we now have the new medium of the sky. And it’s revolutionized transportation!

These were modest, sputtering starts to revolutions in media. Keep those in mind as I tell you about 2003, not 1903; and as I point to some modest, sputtering examples of a revolution in communications media that’s underway today. And just as aviation created uniquely new issues of risk & responsibility in transportation, so too will a new medium for communications create uniquely new issues of credibility & responsibility.

Let me give you some examples of the communications revolution now underway. Like that early automobile or The Wright Flyer, these examples are early, primitive, and somewhat sputtering. Which is why some traditionalist in communications still scoff at them. But these examples are no less important than those of the Wrights or the early automobile:

  • Probably the most memorable example for such a distinguished audience of legal, business, and journalism scholars as are gather here today is how the self-appointed journalist Matt Drudge single-handedly triggered the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal.

    “At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, NEWSWEEK magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!”, 17 January 1998

      “For it was in the wilds of cyberspace – not the morning newspaper – that the story of Bill Clinton’s alleged affair with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, first unfolded.” – – BBC, 25 January 1998

      “Holding the story wasn’t an issue for Matt Drudge, the maverick Internet reporter who authored the story. Mr. Drudge proudly admits that he has no editor but himself. On Saturday, he published the story to the Web’s world-wide audience plus, according to his own calculation, his more than 85,000 subscribers.”Ibid
      In an early interview about the scandal, former Clinton aide, George Stephanopoulos, dismissed the report. ‘And where did it come from? The Drudge Report. You know we’ve all seen how discredited that’s been.’…In the future, academics, politicians, and journalists aren’t likely to dismiss the Internet so quickly.” Ibid

  • A more recent example is what triggered Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott‘s resignation. Senator Lott’s otherwise unreported remarks at another senator’s birthday party, an event otherwise covered by the mainstream press, were picked up by, a weblog written by University of Tennessee Law Professor Glenn Reynolds, and by Talking Points Memo, a weblog run by political columnist Josh Marshall.
      “Joshua Marshall, whose is must reading for the politically curious, (is) more than anyone else, responsible for making Trent Lott’s offensive remarks the issue they deserve to be” — Paul Krugman’s The New York Times column, 13 December 2002.
  • There are local examples of this. In May, when pro-Palestinian activists attacked a group of Hillel students at San Francisco State University, there wasn’t much local press notice. But local bloggers jumped on the incident. And the San Francisco newspapers and broadcaster retroactively had to report the story.
  • At least one major news organization has taken notice of how individuals can start, promote, shape, and make issues online. I slide I’ve just put on the screen shows something that the British Broadcasting Corporation will launch on November 3rd, as part of the BBC’s ‘Digital DNA Project’. It’s called iCAN. If you’re a resident of the United Kingdom and you have some public issue you want to done or changed, the BBC will host a Web page for you, provide it with news items and news resource about your issue, help find other people who are also interested in your issue, even help create and publicize a local meeting of those people, so you can do and change what you want. Forget newspapers that give selected citizen’s ‘guest blogs’. The BBC’s iCAN is true ‘participatory journalism’.

    These three examples have been about blogs. Blogs are trendy (so disbelieve half the hype you hear about them.) Blogs are just some of many manifestations of the same thing I’m talking about, which can take many forms:

  • For example, in 1995, Time magazine published its ‘Cyberporn’ cover story. This was based upon a Carnegie-Mellon University study, which purported that 87% of the world’s Web sites were pornographic. Within days of its publication, a group of experts not unlike yourselves — experts in law, research, business, and the online media — gathered online in a discussion forum known as The WELL; collated their own multi-disciplinary research about the Internet; and brutally debunked the Time cover story. Time had to retract it.
  • A few years earlier, Time had published a photo essay that purported to show child prostitution rings operating inside Moscow’s fanciest hotels. It created such a scandal in Moscow that President Yeltsin ordered a parliamentary investigation. But within days of the photo essay’s publication, photojournalists in Moscow and elsewhere, who gathered online in CompuServe’s journalism forum, proved that photo essay to have been staged. Time magazine had to retract it and print an apology.
  • Two years ago in China, where the press and Internet are rigorously controlled, SARS broke out in one of the provinces, and the Beijing government wanted to keep that fact secret. What the government and its controlled press didn’t reckon on were 2.1 million mobile phone messages that the Chinese people themselves distributed to each other and to foreigners about the SARS outbreak. Here in the U.S., academics now call such impromptu, technologically equipped groups Smart Mobs.

