Great minds think

Henry Jenkins

Media scholar and Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC School of Cinematic Arts

Q: You have been doing scholarly studies of many of the areas that are impacting journalism/newspapers/news-gathering - participatory culture, convergence media, spreadable media, new media literacies, youth and public engagement, civic media, trans-media storytelling. What forces did mainstream journalism entities fail to see about what was going on in the world in the last 10 years?

By far the most powerful force hitting journalism over the past decade has been the rise of social media. By social media, I do not simply mean particular tools and platforms - like Twitter or Facebook. After all, the news industry has confronted these new tools in ways that are consistent with their older philosophies and practices - as means of delivering professionally produced content to their readers, as another way of directing attention to their news stories (not unlike a headline or a street hawker), but not as a means of meaningfully engaging in communication with their publics. Social media has paved the way for a mind-set which involves the collective production, circulation, curation, and consumption of media content. Media becomes not something we consume but a resource we mobilize in the course of our ongoing conversations with friends, families, co-workers, and larger communities who share our passions and interests. As a result, news consumption is now much more a collective than a solitary experience...

Q: If you had to name one, what's the single biggest causal factor to the current turbulent state of journalism?

What it means to read has changed dramatically as we've entered a network culture. The old business models are not working in part because they are based on old understandings of what it means to read a newspaper. We still imagine the classic image of the gentleman having breakfast, sipping tea, and his newspaper open in front of him, seeking refuge from any and all interruptions. Now, swap the newspaper for the computer. The problem is, while some of us old timers may still read the newspaper that way, most of us do not. We follow links sent by our friends. We catch news on apps we read while riding the bus to school or work. We check out blogs or Twitter feeds from folks we know have a good track record of identifying news content which matters to us. We are constantly checking news because news comes to us through every conversation we have throughout the day. So, until the business models for news are aligned with how people are consuming news, rather than trying to discipline us to continue old practices in a new context, they are going to fail to capture much of the public interest in news, and they are going to seem increasingly odd to younger readers who have come up in a much more participatory culture.

Q: What are the legitimate social and political implications of the destabilization going on in the journalism and newspaper domain?

We really do not know where all of this is leading. My personal bet is we are seeing the death of many specific newspapers and magazines, but we are not seeing the death of the newspaper. We are going to see consolidation of local newspapers into regional papers. We are going to see the specialization of certain newspaper around topics they are especially equipped and located to cover and which can generate national rather than local interest. You are going to see new business models which support the reading of smaller chunks of news rather than assuming we will read the newspaper as a whole. We may start to think of news as a service rather than as a product in so far as we want a continuous flow of information and not a bounded unit, like the daily newspaper.

We are learning that people now prefer transparency to objectivity so we might also assume that the news could function as a site for discussion and action. They might provide resources, facilitate discussions, and foster skills citizens need to act intelligently in response to their changing environment. In the absence of professional journalists playing those roles, we will see groups which are far less benign in their goals, accurate in their information, stepping in to fill those functions. The press, at least, has stakes in preserving the infrastructure of democracy and building long-standing relations with the public, as opposed to simply turning up the heat towards short term, partisan goals.

Q: “Future of journalism” - what comes to mind?

I have been teaching a class at USC this semester called Civic Media. I define civic media as "any use of any technology for the purposes of increasing civic engagement and public participation, enabling the exchange of meaningful information, fostering social connectivity, constructing critical perspectives, insuring transparency and accountability, or strengthening citizen agency." These are what I see as core functions which have to be in place in order to support civic participation. Many, though not all, of these functions have classically been performed at least in part by professional journalists, though we have had a range of other institutions and practices which also contribute to these functions. Rather than thinking about the future of journalism, which presupposes the problem is what is going to happen to journalists, I prefer to ask the question, what is the future of civic media, and then we can start to divide up these functions and determine how the needs of citizens can best be met. Some of these remain very much the domain of professional journalists who have skills, training, resources, and connections which make them the perfect vehicle to serve citizen's informational needs. Some of them may be better served by non-journalists. I prefer this to "citizens" since journalists are also citizens or "amateurs" since some of the participants are professionals in fields other than journalists. We are living through a transitional moment where the functions of the press are being recalibrated to respond to new institutions and practices that have emerged around networked computing.

