New molecules

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger asked for help with his view of the fourth estate’s separation (outside the U.S.) into three sub-estates: legacy media, public media, our media (my wording). My response:

Pardon my metaphors:

I had a bunch of public broadcasters from Sweden at my school last week. They’re quite successful—audience is up; marketshare is up—and so it may be difficult for them to feel the urgency of the winds of change and move with them. I suggested that we are only beginning to feel the storm (/metaphor) and I argued that if we are coming out the other side of what some Danish researchers call (metaphor) the Gutenberg Parenthesis then our concepts of media and our consequent cognition of society will change profoundly over years yet to come.

In her amazing history of Gutenberg’s influence, Elizabeth Einstenstein argues that it took 50 years for books to come into their own and not merely copy the scribes and another 50 years or so for the impact of the press to become clear. The Gutenberg Parenthesis team argues that we are entering a period of confusion as great as the one Gutenberg caused. Granted, we are operating in internet years, not Gutenberg years. Still, we’ve only seen the beginning. And so I asked the Swedes to pull back and consider their role more broadly.

So I urged the Swedes to think of media as the essential tool of publicness and one that is no longer mediated. And so in their role of being publicly supported (but not — I’ll grant to them and to the BBC their fig leaves — tax-supported) then I suggested the best thing they could do is to enable and protect the voice of the public. They could curate, train, promote, and collaborate with new people using new tools in new ways, for example. They could establish platforms that make that possible and networks that help make it sustainable. They could see it as their role to support a lively, healthy ecosystem and all of its members, including not only the new kids but also the struggling legacy media (by that view, I’ve long argued that the BBC should make it its mission to use its powerful megaphone to promote and support the best of journalism and media in the UK, no matter who makes it; that is a public good).

All of which is to say that I think your trilogy-view of media today is correct but temporary. We are still in the phase when the printers are copying the scribes’ fonts and content. New wine, old skins. We are also still in a phase of separating the old-media folks from the new-media folks, the public from the private, and for that matter, the media (the journalists) from the public. I think those distinctions must melt away when we move past the stage of copying the copyists and invent entirely new forms.

We see content as that which we make. Google sees content everywhere. Twitter creates content even Twitter doesn’t understand yet (our useless chatter has real value as a predictor of movies’ success). Blippy creates a transparent marketplace for stuff. Google Goggles with Foursquare and Yelp and Facebook and Google Maps and the devices we carry that are always connected and location-aware and us-aware force us to rethink our definitions of both local and news. The Guardian turns data into news by collaborating with the people formerly known as its audience. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

So I don’t think we’re yet at a stage of stasis where we can find three estates out of the fourth estate and count on the tensions among them to support a new dynamic of media.

Overlaying this view, I think we are entering a phase in the economy in which industries — filled with closed, centralized corporations that own their means of production or distribution — are replaced by ecosystems — filled with entities that must collaborate and cooperate and complement each other to find efficiencies and through those efficiencies profitability and sustainability. So the idea that your three sub-estates will compete won’t be sustainable; they will have to specialize and then collaborate and as that occurs there may still be separations of roles — e.g., creator v. curator, platform v. network, local v. national — but they are new separations.

What you are identifying is the start of an atomization of media. But I see those atoms reforming into new molecules. (/metalphor)

  • Jeff,

    This is very smart thinking and a topic that has been very much on my mind these past few months. Working with Fifth Estate, public media and startups, I find it very interesting to think of the new combinations and not de-facto replacements – for the very reasons you state here. It’s too early to be confident in what those new forms will look like – only that it will involve the atoms you cite. It also is intriguing how quickly ideologues form in new spaces, and how similar their voices can be to the old guard. Sustainability requires collaboration from all sides, entrant or incumbent.

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  • Jeff Jarvis writes: “What you are identifying is the start of an atomization of media. But I see those atoms reforming into new molecules.” We really agree. Those atoms won’t stay as atoms. The question is what kind of molecules they will form. No one knows. The market is often seen as an organism striving for balance. But a more Schumpeterian perception of the market describes the market as something that always changes. New ideas, new products, new ways to produce will develop. Fundamentally the market is a dynamic thing. The unknown destroys the known. There are periods of relative stability. But after such a period of relative stability the process of creative destruction starts to tear down established structures. The conclusion, coming back to the meeting we had with Jeff Jarvis one month ago, is that we can predict that what we do today will change but we can’t know how it will change. It’s a kind of “search process”. It has its logic. But it is too complex to predict. Of course competence and knowledge are important. But you could be handicapped by knowing too much about the existing order. And we are convinced that even in an unpredictable future there will be an important role for the qualified journalist.
    Cilla Benkö & Mats Svegfors, Sveriges Radio/Swedish Radio