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Are we seeing the end of MSM, and is that a good thing?

by Kirk Serpes

Ever since the demise of Campbell Live, the debate about the “future of media and journalism” has ramped up and given rise to some serious rethinking of paradigms.

I have personally attended two events this year with completely different speakers, but the same “end is nigh” theme for mainstream media and journalism as we know it.  The messages from the local events, and from the kilometres of op-eds written about this issue from around the world, have similar themes around the cracks that are appearing.

The internet is causing the largely advertising-based revenue of the big media outlets to shrink faster than the ice caps.  Keith Ng and others have also done an excellent job in highlighting issues with the rise of professional PR, and how that makes institutions in power, be they government or private sector, more opaque and less accessible.

There are many of, course, who would cheer at the downfall of mainstream media, which can often justifiably be seen as being too cosy with powerful special interests.  Yes, the world would probably be a much better place without the Murdoch Empire but the mainstream media's ability to reach mass audiences undeniably gives them an important role to play in society.  

It is that one place where we all come together, like a family at the dinner table. Or at least it was. With the internet, we’re seeing the breakdown of that singular sense of community identity into many smaller communities and niches.  So now, if you’re into cosplay and urbanism you have your own highly networked groups where you can have deep conversations on the specific details of that issue with others from around the world who are equally passionate – without what the Prime Minister said about the TPPA, or  the fact that there was a big protest march in every major city, being a blip on your self-selected radar.

For me, the prospect of ever-narrowing niches as a substitute for the clarion calls that a functioning "mass media" can provide wasn’t really good enough so I started to look around the world for anyone who was working on solutions.  And I found a surprisingly diverse range of answers.

One of the most interesting is a Dutch company called Blendle.  They’ve created what’s been called the iTunes for news.  You sign up and then pay per article you read, with a massive selection of choices from both local and international magazines.  They’ve been running for a few years now and are both popular and profitable.  Medium has a great write up on their story here and here.

Another story I kept hearing about was that of the Texas Tribune.  More like a traditional news org, they’ve won awards for the quality of their journalism and have managed to grow at a time when many of their competitors are shrinking.  They rely on a mix of philanthropy, donations, and sponsorships for their financial security.

And then there are the likes of Vox.com and Narratively that focus on quality of content over “Breaking news”.  Narratively specialises in longform, and I personally quite enjoy Vox’s philosophy of explaining the news.

Still fairly new to our shores is data journalism - using crowd-sourced and public stats data to get around the PR walls and our own unsubstantiated reckons.  It's the much needed alternative to the “human interest story”, and there’s a growing global movement building behind the philosophy.

Public Address blogger Keith Ng and the data team at the New Zealand Herald have been leading the way over here, with projects such as the Inequality calculator, and smart visualisations around the demographic changes in Auckland and election results.  Elsewhere, organisations like Pro-publica have made a name for themselves by going where traditional journalism couldn’t. They won a Pulitzer Prize for their ‘Dollars for Docs’ project that tracked the flow of money from Big Pharma to individual doctors in the USA.

It’s clear that data is going to play a much larger role in society going forward, but most of today’s media institutions of today are nowhere near ready for it.  

To differing degrees, the MSM here are rushing to reinvent themselves, but in ways that some cynics would describe as rearranging the deckchairs, and without any signs of throwing out old paradigms in order to hit upon some deep innovation.

On the local front, eyes have turned to a collaboration between enterprise incubator Enspiral and Scoop – which Scoop founder Alastair Thompson has already written extensively about – as a hope for something that could be truly innovative. 

Meanwhile, we have the energising crossover between satire and serious news that’s gained real momentum, especially with millennials. John Oliver deserves special mention. He took Stewart’s technique of combining humour, satire and solid journalism, and then added in something new.  Agency.  He gave his views opportunities to act on the outrage and become part of the solution.  From Net Neutrality, to FIFA, to Big Tobacco; he’s transforming journalism, and inspiring others to follow suit (check out Ryot and of course our very own Robbie aka White Man Behind Desk).

