Although Vienna-born Hedy Lamarr is best remembered as a movie star in the golden age of Hollywood, she was also an inventor. The National Inventors Hall of Fame credits her as co-creator of a radio frequency-hopping system to prevent jamming of signals by an enemy. And so the Austrian National Academy of Sciences has a lecture series in her name. I was invited to deliver the Hedy Lamarr Lecture of October 3, 2011.
A modified version of that lecture has been published in Nieman Reports. Here it is in its original form.
How Quality Journalism May Survive in the Web 3.0
First, let me note how pleased I am to be in Vienna, the birthplace of one of my professional heroes, Paul Lazarsfeld. I first became aware of his work when my political science professors taught his early voting studies that led to his theory of the two-step flow of political communication. Many years later, on a mid-career fellowship at Harvard, I listened to lectures on American colonial history by his son-in-law, Bernard Bailyn.
Two other sons of Vienna have played a role in my personal history. The architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler were creators of a kind of residential architecture that we now call “mid-century modern.” Neutra lectured at Kansas State University while I was an undergraduate there and set off a controversy about campus architecture that made wonderful material for college journalists. And today, my niece, Kimberli Meyer, is director of the Rudolf Schindler museum in West Hollywood.
Journalism is in trouble. And when journalism is in trouble, democracy is in trouble. Democracy in my country has been in trouble before, and quality journalism has come to its rescue. In my lifetime, there have been two salient examples of journalism’s healing power at the national level. Edward R. Murrow’s CBS broadcast of March 9, 1954, began the decline of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s exploitation of the fear of communism to assault American civil liberties. “We are not descended from fearful men,” Murrow reminded us, “not men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were, for the moment, unpopular. “ I was a 23-year-old Navy journalist at that time and, I can remember the thrill of witnessing the power of Murrow’s fine reporting.
The second example was just 19 years later when the Washington Post kept the spotlight on the Watergate burglary and started the chain of investigations that led to the Nixon White House. I was in Washington then, reporting for the Akron Beacon Journal, and I could not get my editors interested so long as the story was based on the Post’s unnamed sources. But Post Publisher Katharine Graham kept the story on the public agenda long enough to motivate official investigators from the judicial and legislative branches of government. Finally, it was Judge John Sirica and Senator Sam Ervin who brought out the incriminating facts that led to President Nixon’s resignation. From my office in the National Press Building, I watched his helicopter depart.
In these examples, we can find a definition for quality journalism. It is journalism with influence that is exercised in the public interest. My generation of managers at Knight Ridder, a great newspaper group before it was broken up by the new media economics, believed that journalism was a business whose primary product was influence: societal influence, which was not for sale, and commercial influence, which was for sale in the form of advertising. That model provided a business justification for truth, social responsibility, and earning the public’s trust. It worked because the societal influence made the commercial influence more valuable.
But the model began to fail long before the arrival of the Web. The number of media channels was increasing across all the technologies, radio, TV, and print. The increase in channels made more specialization possible. Instead of sending a few messages to many people, the system began sending many messages, each to a few people.
All of this happened before the Web. But we could see it coming. At Knight Ridder, we tried to preserve the influence model in our 1980s Viewtron experiment, which we can see now was an early effort to anticipate the Web.
We failed because we did not understand how cheap and powerful, digital information would become. We thought too much in newspaper analogies. The computer was like a printing press, a large, expensive machine that breaks easily. The cost of one limited the number of possible competitors. I left before Knight Ridder pulled the plug on Viewtron. Its vision was too far ahead of the technology.
The Web, in its various stages, has been breaking that model of a central and influential news source – first by making advertising cheap, and second by interfering with journalism’s ability to focus the public’s attention on an issue or a problem. At the peak of Ed Murrow’s career, national television news was confined to just four channels, three commercial and one public. In 1963, the Washington Post was so effective on the Watergate story because it was the dominant daily and the only morning paper among three dailies in Washington, D.C. Getting and holding the public’s attention was not a problem when the number of channels was limited.
