Stewardship v. ownership of our news, money, and society

In this week’s news from Wall Street and in last week’s news convention we are seeing the problems that arise when people who are granted stewardship over our assets — charged with the care of our news or our money — instead think they have ownership of them.

The most appalling moment at last week’s Online News Association meeting in Washington came when a representative of the World Association of Newspapers showed off a would-be “standard” for publishers to tell search engines what they may not do. He demonstrated how a news site marked up its content and then showed how a search engine — French, no surprise — followed the instructions. Et voilà: The news site’s content didn’t show up at all. And they were proud of this. I was frightened. They have created a system to hide news. (Our news.)

Here was WAN’s protectionist view of how to preserve news — or rather, its control of news. Luckily, search engines are ignoring it, pointing out that most of these controls exist already and that WAN’s reputed standard could become a boon to spammers. The standard is meaningless, useless, and dangerous. But according to a representative of the Newspaper Association of America, that hasn’t stopped them from signing on. What are they thinking? We need to find more ways to get our journalism into more hands and more conversations and to involve more people in that process, sharing more information. Not our august associations of newspapers. They want to protect their ownership of news.

I heard more than one news executive I respect say at this year’s meeting that the ONA feared becoming the online organization of a dying medium. Wonder why. The hall was filled with employees of old-media organizations that happened to have added new-media arms. The awards they give each other are almost all to their own kind. And they say the blogosphere is an echo chamber.

If I were the ONA, I would cancel whatever schmanzy digs it has reserved for next year’s fest in San Francisco and hire an abandoned factory floor or put up tents in an empty field and I’d open the thing up, begging all the new practitioners of news to come and share. The organization acts as if online news is their domain because theirs was the news business. They owned news.

No more. Now — thank goodness — the press-sphere is made up of an endless variety of players: professionals, former professionals, bloggers, witnesses, technologists, aggregators, analysts, networks, platforms, business people, foundations, NGOs, search engines….

News organizations didn’t own the news as they thought. They were stewards of it. Their stewardship is proving to have been inadequate. Their definition of protecting the news has been to protect their control of it — see: WAN, NAA.

The same can be said of our financial institutions. Their stewardship of our own assets is proving to be disastrous. They thought they owned the industry. Instead, they had the privilege of handling our money so long as they had our trust. They have failed horribly.

The same is said — but too often not meant — when we talk of government. Politicians’ stewardship is clearly lacking.

The original definition of stewardship made it clear that the people who took care of a household and managed its assets — its stewards — acted as servants, not owners. Their control was granted based on trust.

We need new systems and new stewards. I’m not suggesting that the mob take over news, finance, and government. We’re too busy for that. We need stewards but we need stewards we can trust. The key to trust today, in any of these arenas, is openness and transparency. Hiding from the world is no way to get there.