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The Cathedral and the Coffee House

The cathedral and the coffee house


The emergence of conversational media in the
networked world
Bill Thompson.

The end of news


News journalism as it was practiced in the latter half of the twentieth
century is over. We are leaving the era in which expert generalists
could reasonably claim to shape opinion, inform the masses or speak
for the people. For those seeking news online the reporters and writers
who research stories and feed them into an editorial process that
filtered, selected, fact-checked and finally published are no longer the
only source of information and analysis, and are certainly no longer the
most trusted. Soon this will be true for every citizen of the Western
industrialised world, and as the network grows and spreads existing
news media will be overrun just as surely as an adventitious species
replaces the native, less competitive, inhabitants of an ecosystem.
For practitioners in the mainstream media, particularly those
commentators whose livelihoods rely on the existence of profitable
media companies willing to pay high salaries for their output, this is a
crisis as significant in its ramifications as the end of the Cold War or
the threat of political instability as a result of global warming.
Yet most of the current audience, those who buy newspapers or
magazines, watch television or listen to the radio, seem relatively
unperturbed, happy to turn to YouTube, Wikipedia and their favourite
bloggers for what little information about the world around them they
require to sustain daily life. They may visit the websites of the large
media players like the BBC, The Guardian or the New York Times, but
this makes up only part of the daily news diet.
At conferences, in editorial meetings, on company boards and in the
bars, pubs and airport departure lounges where journalists and those
who run media companies still congregate the conversation is usually
about ways in which the media can change in order to cope with the
onslaught of new voices, new models and new ways of doing ‘news’.
What these conversations fail to acknowledge is that the choice is no
longer up to the current practitioners. The world has already changed,
and yesterday’s news providers occupy a different space in the
informational ecosystem than before. This is no longer a situation over
which they have substantial control or influence – that point passed a
good five years ago when the net went mainstream in the West, the
Web became the world’s largest repository of information, Google

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The Cathedral and the Coffee House

figured out how to make a good-enough index and the new generation
of online publishing tools based on the blog model started to emerge.
If The Guardian or the BBC or the New York Times were going to shape
today’s environment they should have been there in 2001. Now all
they can realistically do is acknowledge the shift and decide how to
deal with it. Their power to influence events is extremely limited, and
they are beginning to realise this. A newly connected New York Times
tries to re-enter the conversation by allowing readers to Digg stories or
post them to Facebook, while the desire to be at the centre of
community still dominates the thinking of even the most progressive
players, leaving them out of the loop. We may not expect The
Guardian’s Polly Toynbee to lower herself to the level of commenting
on other people’s blogs, but not even media pundit Roy Greenslade
seems to have realised that the conversation could be happening
elsewhere.
The decline of trust in what mainstream media outlets are delivering
today, coupled with the rapid emergence of new sources of apparently
trustworthy information, means that every current provider of news
and views must find a way to survive within the new informational
ecosystem.
It is more than likely that some form of journalism and news media will
persist in the new media age. The current era of blog populism and
social networking sites is a transitional stage, marking the end of old
ways of thinking as much as the emergence of stable new models, and
we should not assume it provides us with a good basis for predicting
the future of journalism.
The days of monolithic corporations providing an authorised view of
the news, setting the agenda and accepting no challenge from other
points of view are already gone, and there is no need to mourn their
passing. Yet people’s desire and need for information about the events
of the day has not vanished, and their wish to see such information
placed in the public domain so that it can be the basis of the ongoing
democratic conversation remains, even if it would never be expressed
as such.
There is a desire to know what is going on, one which is largely only
shown in the response to the exposure of states of affairs which call for
‘something’ to be done, like famines in remote countries, corruption or
deceit in local politics, hidden epidemics and unnoticed immigrants.
This can probably be met by journalists whose job is to report, analyse
and comment within a framework of editorial integrity and
professional codes of conduct even in a world of citizen journalists and
witness-generated reportage.
If they are to reinvent themselves and reassert their values in the

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networked world then the first step must be a clear-headed


assessment of what went wrong and why the emergence of the net has
been so catastrophic for today’s players. Hubris certainly played a part,
as most established media outlets ignored the disruptive potential of
the internet during the mid 1990’s when it was already clear that it
fundamentally challenged their business model if not their grasp on
their audiences. However it is not clear that they could have done
anything about the more fundamental problem, which is that the age
of one-way media is over.

