The Journalism Foundation is pleased to announce the beginning of a new collaboration with PBS MediaShift. This collaboration will see the two organisations share content in a bid to enhance debate on new media developments across the US, the UK, and beyond. The Journalism Foundation editor Arion McNicoll spoke to MediaShift editor Mark Glaser about his thoughts on the future of media.
What is Mediashift? How did it come about?
MediaShift began as a one-man blog run by me and hosted and funded by PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in 2006. The idea was to look at the way that traditional media (newspapers, TV, radio, music, movies, books) were being disrupted by digital technology and the Internet. Thus, the motto: Your Guide to the Digital Media Revolution. My producer at PBS at the time thought that statement might be too strong, but on the contrary, we have seen an amazing revolution in all these areas with the advent of social media, streaming video, user-generated content and so much more.
With grant funding from the Knight Foundation I was able to launch a sister site Idea Lab (pbs.org/idealab) as a place to learn about innovators in community news. I was also able to start selling sponsorships on the site and hired editors, marketers and a sales manager to help support me, while the sites became online magazines with dozens of contributors. One area of coverage that I never expected at the start has been education, and how journalism and communications schools are dealing with change. Another big subject has been technology overload and the need for people to find balance in their lives with the technology all around them. Last February we launched our third site, Collaboration Central (collaborationcentral.org), examining how people can work together better in the digital age.
PBS is an absolute institution in the States, but perhaps not so well known over here. Can you give us a brief background on the organisation?
The Public Broadcasting Service in the U.S. is our flagship public media TV broadcaster, similar to what you have with the BBC in Britain. However, it is supported by its member local stations around the country, as well as some government support, and some commercial underwriting. It doesn’t have the advantage of BBC with the TV tax, but it has very high support from the public because of its history of diverse programming for children (“Sesame Street”) as well as well-respected news (“Newshour,” “Frontline”). While some of its programming has found competitors on cable TV such as History Channel, Animal Planet and Nickelodeon, it remains non-commercial and has had newfound street cred with the hit “Downton Abbey” show and a popular Facebook and Twitter presence.
Your own career has been very largely in tech and future media reporting, are you also concerned with old forms of media? Do you think there is still a place for print? And how do you think print media is changing to accommodate the rise of digital news? Can the two coexist?
My career has definitely been a mix of tech and online journalism, but I’ve also spent time working at a few print magazines, so I understand the past, present and future as well as I can. I’m not really “concerned” about old forms of media any more than I am concerned about the Betamax or 8-track tape. The formats are always changing for media, but the issue is the quality of the content and my hope is that even if more people read content on a tablet than a print publication, they will still value it and a business model can be found (and will be found) to support it.
At the moment, there still is a place for print and that’s why we still see free newspapers strewn about the subway cars in London, and why many niche magazines still do well. Print media will only survive if the publishers and editors and people at the top understand how people want to get their information and deliver it to them that way. If they want it in print, give it to them that way, but the trick is figuring out how to serve the entrenched audience while also attracting a new audience on newer platforms. Yes, print and online can and do co-exist at many publications.
In what ways do you think that the consumption of news has shifted in the last two decades?
I think the biggest shift for news consumption has been the rise of the Internet. It didn’t really kill older media as much as provide another outlet for content, both old and new. And what began as web browsing for news and online forums in the 90s has now shifted to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. That’s not going away.
How do you attempt to reach your audience and across which platforms?
I go where my audience is as much as possible. That means online at my websites, as well as on the main website for PBS.org. And it means that we’re active on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and YouTube. And lately, we’ve been hosting a series of in-person events that have been very well received. In the digital age, I think face-to-face contact is undervalued and of utmost importance. And while we haven’t used them much, I know many publications have had success on Tumblr and Pinterest.
Do you think that social media will change news radically? In future, will the news agenda be set by the people (via social media) rather than by television and newspapers?
It’s already happening to a certain degree. What you see trending on Twitter often pre-dates what you see in newspapers, on radio or even cable news. More people than ever seem to get their news from friends on Facebook than from the front page of a newspaper or from a nightly TV news anchor. The changing of the guard for our gatekeepers has changed but it’s happened without fanfare and from the bottom up, so it’s not always as obvious to the public. The role of legacy media is slowly changing to be smart filters for the social feeds.
In what ways are traditional forms of media dealing with so-called ‘digital disruption’? Do you think their response has been sufficient?
Their responses really vary, and are all over the map. Early on in the mid to late 90s, they decided the best thing was to create “online divisions” and put some geeks in a corner. Then after the dot-com crash, they starved those divisions of resources. Then with the rise of social media and blogging, they launched their own blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. It’s really been a yo-yo effect, and now they are all trying to be the first to go “digital first” putting digital before legacy media. Until they are owned, run and edited by people with true digital DNA they will continue to struggle.
Is citizen journalism filling the gaps left by local newspaper closures? Can one be substituted for the other?
It’s only filling the gaps in fits and starts. In the U.S. we saw a lot of “hyper-local” startups try to use citizen journalism to produce local reporting, but most of those efforts failed. Now we have AOL trying all over again with Patch, and with some professional journalists and some amateurs. I think the future will have a mix of the two, some pros and some amateurs who are trained to do journalism right.
Do you think citizen journalism is sustainable?
Yes, in the right environment and with the right oversight and training. See what happened at the Bleacher Report, a sports fan-generated site recently bought by Turner.
In the UK, the Leveson Inquiry has been rolling on for almost a year. Has its impact been felt in the States?
Yes, when the phone hacking scandal hit, we were all enthralled by what was happening for a few weeks. But as with most stories (especially outside our borders), we lost interest and were more caught up in our own domestic dramas. But the effects of what happened at News Corp. is still a big story here, and more so now that they are splitting into two companies.
How do you think people will get their news in ten years / twenty years?
My guess is in more ways than they do even now, and from more sources too. What the Internet has been really good at is democratising media, giving more people a voice, from bloggers to podcasters to Facebookers and beyond. My hope is that continues, spreads to more places around the world (as during the Arab Spring) and these new voices learn how to support themselves so they can be valuable to their communities. I’m especially hopeful that crowdfunding platforms (Kickstarter, Spot.us) and direct support can help journalists of all stripes continue to reach and serve local audiences.
Mark Glaser is the Executive Editor of PBS MediaShift, which covers the intersection of media and technology. Follow @PBSMediaShift for Twitter updates, follow their Facebook page, or subscribe to the daily email newsletter.