    Meanwhile, the public is skeptical about governmental announcements, about corporate announcements, and about traditional media vehicles such as newspapers, news magazines, and news broadcasts. It is a strange world that we today live in.

  • The National Enquirer refuse to publish dirt about gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarznegger but the Los Angeles Times does, and gets public opprobrium for dishing it.
  • Fifty-five New York Times stories are found to be mostly or partly fabricated by a reporter who never leaves home to do his eyewitness reporting. His stories are edited and published by editors who take no notice that he’s never turned in any expense reports for his two years of purported travels. Etcetera.
  • The audiences of the major television networks keep declining.
  • Newspapers’ circulations and readerships keep declining.
    Where are people going?

    I’ll tell you. They are gravitating.

    The evolution of technology is letting them naturally gravitate towards whichever medium best satisfies each person’s unique mix of generic and specific interests.

  • We all share some generic interest (US vs. Iraq, the weather, etc.)
  • But we each have specific interests (the Green Bay Packers, Schnauzers, the films of Jack Lord, whatever!). You have different specific interests than you, even though you both might share the same generic interests.
  • And each of us is a unique mix of generic & specific interests.

    There has been only one trend in media during the past 30 years.

    Only one trend. It’s the people’s trend towards media vehicles that offer specific content. Some call it the trend towards ‘niche’. Some call it the ‘fracturing’ of audiences. But whatever it is called, it is people gravitating to wherever they can satisfy their own specific interests — generally at the expense of the traditional, generic media vehicles.

    What facilitated this was the evolution of media technologies during the past 40 years:

  • During the past forty years, breakthroughs in offset printing technologies led to the rise of niche magazines.
  • That, plus the technological development of cable and satellite television during the 1980s and 90s, triggered the decline of the most generic interest media vehicles.
  • Generic interest magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Look, and Life magzines — all of which used to have millions of subscribers, evaporated.
  • The circulations and readerships of generic interest newspapers in the U.S. began to decline.
  • Likewise, as viewers begun gravitating to the History Channel, the Golf Channel, the Cooking Channel, the Comedy Channel, and 100 other whatever else channels, the major generic interest television networks began their inexorable declines.
  • Then ten years ago, the Internet was opened for public access. People gained ready access to more than five million Websites and discussion groups about every conceivable specific interest. More than 600 million people (just like you) gravitated onto the Internet, overwhelmingly to satisfy specific interests that print and broadcast media vehicles didn’t satisfy.
  • Furthermore now, more than 700 million people have Internet-equipped mobile phones, because all new mobile phones manufactured since 1999 are digital and are ever-increasingly capable of Internet access. There are now more mobile phones in use worldwide today than wired phones, and now more in use today than personal computers. All mobile phones have at least some have Internet and messaging capabilities, which is how the Chinese people sent their SMS messages about SARS.. (Here in the US we’re a little behind the rest of the world in all this because our mobile phone systems are so lousy.)

    So, are phones a medium? No!

    But then neither is a newspaper a medium. TV isn’t a medium. Magazines aren’t media. Postal mail isn’t a medium. Websites aren’t media.

    No, newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, telephones, are just vehicles that convey information in various communication media.

    Only three communications media exist. Similar to how only three transportation media exist.

    Remember our transportation analogy? Remember how the only transportation media are land, water, and sky; and how we have vehicles, such as autos, ships, and airplanes, that convey things in those transportation media.

    And how our use of land and water doesn’t depend on technology? We can walk and swim. Technology has merely extended our speed, reach, and carrying capacities in those two media.

    Remember, too, how land and water have mutually exclusive characteristics. Their reaches and carrying capacities are totally different. Depending upon what you want to convey, you must use either one medium or the other.

    So, what are the three communications media? What are the media that we can use to convey information?

    The first two of the three communication media predate technology and have mutually exclusive characteristics:

    Interpersonal communication is the first communication medium. We commonly understand it as one person talking to one other person. Its hallmarks are that the content of communication is tailored to each participant’s unique mix of interests and that each participant equally shares control of the content. Its disadvantage is that no more than two participants can really use it; any more and the communication breaks down into cacophony.