The Cathedral of News


Modern mass media, whether print or broadcast or online, is built
around the same information processing model as the Catholic church
in the medieval age, and the nearest analogy to a newspaper, news
magazine or TV news show is a gothic cathedral, with a team of
acolytes working to embed the message in the stone, the stained glass
and, above all, the word of the priest speaking from the pulpit.
This model emerged along with the profession of journalism in the
eighteenth century and has survived vast technological, political and
societal change in the last two hundred years. One reason for its
survival was that it relied on the perceived or real scarcity of channels
through which to reach large audiences. The barriers to entry were
very high, and in a mass embrace of cognitive dissonance most of the
audience came to believe that if someone was clever or powerful or
rich enough to gain access to one of these scarce channels they must,
merely by virtue of their ability to address the masses, have something
important to say. Walter Kronkite, Robin Day, Jeremy Paxman, Anna
Ford and the rest were believed to merit attention because they had
managed to climb into the pulpit, and only those who deserved it
would ever be allowed to do such a thing.
Early websites, filled with static pages which brooked no argument and
offered no space for discussion, no opportunity for links or trackbacks
and no way to challenge the views offered, were just the latest version
of pulpit media, using the screen as a one-way channel to the audience
just as print or radio or television had done for so long.
Today the cathedral doors have been forced open, the pulpit torn down
and the carefully wrought stained glass windows smashed. The
priest’s voice cannot be heard above the hubbub of voices shouting
out from the pews, and the gospel is only one view among many. In a
world where anyone can speak and be heard, thanks to blogs, social
network tools and the public Internet, the mere fact of publication or
broadcast is no longer enough to merit trust or attention.
The long decline of Christianity can be traced, in part, to the spread of
the ability to read and the translation of the gospels into the

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vernacular. The church was no longer the only place that the story
was being told, and people found that the skill which unlocked the
Bible also unlocked other sources of knowledge and made other points
of view available.
Today the cathedrals of the mass media are empty because the people
have a new skill, one that goes beyond the ability simply to read and
understand what others are saying. Now they can speak as well as
listen, and this new form of literacy is the real wellspring of the
revolution in news journalism that we are currently experiencing.
We have abandoned the cathedral, and moved away from the burning
wreckage to congregate in a nearby coffee house, where entry is free
to anyone who can afford the price of a drink. In the coffee house
anyone can speak, and instead of the clearly enunciated and carefully
considered tones of the priest echoing off the stone columns and over
the heads of the congregation the conversation is open to all.
Credibility comes not from occupancy of the pulpit but from one’s
actions, from what is said and done today, what was said and done
yesterday. In the age of conversational media, the voice from the
pulpit can barely be heard over the hubbub, and anything said can
immediately be challenged, questioned, taken out of context,
criticised, dissected and absorbed into the zeitgeist.
Once news journalism becomes a conversation rather than a matter of
issuing communiqués from a position of superior access it requires a
very different set of skills from its practitioners– or rather, additional
skills over and above the traditional ones of listening, judging,
balancing, questioning, evaluating and story-telling. We have seen,
most notably in the way that Guardian and Observer journalists are
attempting to engage with their former audience on the Comment Is
Free blog, that this is not always easy. Some of the great and good
seem wholly unsuited for a world in which comments on their work
appear with equal prominence on the newspaper site, like squeaky-
voiced actors forced to appear in talking movies.
A bigger problem faces the commercial side of the business. Building
conversational structures around the work of journalists and
commentators, making money from providing them with a place to
operate and a channel through which to speak, bears little relationship
to the old established practice of holding talented journalists in tow
with contracts, printing or broadcasting their words or stories and
persuading those with a commercial message to preach to hitch their
advertising to your rolling wagon. In the new media world the old
media certainties are gone, and the ways of making money or telling
stories are no longer theirs to control or even shape. A blogger with
an AdSense account can make a modest living, but providing the
revenue flows needed to sustain a print and online newspaper is

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incredibly hard.

