Newspaper culture, authority, social media, and relevance

Stowe Boyd has an excellent post today on social news. While at first I was going to just leave a comment, my thoughts ascended from commentary to a post in their own right. Not wanting to blogjack Stowe’s points, I’d like to continue the conversation by means of referencing the debate around newsprint’s decline and the economic threat to journalism here instead.

As I see it the problem facing traditional news media is not just a problem of old media, new media. Indeed, as McLuhan argued, any new medium initially uses an old medium as its content. Old media methods and practices aren’t about to disappear simply because attention is shifting increasingly to social media — a consequence of changing reading habits, advertising budgets, expenses and costs of maintaining and print publication in challenging credit markets, a shift from time spent by consumers in print and television to internet-based experiences, and so on.

All those forces are real and are exacting a punishing toll on traditional media, of course. But there’s another paradigm shift in the works, and it has less to do with economic forces and more to do with the very social and cultural function of news.

News is not simply reported; it is produced. News media create the news. Their reporting not only documents facts, but through processes of editorial, publishing, and distribution, it also creates the news. The legitimacy of traditional media rested on the authority news media brought to this process. This authority in turn comprised of several “social functions,” if you will. For there were different ways in which news media established their positions, defined their roles, and maintained their market leadership and service:

Authority can be had by means of reputation. This is a perception issue, and is maintained by consistent adherence by news organizations to internal (brand) principles, commitments, interests, style, judgment, taste, truth, personality, accuracy, speed, and so on. In this way news organizations might each command a different reputation, a brand identified with authority of a kind, or in a field, or within a genre. In other words authority can be had by a news media leader regardless of its actual credibility and service as a news gathering and reporting organization.

Left of center, right of center, news “lite,” — the audience of readers either buys it, and thus legitimizes the organization’s authority, or not. This point is important because we should separate authority from the “truth” of reporting events, and the “fact” of news itself. News is created: the process is owned by for profit institutions, and seeks market share and financial performance. News is never just an objective recording of events, but is always a selection and narration of events.

Authority can be had by means of position. This is a general perspective on authority. It claims simply that an authoritative social position bestows authority on the organization, entity, or individual who occupies the position. From a cultural and historical perspective, new media have long occupied a traditional position of delivering timely, relevant, significant, and objective reporting of events, topics, issues, and perspectives. This tradition is surely changing — not only because news media are no longer the best first source of news itself, but because other media (social) compete for the position of authority.

This argument does not claim that social media are better or more accurate, faster or more honest — these are some claims made by citizen journalists and I agree with many of them — it simply claims that authority is a social and cultural function, and that the function can be fulfilled by different entities. (Functionalism argues that the function remains relatively stable, but who fulfills the function is interchangeable.)

There are other ways of defining authority, but I’ll leave those aside as they relate more to contexts in which power and force are in play. Now, there’s an interesting change taking place in the migration of consumers from mainstream media to social media. It’s not just in the content, the communication and “conversation,” the social networking and personalization of media, but does involve all of these. We might characterize it more broadly as a change in modes of consumption and modes of production. And here it is where traditional media are at a distinct and overwhelming disadvantage, for their medium of choice is the wrong medium.

In the traditional medium, value is added to news by the production of news as a news medium for mass consumption. The work of producing news was the work that created value for the news organization, and which is consumed by readers and viewers. The mode of production of news was separate from the consumption of news. Social media, by contrast, involve consumers in the process of value creation. The mode of production is also the mode of consumption. There’s no distance separating the two: distance that normally permits the transaction fees that cover distribution, circulation, and broadcast.

Furthermore, the value determined in traditional journalism by means of authority as described above, is now determined instead by means of social communication and interaction. This leads to a shift in the value itself: from the editorial voice and authority of journalism to the personal and social relevance of friends, colleagues, and other social relations. Value is no longer measured in degrees of authority but in degrees of relevance. Note the distinction, for there’s no underestimating the significance of this shift. It’s a change that, for better or worse, re-calibrates the consumer’s interest in and consumption of news.

News is no longer “that which is important” and is now “that which is socially relevant.” Social relevance rests not on value as determined by a scale or hierarchy of significance (what’s worth telling, objectively assessed) but that which is distributed, shared, retold, cited, referenced, quoted, linked to, favorited, and otherwise socially ranked and delivered. Value of news in social media accrues by means of speed, distribution, reach and leveraged influence of individuals who get attention by means of paying attention. Value is a matter of “who chooses” not “what is worth choosing.”

This shift from an editorial and journalistic version of objectivity — closely wed to the perception of an authoritative voice occupying an authoritative role &dash: to a unregulated, communicative production of value that is individually and subjectively chosen and socially proliferated constitutes an enormous rebalancing of media landscape. Not only are old media disadvantaged for their medium is non-social and non-communicative, but they are losing their authority and their traditional role occupying that authority. It is really only up to social media to better filter out noise, personalize news and content consumption, continually improve relational controls (friends, peers, colleagues — the whole personal/social/public thing), innovate interaction models to raise the medium’s unique production value, and fine tune advertising business models for sustainability.

It seems to me unlikely that we will return, as a culture, to traditional modes of consuming news. There will always be a need for experts, a respect for their credibility and reputation, and interest in voices that can tell, narrate, and entertain. Those skills are platform agnostic. But the genie’s out of the bottle. Regardless of how one feels about the quality of user-generated content, the noise of social media and irrelevance of much of its content, the most profound distinction between old and new media is in the relationship between production and consumption. New media content is sourced and distributed by means of social relations. It seems very unlikely that a culture would wish a return to the hierarchy of authority, when the proximity and immediacy of social media offer much of the same information, selected in a fundamentally different way.

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