Today, we have a very different environment. Information used to be scarce. Now it is plentiful. The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon put it in economic terms. Information, he said in 1971, consumes the attention of those who receive it. Therefore, when information is plentiful, attention will be scarce. Simon observed this process decades before the Internet. After World War II, FM radio, cable television, offset printing all contributed to the increased flow of information. Now the Internet, in its many manifestations, increases the flow still more while undermining journalism’s traditional advertising support.
The problem that Simon framed in economic terms was anticipated by Paul Lazarsfeld as far back as 1948. Too much information, he said back then, can create what he called “narcotizing dysfunction.” The public becomes overwhelmed by more information than it can process, and so it withdraws its participation and becomes apathetic.
The average citizen, Lazarsfeld said in 1948, took “his reading and listening and thinking as a vicarious performance. He comes to mistake knowing about problems of the day for doing something about them.
“His social conscience remains spotlessly clean. He is concerned. He is informed. And he has all sorts of ideas as to what should be done. But after he has listened to his favored radio programs and after he has read his second newspaper of the day, it is really time for bed.”
Today, the Web, by increasing the flow of information, has, of course, magnified that problem. If quality journalism is to survive in this new environment, we must figure out how to do three things:
1. Pay for its creation.
2. Distribute its results to the public.
3. Get the public to pay attention and act on its information.
Although the Web has captured advertising share from traditional media, finding new ways to pay for journalism is proving to be less of a problem than expected. In the United States, there has been a flowering of experimentation by both business and non-profits. I serve on the advisory boards of three innovative and very different — news organizations. Patch Media is a for-profit subsidiary of AOL that uses a mix of professional and citizen journalists to bring hyperlocal journalism on the Web to affluent communities in the northeast. Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) began as a non-profit Internet service provider in the hills and hollows around Asheville, North Carolina, and hopes to build social capital by providing local news. And the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington, D.C., uses charitable support to produce national stories for the mainstream media –and teach journalism at the same time.
In other words, we have plenty of reason to hope that ways will continue to be found to pay for good journalism. But, like the tree falling in the forest, it makes no sound unless there is an ear to hear it. Each of these startups must find a way to match the distribution and attention-getting power of a traditional local newspaper.
For some time, I had pinned my hopes on Paul Lazarsfeld’s concept of the two-step flow. His early voting studies in the United States showed that political information traveled horizontally — from person to person — more than from mass media to the voters. The media reached the influential citizens, and, from them information diffused to everyone else. Today’s social media greatly facilitate such horizontal flows of information. Being ever-optimistic, I thought the two-step flow would be our salvation in the age of the Web.
But I am afraid that Lazarsfeld’s other concept, narcotizing dysfunction, is overwhelming the two-step flow. Add social media to the stream of information about public affairs, and Simon’s scarcity of attention makes the public very hard to engage.
The pattern since the end of World War II has been for specialized media of all types, print, radio, TV, movies, to do better than media that seeks a mass audience. The Web has encouraged even more specialization. This trend is dangerous for democracy because it inhibits deliberation and the ability to understand and appreciate points of view other than one’s own. If we all crawl into our little silos of specialized information and don’t talk or deliberate with people with different views, representative democracy can’t work. The horizontal flow of information keeps bumping into the silo walls.
The United States is more vulnerable to this problem than European parliamentary democracies because of the single-member districts that underly our two-party system. In Europe, specialized interests can form specialized parties. Once in office, the representatives of those parties can negotiate, deliberate, compromise and then form coalitions to operate the government. That process is fairly transparent.
In the American two-party system, the deliberation and coalition building has to take place during the election campaign, and the process is anything but transparent. If public opinion polling were more sophisticated, we could see what is going on and get to know our political bedfellows. But it’s not.