The new environment


The new new media are not being built from nothing, and the
emergence of conversational media is happening in a world of mature
media outlets, with complex and sophisticated interconnections and
dependencies. This is not a new ecosystem colonising a lava field, with
the adventitious plants breaking down the previously barren rock to
provide nourishment and space for the later arrivals. Rather we are
seeing significant speciation and adjustments to changing nutrient
levels in a mature ecosystem, brought on by external factors.
The cloud blotting out the sun, killing the plant-life of advertising
revenue and damaging the reproductive potential of the big column-
writing carnivores is, of course, the Internet itself. Craigslist has
reduced sunlight levels in the classified world, blogging is making the
pond water cloudy with algae and keeping the oxygen of readership
from those who seek it so desperately, and new forms of investigative
life are scuttling in the undergrowth, recently evolved from news
reporters but clutching camera phones and laptops.
In this world the existing players are faced with a choice. Newspaper
readership is in decline, but may bottom out at a level that allows a
slimmer business to continue to make enough money out of splashing
ink on dead trees, and there are world markets to explore, especially in
India and China where the network is not yet widely available and
newsprint is still a convenient way of providing information to people.
Scheduled television shows delivered to flickering screens in the corner
could attract enough of an aging audience to satisfy advertisers,
especially if Google and BSkyB find a way to target the adverts more
effectively and stave of complete collapse. Newspaper and television
could, like crocodiles, step out of the limelight, find a niche and avoid
evolutionary pressure. After all, the crocodile has changed relatively
little in 60 million years, even if it has had to live in the mud and watch
the mammals take over almost every ecological niche going, to the
point where one particularly aggressive ape is on the verge of wiping
out its habitats.
The alternative is to embrace change and take a lesson from the
astonishingly successful reptiles whose 100 million year reign came to
an end as the world’s climate shifted. The mammals may have
colonised the earth, but the dinosaurs grew wings and feathers,
lightened their bones and soared into the sky..
It is not too late for the big media companies to emulate them, to
embrace the future and, like the dinosaurs, find a role in the world to
come.

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Notes

Doing new new journalism


There is a zeroth law of thermodynamics, which states that ‘if two
thermodynamic systems A and B are in thermal equilibrium, and B and
C are also in thermal equilibrium, then A and C are in thermal
equilibrium1.’
The term zeroth law was coined by Ralph Fowler and is used because
in many ways this natural law is more fundamental than any of the
others. However, the need to state it explicitly as a law was not
perceived until the first third of the 20th century, long after the first
three laws were already widely in use and named as such.
Something similar has happened to journalism. Once we wrote the first
draft of history, but now this task falls to others and reporters are
writing the zeroth draft. We have to learn to live in this world. Not only
does it mean that we have to work faster, it also means that Dan
Gillmor is right when he notes2 that ‘in a craft that's shifting from
lecture to conversation, the publication (or broadcast or whatever) is
not The End. It is somewhere in the middle of an emergent system in
which we all can keep learning, and teaching.’
Our zeroth draft is merely the starting point, the mulch which feeds
those who will come after, use, reuse and (surely) abuse what we have
stated and argued. The story is not the end, and the way in which we
write and present the story no longer needs to pretend that it is.
This means that the testimony of the citizen reporter, the eyewitness,
the accidentally present audience, can stand with news reports and
initial analyses as an equal record, as likely to be incorrect but as
important a source for those who will come after. The reporters who
wrote that Jean Charles de Menezes had leapt over a barrier and run
onto a tube train wearing a bulky jacket with wires protruding were no
less wrong that the eyewitnesses who told them these once-believed
but clearly imagined stories, so why should we privilege their versions
today? And if not later, then why at the time?

What is citizen journalism?


