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June 26, 2008

Migration Point for the Press Tribe

"Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable."

(This is a revised version of the talk I gave to the Personal Democracy Forum, June 23, 2008. Originally published at TechPresident, same day. I have been using the “migration” image for a while, but felt it needed fuller expression. Hence…)

We are early in the rise of semi-pro journalism, but well into the decline of an older way of life within the tribe of professional journalists. I call them a tribe because they share a culture and a sense of destiny, and because they think they own the press— that it’s theirs somehow because they dominate the practice.

The First Amendment says to all Americans: you have a right to publish what you know, to say what you think. That right used to be abstractly held. Now it is concretely held because the power to publish has been distributed to the population at large. Projects that cause people to exercise their right to a free press strengthen the press, whether or not these projects strengthen the professional journalist’s “hold” on the press.

The professional news tribe is in the midst of a great survival drama. It has over the last few years begun to realize that it cannot live any more on the ground it settled so successfully as the industrial purveyors of one-to-many, consensus-is-ours news. The land that newsroom people have been living on—also called their business model—no long supports their best work. So they have come to a reluctant point of realization: that to continue on, to keep the professional press going, the news tribe will have to migrate across the digital divide and re-settle itself on terra nova, new ground. Or as we sometimes call it, a new platform.

Migration-which is easily sentimentalized by Americans—is a community trauma. Pulling up stakes and leaving a familiar place is hard. Within the news tribe some people don’t want to go. These are the newsroom curmudgeons, a reactionary group. Others are in denial still, or they are quietly drifting away from journalism. Many are being shed as the tribe contracts and its economy convulses. A few are admitting that it’s time to panic.

And like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them, when to leave, where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life, and which parts were well adapted to the old world but may be unnecessary or a handicap in the new. They have to ask if what they know is portable. What life will be like across the digital sea is of course an unknown to the migrant. This creates an immediate crisis for the elders of the tribe, who have always known how to live.

That’s hard enough. But even more difficult—and more challenging to the political wisdom of the tribe—is that on the terrain where the press has to be re-built, there are people already there, like Jane Hamsher, Roger L. Simon, Arianna Huffington and Glenn Reynolds. And they’re busy, building a kind of alternative civilization to professionalized news and commentary, which nonetheless makes use of the old press and its industry.

One of the most perplexing questions journalists today face is what to make of these determined settlers and their ways, how to stand toward them.

Across the digital divide the conditions for doing journalism are quite different. I’ll give you the highlights. Communication is two way, and many-to-many. Horizontal sharing is as important as top-down messaging. Readers have become writers and the people formerly know as the audience are flourishing as content producers, expert sharers and self-guided consumers.

This is something the news tribe did not understand went it first went online around 1996. It saw the Web as a good way to re-purpose its content from the old platform; and while the Web can do that, the idea of re-purposing news content had a huge intellectual cost. It did not help the tribe understand the ground on which it had to rebuild. It permitted the press to delay the date of migration.

Today, the press is shared territory. It has pro and amateur zones. This is appropriate because press freedom is itself shared territory. It belongs equally to the amateur and the pro. Online the two zones connect, and flow together. (Go to Memeorandum to see how.) It still works vertically: press to public. It also works horizontally: peer to peer. Part of it is a closed system—and closed systems are good at enforcing editorial controls—the other part is an open system.

Open systems are good at participation, community formation, and locating intelligence anywhere in the network. They are good at sharing, and getting good at surfacing the good stuff. The two editorial systems don’t work the same way. One does not replace the other. They are not enemies, either. We need to understand a lot better how they can work together.

And that is where the idea of pro-am journalism comes from. I think the hybrid forms will be the strongest—openness with some controls, amateurs with some pros—but that means we have to figure out how these hybrid forms work. Arianna Huffington, Amanda Michel, Mayhill Fowler, Marc Cooper and myself, along with 3,000 signed-up members are in the midst of one attempt, OffTheBus.

Arianna and I wanted to join forces for the election, but we didn’t have a clear idea for how to do that until we had the name, OffTheBus. We felt the on-the-bus press had failed to innovate and wasn’t going to open itself very far. We wanted to extend the powers of the campaign press to those outside the professional club, people without credentials but with convictions and a participant’s pride in politics. What Huffington Post did to column writing by signing up thousands of bloggers we wanted to do to campaign journalism by signing up thousands of helpers.

Our idea: you can report on politics from wherever you are within it. You do not have to be located in the “press” zone to be part of the campaign press. We would filter their best stuff to the front page. From there we could inject it into the national conversation via Huff Post. We would try a distributed reporting model for campaign coverage.

Toward the horse race narrative, we would “begin anew,” as Zephyr Teachout said to open this event, something “off” the usual path. As Clay Shirky told us, “Group action just got easier.” We wanted to put that insight into practice, for somewhere in there is a new press.

Finally, I think it’s time we expanded the press, don’t you? This means we have to expand our ideas about it. And that’s what conferences like this one are for.

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After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

This post was translated into French. Thanks, Jean-Marie Le Ray. It is also in Italian.

C-Span taped the Personal Democracy Forum events. You can watch it here.

Scott Rosenberg thinks that this analysis is “accurate as far as it goes, and offers a useful metaphor, but that it lets the ‘tribe’ off too easily.”

A must read and possibly the best bloggers vs. journalists column yet written: Roy Greenslade: Why journalists must learn the values of the blogging revolution. (Before they migrate, I might add.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 26, 2008 1:40 AM