What would you do if Twitter stopped tweeting and YouTube suddenly went off the air?
Particularly if you lived in a community where television outlets were consolidating, radio stations had cut local programming, and the venerable daily newspaper was on the verge of shutting down?
No doubt, with Internet access and decent search skills, you would still be able to choose from an unprecedented array of news, information, and entertainment sources to find the material you wanted. But not before you glimpsed what happens at the moment when an old business model begins to die, before the new way of doing things is quite ready for prime time.
That may seem like a preposterous way to describe Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Second Life, and the host of other new media platforms that are competing for our scarce time and attention. But it’s amazing, apparently, how a big hit of venture capital can shift perceptions and distort reality.
Many of us are increasing our reliance on social media, sometimes to a fault—I often wonder how some of the more frequent users find time for their day jobs between tweets. But that doesn’t mean the sites are making money. According to a recent Silicon Valley Insider column, YouTube is on track to lose nearly $500 million this year.
“Despite massive growth, ubiquitous global brand awareness, presidential endorsement, and the world’s greatest repository of illegally-pirated video content, Google’s massive video folly is on life-support, and the prognosis is grave,” wrote Benjamin Wayne, CEO of Fliqz, on April 9.
“YouTube cannot maintain its current course and remain a going concern,” Wayne said. “Google can continue to fund the experiment for a period of time, but at some juncture, shareholders will ask hard questions.”
All of which leads toward the scary conclusion that we may someday find ourselves between media models, just as surely as millions of our friends and colleagues are currently between jobs.
There’s mounting evidence that the old media are done, or soon will be, with veteran journalists speculating openly about the future of their profession.
But now, the other shoe is beginning to drop: it isn’t at all clear that the mega-social media sites have figured out how to deliver meaningful, targeted knowledge, as opposed to a mounting deluge of gossip, trivia, and unsubstantiated opinion (this opinion included). And after reading analysts like Wayne, you would be forgiven for fretting that the social media bubble is just the leading edge of the next IT bust.
Then again, if the social media aren’t ready to take on the legacy of a hard-edged, hard-driving newsroom, they aren’t alone. Most mass media outlets abandoned that legacy long ago.
In an impassioned defence of their profession and their craft, columnists like The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz point out that bloggers won’t have the journalism skills to break major investigative stories, nor the resources to send news teams into war zones. They’re right, but the problem is the large number of news outlets that do no better: when entertainment supersedes news and quick, superficial headlines replace meticulous research, journalism is in no position to criticize.
It wasn’t that many years ago that I was schooled in a much more rigorous tradition. The inspirations were reporters like the Post‘s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal, or the iconic independent journalist I.F. Stone.
A generation later, a recent opinion poll found that fewer U.S. citizens could identify Woodward and Bernstein as journalists than could name Bill O’Reilly, the biased and bombastic Fox News host whose practices are so very far from any standards of journalism I ever learned in school. How sadly fitting that Gary Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, recently brought an end to the crusading career of Rick Redfern, the fictitious Post reporter who was loosely modelled on “Woodstein”.
But this conversation is bigger than the demise of any one content medium, bigger than the future financing of social media.
A central assumption in any democracy is that citizens need steady access to reliable information to make sound decisions. For better or worse, those decisions shape our communities and our economies.
In our day-to-day decisions, when economists count on the prices of different goods and services to guide consumer behaviour, they implicitly (and, for the most part, unrealistically) assume very wide access to accurate information. As that information becomes more varied and complex, the social media should be an important part of the solution. But only one part, and only if consumers have the time and insight to put a cascade of content to good use. The moment we hit the limit of crowd-sourced solutions, we move into a realm where social media can’t give us the knowledge we need to function in a modern society.
Against that backdrop, as journalism gets less journalistic, conference reporting becomes more so. With the Green Meetings Portal, we’re trying to build an online community of interest by providing balanced, third-party coverage of onsite content in a specific area of interest.
We don’t claim to be objective about the importance of green meetings or sustainability. We don’t imagine that our grandchildren would want us to be. But once we’ve set our story lineup for a conference, the reporting is just the facts. In contrast to the neighbourhood blogger or the talking heads on Fox, our job is to provide reliable information to help our readers form their own opinions, rather than inundating them with ours.
The Portal is generating a lot of interest. We hope it will become the model for a new method of capturing, synthesizing, and distributing knowledge. But one small company producing several or many conference content portals won’t make a real dent in the problem.
The wisdom of a thousand bloggers won’t, either.
And neither format will replace the ability of true investigative journalism to dig deep, ask probing questions, and come up with the story behind the prepared statements. To that extent, Kurtz and others are right: You won’t find us reporting from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, and a legion of bloggers would be unlikely to break stories like the scandalous neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The gradual disappearance of any viable way to finance that kind of reporting should concern us all. We’ve already lost much of the substance of traditional media, and now we’re beginning to lose the shell. But at this writing, we have little or nothing to take their place. (Tune in to Eyewitless News for film at 11, but don’t expect much of an update.)