Now I can imagine a way in which natural selection might solve the problem. Out of the noisy combination of the many voices on the Web, a trusted few might emerge. Perhaps we are in a situation comparable to that in Europe right after Gutenberg. The lonely pamphleteers who roamed the countryside, carrying their type in their shirttails, worked for a variety of interests. Nature likes to organize itself into hierarchies of dominance, and the work of those lonely printers was eventually organized into newspaper companies.
In 19th century America, urban newspapers found they could make more money by appealing to, and being trusted by, a large audience.
Now there are several ways to gain trust. One is to appeal to the existing prejudice of your audience. That works best when the audience is easy to fragment as it is in the 21st century. But newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries were manufacturing products that needed economies of scale. So publishers were motivated not to appeal to prejudices but to seek common ground.
How can we make something like that happen to the web in our century?
Call me an optimist, but I truly believe that it can be done.
First, we have to create ways to recognize quality, which I define as discovering and imparting the truth in a way that is recognized.
With liars and truth tellers having equal access to the web, there should be, in the long term, an advantage for the truth, as John Milton reminded us in the 17th century. The problem is to convert it to a shorter term advantage as well. It was the 19th century America writer Mark Twain who said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes.” But if we can find institutional ways for truth to be recognized, we might speed it up a bit.
Professionalization is one way to give the truth tellers some visibility. Voluntary professional organizations can set standards for both moral behavior and technical competence. If they do it convincingly, they can make a difference. One way to do it convincingly is through certification programs.
Most entry-level journalists in the United States are certified for technical competence by degree-granting programs at universities. In 2005, which now looks like it might prove to have been the last good year for traditional media, 85 percent of new hires at newspapers and 92 percent of those in television news departments, held journalism degrees.
Those degree programs include some training in ethics, and at least one professional association, the Society of Professional Journalists, publishes and promotes a code of ethics and revises it from time to time. One such revision is under way right now. I expect its fundamental rules to remain unchanged. Such codes are best enforced by simply calling public attention to violations, and units of SPJ have done so, although not yet in a sustained and systematic way. It is not at all clear how these rules might be applied to bloggers, tweeters, FaceBookers, and all the other independent manifestations of the Web.
Because the Web enables every citizen to be a journalist, we need broader systems of lower-level training and certification, and they are being created. For example, Columbia University has established an online certification program for high school students to qualify them for participation in Pearl World Youth News, an international news service for secondary schools honoring Daniel Pearl, the martyred journalist.
Many of the online journalism sites in the USA have some level of certification. For example, MinnPost.com in Minneapolis requires its citizen journalists to read and sign the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Thus the organization can attest to two things: that its reporters know the code exists, and that they have agreed to abide by it.
But we need more. Truth needs some vigorous assistance in its effort to catch up with falsehood. Institutionalized fact-checking efforts are needed. Here are two salient examples in my country:
1. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which, despite its name, is an ivy-league private university located in Philadelphia. Its mission statement says, “We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding. “
2. Snopes.com is a reference source for urban myths, legends, folklore, and all sorts of information that springs from vague sources and travels freely across the Web.
In sum, for journalism to survive in the Web 3.0, we must do four things:
1. Encourage the ongoing process of web aggregation so that it leads to new institutions that will have the same competence and public spirit that the best newspapers had in the past. The lonely pamphleteers eventually evolved into newspapers. What will today’s bloggers and citizen journalists become?
2. Find some systematic way to evaluate and publicize the truthfulness and public mindedness of individual citizen journalists. Conversely, identify and publicize the liars.
3. Create voluntary associations of journalists in different specialties that can encourage technical competence and moral values and make them visible.
4. Support research that shows how the classic theories of mass communication, from two-step flow to agenda setting are affected by the new media.
This last proposal might be the most important. Without theory, all we have are collections of unconnected facts and events. To cope with change, we need a 21st century Paul Lazarsfeld to help us go beyond the facts and events to understand the patterns and structures that our new information systems are forming. Failure to understand them could be dangerous. Let us be ready.