Great minds think

Ethan Zuckerman

Co-founder of Global Voices and self-described activist, blogger, and geek

Q: Do you see Global Voices as supplementing newspapers, or replacing them - or what role does it play?

More than a supplement, not a replacement, but a complement to what's out there. One of the things we said early on is that you'd be crazy to give up your morning newspaper and read Global Voices instead. We're not comprehensive. What we are doing is giving you insight from one particular corner of the media. And that particular corner is what's being said in the citizen media. Sometimes, citizen media has stories no one else has. Often, citizen media has commentary. But in no way have we ever meant it to be the alternative to really responsible journalism.

Q: What traditional journalism publications do you read?

I read The New York Times almost daily online or on my phone. I read The Atlantic fairly often. I read Foreign Policy on a very regular basis. I read The Economist quite often...The Guardian. I occasionally read some of the African newspapers I follow.

Q: What's your read on the roots of the current crisis in journalism?

The biggest problem is it has been hard for professional journalists to separate economic problems from technology problems. Effectively what has happened is there has been a series of economic problems that have affected the news industry that are coincidental with the rise of electronic media but aren't necessarily caused by the rise of electronic media.

Electronic media has helped lead to a rationalization of the advertising market. People have been paying irrational prices for ads for a very, very long time. And what has ended up happening is the Internet is a great market leveling force. Unsurprisingly, that has greatly brought down prices for advertising. That factor, along with the Internet, has been a big contributor but not necessarily the sole cause.

The Internet ended up hitting publishing in one direction - and had it not been the Internet it would have been something else; there would have been some way to rationalize that market. What's really hard about it is the world of journalists has, in some cases, responded by firing with all barrels: Not only is the Internet bad because it's killing our business. It's also killing quality. It's also killing journalistic standards. It's also killing objectivity.

Instead, what could have happened is, if you looked closely, you could see that this blogging model is a really nice way of responding to fast-moving news, perhaps we'll do some of it ourselves. And obviously that would have been a much healthier reaction than that initial reaction of fear and loathing.

Q: Other factors in journalism's crisis?

A lot of the crisis in journalism is self-inflicted and it's had to do with the rise of opinion journalism in mainstream outlets. For me, a huge amount of what comes into play is the rise of Fox News, MSNBC, and other hyper-partisan media. I might even start with Rush Limbaugh. When you've had such thorough blurring between fact-based reporting and ill-informed opinion with extreme partisanship attached to it, and then to accuse the blogosphere of being hyper-partisan, that's just absurd. In the U.S., we've ended up with this hyper-partisan media environment for the simple reason that it sells. And once you open up Pandora's Box in a participatory media environment you have to assume everybody else is going to join in with it. And that's obviously what has happened. I would probably put that as the chief actor, rather than advertising, although the advertising issue is an incredibly critical piece of the equation.

Q: Has there been a tipping point in hyper-partisan media in the last 5, 10 years?

Cable has been an enormous tipping point - the ability to ideologically isolate yourself. It also has to do with a change in political tone. You saw under the Bush administration essentially the acceptance of the idea that we would have certain communication that was no longer reality-based. It was essentially going to be based solely on opinion-based media. It's what happens when you're able to surround yourself only with the media that agrees with you. It allows you to reinforce your own views, although it appears to be a diversity of views. The ability to seek out reinforcing opinions via cable or via the Internet is much easier to do than in an earlier media age. It's helpful if I'm accessing high quality media. It can be distressing if I'm accessing Drudge Report, Fox News, a variety of right-wing blogs plus Glenn Beck, at which point I'm getting an ecosystem of poor, distorted information. But it's reinforcing me in such a way that is hard to ignore it.

Q: What would you say are the legitimate social implications of newspapers and journalism continuing to struggle?

Well, someone needs to be finding facts. There is real reporting that has to be done, so that we can all act as civic actors on a local, national, and global scale. What's hard is we appear to be willing to hand over that work to organizations like the Associated Press and Reuters who, to be perfectly honest, don't do that work all that well. They're doing it in such a plain jane fashion that the information is there if you're willing to reach out and grab it but it's certainly not compelling to anyone who isn't already following the story. Even there it could be threatened over time if we don't figure out an economic model.