Citizen journalism is an ugly construct for several reasons, not least of
which is that it implies that we professional journalists are not also
citizens.
Serious journalism, the sort that requires the resources of a large

1
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeroth_law_of_thermodynamics)
http://sf.backfence.com/bayarea/showPost.cfm?
2

myComm=BA&bid=2271,

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company, significant investment of time and money, as well as skills


which are only acquired through years on the job, is still needed. The
sort of journalism that involves digging, fighting with those who want
to obstruct the story, going against the interests of those in power and
generally doing what is needed to get the story out, will always be vital
in any open society where, because human nature is what it is, some
things are done corruptly and in secret.
But it has always been the case that the starting point for such an
investigation may be the work of an unskilled observer. In the past this
would begin with a letter or a phone call to a journalist, who might
smell something in the tale being told and begin to look at it. Now it is
more likely to be an email, but we also have to accept that many of
those who in the past would have turned to the press to uncover more
details will now blog what they have seen or noticed or experienced. It
is up to us as reporters to be aware of what is being said, to follow up
and work on the background, and to do the things which only we can
manage.

It’s not all journalism


When we talk about the cathedral versus the coffee house we must be
careful not to include every video uploaded to YouTube, blog posting
on Typepad or diary entry on Livejournal in our analysis. Not all writing
is journalism, and not all online content is either. We must beware the
category error of assuming that everyone who writes online does so in
order to reach a wide audience or be part of the ongoing conversation
that we call the news media. Many do so, of course, and even if we
should exclude from our analysis those online channels which are
about personal expression or aimed at friends, family and real or
imagined lovers, we should not go the other way and refuse to admit
any who wish to join the conversation.
In a café anyone can come in, pay for their latte and sit at a table.
They can talk to their friends, and be overheard, and we do not
exclude them as ‘patrons’ just because they are ill-informed or biased
or simply boring and badly-spoken. So it is with journalism: the
defining characteristic of journalism, the one essential quality, is that it
is intended for publication, aimed at an audience. Ideally, of course, it
should be non-fiction, but we cannot be too prescriptive. It should be
accurate, well-researched, properly-grounded, factual, timely and
objective too, but those are at best guidelines for distinguishing good
journalism from bad, and not enough to say something isn’t journalism
at all.

The crisis of old new news


The New Journalism of Wolfe and Kesey and Hersh was about new

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voices and new modes of expression. Radical and ground-breaking


though it was in the 1960’s it was easily assimilated into the existing
structures, and while it provided those who liked to read with more
variety, the journalists themselves were, like most punk bands, just as
enthusiastic about making a deal with the publishers as they were
about preserving their authentic voice or bringing down the system.
The new new journalism is different. It cannot be assimilated, because
existing structures of news reporting and comment are completely
incapable of absorbing the range and number of voices. It cannot be
dismissed because it exists independently of the existing structures
and voices. And so it must be accommodated, and the way the news
media work must change to include and allow these new forms of
expression.
If this does not happen then the casualty will not be the new voices in
the blogosphere but the old media, who will become as irrelevant to
the process through which information is made public and absorbed
into the discourse of society as the Lord Chamberlain became to the
process through which plays were produced in the UK.
Journalistic practice is challenged on many levels and in many ways.
The most obvious, and the one that bring sleepless nights to people
like Carolyn McCall, CEO of the Guardian Media Group, is that the
business model is completely broken, since the aggregation of content
and advertising is no longer an effective or even plausible way to
generate income.
Another problem is that audiences for news media are increasingly
disillusioned and unconvinced by what they are told. As they age, or
abandon current publications and programmes, they are not being
replaced because there is now a much wider choice available.
Finally, many of those who write or broadcast on established outlets
are too far distant from their audience to be interesting, relevant or
useful. Just as a Radio 1 morning presenter on £800,000 a year can
never speak of his nights down the pub with any credibility, so the
aristocratic Simon Jenkins is now plugged into the wrong sorts of
networks to have anything to say to the wired children who are
discarding their parents’ newspapers.

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