The future of journalism was the connecting theme of a version of the popular online Ted Talks series last Friday at the Poynter Institute in downtown St. Petersburg. A crowd of mostly media insiders listened to topics ranging from copyright issues and viral media to fact checking and the role of new media.
The Poynter Institute is borrowing a style of discourse from the successful Ted Talks that focus on disseminating new ideas on three varied subject matters; Technology, Entertainment and Design. The Tedx formats are independently organized but are conducted within the Ted Talks' structure. The Poynter Institute is a non-profit school of journalism that teaches through traditional class room settings as well as online webinars. Elynn Angelotti is a social media faculty member at the Poynter Institute. She said the blueprint used by Ted Talks is a good fit for Poynter’s third Tedx event.
"What they've done is provide us with a framework to create powerful engaging; much briefer talks than we typically do here at Poynter. So, it's a different tempo. It's a different style. But it's an engaging platform that helps us invite the Tampa Bay community and the larger journalism community into an event where we can realty learn from innovative thinkers.”
One of the overarching topics discussed during the event by several of the speakers was the role of professional journalism. Since the second dot com boom, which was fueled by the near hegemonic emergence of social media, news and scholarly media have experienced a decline in print circulation. With this came a steady decline in revenue from advertising, as well. In order to compensate, some traditional media outlets have adopted a new business model called "paywall." A "paywall" is an online business model that restricts access to webpage content without a paid subscription to news or academic publications. Paywalls come in two varieties either "hard" where limited or no viewing is permitted, or "soft," where the content is less rigidly controlled.
One staff member who focuses on ethics in the media, Kelly McBride, said in an interview after the talk that a well informed citizenry is a cornerstone to democracy. The direction of journalism McBride sees, however, is a move toward unprofessionalism: citizens with a passion, spokes people, marketeers. She said we are still tumbling down the rabbit hole with no clear indication where will it end. According to McBride, democracy needs at least a small cadre of journalist in order to function. A la carte journalism works for some models, like Side Boob Reports, but doesn't work for investigative journalism. She said not too many people are willing to pay for investigative stories.
That would seem to be the case with stories by the folks at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who divulged the path to the center of the money maze that stems from lucrative offshore banking. However, paywalls are beginning to work for the New York Times and other major newspapers, but the future is murky for small town newspapers where it's largely untested whether people will pay at all.
Transmitting and receiving news and information outside the conventional written word is a viable means of ensuring professionalism and reliability. Pat Aufderheide is a professor, the director of the Center for Social Media at American University, and a film critic. Aufderheide said documentaries are an important and significant medium for reporting on culture.
"Homes across America through public broadcasting these films are being seen by millions and millions of people; which is at least two or three orders of magnitude larger than anything that will happen to a documentary on theatrical screens. So although they are not necessarily sexy in movie media they are terrifically important in being part of our media mix for a democracy."
A Ted Talks veteran, Eli Pariser spoke about the misconceptions of viral media. Pariser’s most recent project is upworthy.com but he cut his Internet teeth with moveon.org. Pariser said the way information is filtered today is a challenge because we have little control over how it is filtered, what is filtered, and the methodology behind the filtering. In order to achieve what he calls a "nourishing diet of information," filters need to be smarter.
"Facebook for example, could have an important button to go along with the like button and that would actually have a significant effect. Right? Because it's hard to click "like" as the war in Afghanistan continues for the twelfth year. But you would say that's important; I want people to pay attention to that. So there are ways without being prescriptive about what's important and what's not that you could allow people to elevate that kind of content."
When asked about the emerging trends in social media as it pertains to news and information gathering, Pariser said he sees an increased fragmentation as the overall trend continues throughout the next five years. He said we "...are all increasingly speaking these different informational languages." Will these Internet fragments eventually be integrated? Pariser said maybe not. He doesn't foresee these information Goliaths being slain by any upstart dot com Davids.
Facebook, Twitter and Google, as well as Instagram and Tumblr, are not only veritable blue chip companies but they are the forums and platforms on which disparate niches of society have come to rely as a primary mode of communication. It's been said that President Obama's social media "gladhanding" was in large part the element that tipped the scales in his favor during the 2012 presidential election — much like the role social media played as an instrument in nurturing the Arab Spring into a regional phenomenon.
Other media experts at the Tedx Poynter event also talked about the changing tides of journalism as a result of expanding technology. There aren't any mystic Oracles to consult on the future of journalism but one thing is certain, the medium is becoming the message. It's the duel responsibility of the consumer and the producer to make sure the message remains meaningful despite the medium.