    Among the vehicles of the Interpersonal Medium are conversation, postal mail, telephone, and e-mail.

    The second communication medium is what the mass of people colloquially refer to as ‘media.’ It is the Mass Medium. Its hallmarks are that the content can reach an almost unlimited number of recipients and that one person — generally a king, dictator, publisher, or broadcaster — has sole control of that content. The disadvantage of the Mass Medium is that the content must be the same to all recipients.

    Among the vehicles of the Mass Medium are royal decree, theatre, books, newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, and speeches like this one.

    Until very recently in human history, if you wanted to communicate, you had to make a choice between those two media: You could either send the same message to everyone or perfectly tailor you message to just one recipient. Just as you once had to choose between land or water transportation, no media could do both.

    But just like how the Wright Brothers used technology to create a totally new transportation medium that didn’t have the two previous media’s mutually exclusive advantages & disadvantages, so too has technology recently been used to create a totally new communication medium that doesn’t have the two previous media’s mutually exclusive advantages & disadvantages.

    The New Medium can simultaneously send an individually tailored message, edition, or program to everyone on a mass scale. And it lets every participant — be he consumer or publisher — equally share control. In fact, there need be no functional difference between publisher and consumer; either can be both.

    Truly, this is the New Medium.

    Websites aren’t a New Medium. Websites are merely vehicles that can convey information in any of the three media. Indeed, most websites are used by newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters to convey Mass Medium content that’s been shovelled into those sites. That’s not very bright to do, particularly when newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters could instead be using their Web sites for the New Medium purposes.

    As I mentioned, the New Medium is still in its very early stage — much like aviation was in 1903. Well, let me re-phrase that, the New Medium has had ten years of development, so its more like aviation was 1913. We’ve worked on it for ten years, gotten it a bit off the ground, although we still haven’t accomplished all that much with it.

    Consumers have begun using it to find a wide selection of specific web sites, specific discussion groups, and specific blogs – in addition to generic web sites. They still need generic content, so Mass Medium content will always be part of the mix.

    In the 21st Century, a newspaper’s website, digital edition, and printed edition offer each reader that individual’s unique mix of generic & specific content. All this today is possible with websites, digital editions, and digital presses, and is becoming financially practical in that order.

    What are the consequences of this New Medium, particularly for credibility and responsibility?

  • In general, audiences in all media will become sparser, flatter, and shallow. That’s a permanent change. It will have a shattering effect on the Mass Medium. The Mass Medium is never going back to the how it was during its heyday half a century ago.
  • For political and marketing purposes, audiences will become less monolithic. Politicians and propaganda will be less able to shape opinions. You probably tend to evaluate that statement over the short-term, say the past ten years; but seen over the past forty years, it is obvious.
  • A corollary of less monolithic audiences is that this New Medium makes it easier for the people to filter out garbage, propaganda, or detect omissions (such as in the Trend Lott example).
  • Likewise, marketers will be less able to create consumer demands and opinions. There will no longer be easy channels for mass marketing. This means that advertising will no longer be about sheer reach & frequencies. Instead, advertising will become about reaching the right people, not the most people.
  • For editors, the New Medium will naturally change their roles and process. For example, editors have long believed that one of their roles is to shape community opinion and to give their communities a common agenda. However, that has really just been a side effects of a technological limitations of the traditional Mass Medium. An analog printing press or an analog broadcast transmitter can only produce one edition or program at a time for everyone in the community. That limitation that doesn’t exist in the New Medium. So, there is no feasible reason to attempt carrying that limitation into the New Medium. In a world where people can individualize their own programming, will people really have a common agenda? How much guidance do people really need? Is choosing their own news their democratic right? And how do they know what’s really true?
  • And on practical level, things will change for editors. An editor today can eyeball all 100 stories that he packages into his traditional, ‘one-to-many’ Mass Medium edition. But tomorrow when his newspaper might be packaging different 100 stories for each reader, how does he proofread and libel-proof all the content he’s publishing? He will no longer a chef making a meal; he’ll managing an editorial sausage factory.

    I haven’t found the answers, just the questions. But let’s now move on to your questions. Thank you.