As interesting as these new frontiers and technology are, it would be a mistake to limit our vision to just that dimension.  Especially when the changes in the relationship between journalists, the public, and those in power are even more intriguing. 

To do this, we have to first understand the concept of relational models.  There are essentially four basic models by which we interact with each other:  Authority ranking, Communal sharing, Equality matching and Market pricing.  Malcolm Gladwell does a decent job of explaining them in his piece on the rise of Talent here:

“Communal sharing is a group of roommates in a house who are free to read one another’s books and wear one another’s clothing. Equality matching is a car pool: if I drive your child to school today, you drive my child to school tomorrow. Market pricing is where the terms of exchange are open to negotiation, or subject to the laws of supply and demand. And authority ranking is paternalism: it is a hierarchical system in which “superiors appropriate or pre-empt what they wish,” as Fiske writes, and “have pastoral responsibility to provide for inferiors who are in need and to protect them.”

The point isn’t that one of these models is better than the rest, it’s that we choose the most appropriate model for the situation.  Using the example of a dinner party.

 “You buy the food at the store, paying more for those items which are considered more valuable. That’s market pricing. Some of the people who come may have been invited because they invited you to a dinner party in the past: that’s equality matching. At the party, everyone is asked to serve himself or herself (communal sharing), but, as the host, you tell your guests where to sit and they do as they are told (authority ranking). Suppose, though, you were to switch the models you were using for your dinner party. If you use equality matching to acquire the food, communal sharing for your invitations, authority ranking for the choice of what to serve, and market pricing for the seating, then you could have the same food, the same guests, and the same venue, but you wouldn’t have a dinner party anymore. You’d have a community fund-raiser. The model chosen in any situation has a profound effect on the nature of the interaction”

So if we look at the relationship between journalists and the public, up until quite recently it looked like one of Authority Ranking, where journalists decided what stories we needed to hear, for better or worse. These days there’s a strong element of Market Pricing, either through ratings or clicks.  It’s competitive and it’s skewing the stories that are pushed out towards clickbait and infotainment. John Campbell, like a lot of other journalists, cares about people, and believes strongly in telling us what we need to hear.

Of course, it’s not all Market Pricing.  Social media has created a new avenue for relationships between the various stakeholders, one based around Communal Sharing. News stories are a form of relational exchange between people on your social media feeds right now.  We share stories because we want the people important to us to share the buzz or emotion we got from it.  Or, as is also quite common, to tell others who we are.  What you share tells people something about your values and what you care about.  What was once information for consumption is now something we use to communicate our identity to the people we care about.  We share specific stories on facebook for the same reason we buy a new (or old) shirt.

Going the other direction, if we were to look at the relationship between journalists and those in positions of power, traditionally it looks a bit like Equality Matching.  Where access was based on mutual respect between politicians/ large companies. That’s changed too with the rise of PR.  Now it looks a lot like Authority Ranking, where those in power continue to exert control about what they let journalists do.

The internet has given (almost) everyone access to immense volumes of information about the world we live in.  The hope was that it would enhance democracy and participation. But as David Foster Wallace had the great foresight to point out, the search for quality and relevance inevitably leads to the rise of gatekeepers.  Which is why, as we experiment with these new ideas and business models we also need to take into account these fundamental relational models, or we might just end up with something worse than what we have now.  Democratic society depends on getting this right.


If you’re keen to be part of this discussion on future pathways for journalism and the media, then you might want to come along to Journathon on 2 December.  It’s a day-long hackathon (and Step it Up 2015 side-event) that’s aimed at exploring what journalism and media might look like in 2020 and beyond. 

We’ve got two international thought leaders already confirmed: Duco Van Lanschot from Blendle and  Evan Smith from the Texas Tribune. It’s a shared project between the Centre for NZ Progress and Enspiral, with a lot of support from the sidelines from Stephen Olsen at NewsRoom_Plus and Julie Starr.

If you’re in tech, the media, data or you just believe in the necessity of journalism and have some ideas then we’d really like to see you there.  It’s free to attend if you make an application, or you buy any ticket to the Step it Up 2015 conference on 30 Nov – 1 December.  

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