One of the effects of the “democratization of distribution” that has been created by the web and social media is that anyone can become a publisher and an information source in their own right — and that means advertisers, governments and even armies. In the same way, politicians can now reach out to their supporters much more effectively by detouring around the traditional media, as columnist Frank Bruni described in a recent piece in the New York Times. Does that mean we need journalists less than we used to, or more than we used to?
Bruni’s column, entitled “Who Needs Reporters?,” describes a series of recent events in which public figures did an end run around the mainstream media: in one case, former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann announced via a video message that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term in Congress, and in the second case former Congressman Anthony Weiner announced that he was going to make a bid to become mayor of New York City. A third incident involved Senator Hilary Clinton, who announced her views on gay marriage.
Has the fourth estate become less relevant?
The NYT columnist argues that this kind of end-run around the traditional media potentially does far more harm to the fourth estate than the much more controversial attacks on whistleblowers and journalists who have received government leaks:
“Our role and relevance are arguably even more imperiled by politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap. To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention.”
Bruni goes on to say the videos made by Clinton and Bachmann are “harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.” And he admits some may see the decline of the journalistic sector as a good thing, given the level of mistrust many have in the media — which he blames on “our cynicism, superficiality… and tendency to see all politics in terms of the contest rather than the content.”
In the end, the Times columnist argues that journalists are needed more than ever because the ability to reach an audience directly makes it easier for politicians to “construct a Potemkin identity, a facade at odds with anything behind it,” and therefore journalistic skills are required to get behind that facade and reveal the truth — or to “poke and meddle,” as he puts it.
Move up the journalism value chain
In a way, I would argue that the phenomenon of “sources going direct” (as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described it in the past) has the potential to make journalists — or at least journalism of a certain kind — both less necessary and more necessary at the same time.
What it makes less necessary is the kind of stenographic journalism that consists of simply showing up to a news conference and writing down what a politician says, or rewriting a press release that has been handed out. As Brian Stelter noted during a social-media weekend last year, if your job is just to get Rupert Murdoch to say things, having the News Corp. chairman saying things on Twitter to some extent makes your job a lot harder.
Looked at another way, however, this allows journalists of all kinds — both professional and amateur or “citizen” journalists — to move up the value chain, as disruption expert Clay Christensen has described in his recent paper on the evolution of media. If we see the media as providing a service (or “jobs to be done,” as Christensen calls it) then part of that service used to be telling people what politicians said, or what the government wanted them to hear.
Now that this can be accomplished largely (or increasingly) without journalists, it should free up a whole class of reporters to do more value-added journalism that explains what things mean, or questions the statements of politicians. All they have to do, as Om has explained, is choose what to amplify and what not to amplify. And won’t we all be better off if that happens?