Q: Are you future-positive or future-negative on journalism?

If by positive, you mean that I see there being a continued role for professional journalists in our society, then the answer is yes. But I would also see a future where the public assumed greater ownership over the production and spread of information to be a positive one, especially if coupled with rigorous training in media literacy, and an ongoing conversation about the ethical implications of these emerging practices. We will certainly experience bumps in the coming decades as these functions get recalibrated, as people grow into new responsibilities, and as we work out what business models will support the kinds of news we need. But the history of journalism shows us many such recalibrations in the past and yet the free press has continued to be a vital participant in fostering democratic citizenship.

For me, a negative world would be one where citizens did not have the kinds of reliable information they needed to hold governments and companies accountable for their actions, for communities to look after their own interests. Certainly, there are many scary developments right now which puts some of this in jeopardy in the short run. In a world where more than 20 percent of the public thinks Obama was not born in the United States or that he is secretly a Muslim, I worry about the supply of reliable, credible information, and our willingness to accept information which counters our own deeply held but poorly grounded feelings about the world. I worry about a world when information about U.S. military action is dumped onto Wikileaks rather than vetted by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Q: What is your work on “new media literacies” about?

This work has many implications, ranging from the need to take seriously the activities of fan communities, subcultures, and other grassroots media makers to the needs for producers of popular culture to take more seriously the kinds of resources they are offering their consumers. From the perspective of journalism, there are several implications. So many of the young people we are interviewing in our work do not feel engaged by the language through which politics is most often discussed. There is a tendency towards insularity - so that if you are not already following political debates, it can be hard to find a point of entry into the conversation. The language used is specialized and not part of our everyday discourse. It is focused heavily on the day to day battles between political forces but not sufficiently focused on the long term vision of society which is being promoted through these tactics. It is partisan rather than seeking alternative ways of working together towards common ends. It does little to foster the skills needed by citizens to participate. It generally does not cover the issues which young people feel matter about the world today. I believe that understanding how, when, and why young people do get involved in politics may help us redefine a number of existing institutions and practice, much as the work being done on informal learning outside of schools is helping us to redesign schools, after-school programs, libraries, and museums to better serve the coming generation. In the case of journalism, the first step may be deciding that they want to actually engage young people with conversations about politics, a big choice at a time of limited resources and when all signs are that the newspapers are reaching older and older readers, while losing youth to The Daily Show, Colbert, and a range of other sites which merge politics and popular culture. On the one hand, expanding the youth market may be a critical economic mandate, but on the other, shifting what gets covered and how may put the core market at risk.

Q: What must journalism and newspapers do differently to survive and then thrive in the next generation?

1. They need to think of their stories as "spreadable" content - content which moves across the Web and takes on value as it gets inserted into a range of ongoing conversations. We need to stop thinking about people as newspaper readers and think of them as members of a range of different kinds of communities who seek out information - including news - in order to support their social exchanges.

2. They need to think of themselves not simply as informing the public but as convening publics, as creating occasions where important conversations can take place and moderating the exchanges so that everyone can be heard.

3. They need to expand their outreach to the young and in doing so, seek a new language to explain the place of politics in our everyday lives. In this case, this may involve fostering the new media literacy and civic skills to meaningfully engage with the most important conversations of our times.

Q: Some good examples of journalism that is taking advantage of digital-age tools and digital-age thinking?

To cite two recent examples, I am very much impressed by the work being done with Juan Devis, through KCET's Departures Project in Los Angeles. He's working with communities, often poor communities, to help them change the ways they get represented through the media. This involves collaborations between professional media producers and producers in training (often through media literacy programs he's helped to organize) who are more fully embedded in those communities. It involves the use of mapping tools to help organize and ensure access to a range of media produced by non-journalists but speaking to their concerns, their history, their shared values as members of specific communities. You can see more here at

Another is a former student, Joellen Easton, who is helping to organize the Public Insight Network for Public Radio International. This is a network which identifies large networks of everyday citizens who have something vital to contribute to our understanding of public issues and transforms them into a database which journalists can tap as they are working on a story. You can see more here -

Spring 2011

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