So we're rapidly heading toward some sort of a crisis point around several different types of journalism. Investigative journalism, statehouse journalism, and international journalism are three spaces where I am deeply worried about our ability to provide high quality coverage over the long term. A certain amount of investigative, fact-based media is necessary to have a functioning democracy.

I would like to make an argument for public media, but those arguments tend not to play very well in a U.S. context.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of journalism, particularly regarding its role in democracy and in a U.S. context?

To the extent that journalism is about sharing information we all need to be civic actors, I see an incredible amount of creativity. I see people trying all sorts of different media, all sorts of different economic models. I see some extremely creative and exciting people getting involved with asking and answering these questions.

I am a bit depressed by the hyper-partisanship of contemporary politics, and I'm upset with the fact that much of the innovation seems to have been quite partisan, quite political. I'm disappointed in a way that much of the exciting work has tended to happen in blogs, which tend to be a very politicized space.

One of the things I'm hoping for is that as people start looking for other ways to secure and share media that we might see people making an effort to get some more diversity into their media diets. That people will start looking at this function of journalism curation, through Twitter and Facebook, and challenging each other, saying, do you really want to be hearing the same voice over and over again? Don't you want to make sure you're getting a broad view?

Q: How can newspapers and journalism thrive going forward?

Newspapers have got to get a lot more open about taking input from their readers. You're just going to have to have much more widespread participation than you've ever had. Some of that may be comments. Some of that may be blogs. Some of that may be increased interactivity. But in general, we're going to see that boundary between the professional and the reader break down more and more.

Second, you're going to start seeing people raise money and raise attention around specific issues people care about. Something like is a very interesting movement. I don't know if it works well in its current form, but people saying, “Hey, we really care about this issue,” and we're going to subsidize reporting around it, is actually pretty powerful and serious.

Q: Of the three areas you're most concerned about - investigative, statehouse, international - which is most imperiled?

I see a good deal of activity in the U.S. around community level journalism. I see a decent amount of innovation going on. I think it's possible that many communities will find ways to raise money to do the local, and even the statehouse stuff.

The investigative stuff, ProPublica has an amazing model. It's doing a gorgeous job of pushing that forward. I'd love to see a whole lot more flowers bloom.

Where I don't see an enormous amount of innovation going on is in the international space. I look at us. I look at Global Post. I look at some of the models that are playing around with translation. But I just don't see the energy around it. And I also see a lot of people asking tough questions, like: Why should I care? Why should I pay attention to international? That's actually difficult to respond to.

Q: How do you answer that last question, “Why should I pay attention to international”?

If you don't have international information, you can't make decisions about what issues to care about, what issues to investigate, what issues to participate in. We're also at a moment in history where most of the economic opportunities, and most of the threats, are international in scale. If you want to be empowered to act as an economic actor, as a creative actor, as a political actor, it's critical to be looking at the international space.

Q: Do you think the Internet and the digital age could usher in some of journalism's best moments?

In the long run, digital media is a much better fit for journalism than paper or broadcast. Having the ability to be interactive, having the ability to take input from readers, having the ability to get over this incredible distribution problem; think about what a crazy scenario it is to distribute a print newspaper, what an amazing logistical and engineering task that is. What happens is you can free people up and say, Okay, no more logistical challenges anymore. Instead, all you have to do is focus on producing the information, the value. You've really changed the equation quite radically. You can correct in ways you couldn't do previously. So bad information doesn't have to stay out there. You can give people right of response. You have the possibility of producing extremely diverse views by linking. There's essentially no longer a shortage of space.

I'm hugely bullish on digital journalism. We've got to figure out how to pay for it. We've got to figure out how to make sure we don't just get the candy, that we get the broccoli. And we've got to figure out how to get people to pay attention. Attention might be the biggest problem in a digital game.

Spring 2011

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