The Fourth Estate For The Future

  • by , Featured Contributor, February 12, 2009
I know, I know. I said that I wasn't going to write about the newspaper industry anymore. But don't worry, I'm not. Today's column is about something much bigger and more important than just the newspaper industry. It is about the watchdog role of media and my concerns about who will fill that role for us in the future, as traditional media companies -- newspapers, local broadcasters and news magazines -- become less and less able to do so.

It is plain that these companies are shrinking, and that many will go away. While much industry discussion has focused on the likely business consequences of this collapse, there hasn't yet been enough discussion about who out there will relentlessly watch and report for us on governments and courts and crime and business and our neighborhoods and the environment.

While most people focus on the high-profile role that the media plays in exposing events like Watergate, the vast majority of media's Fourth Estate role happens in relative obscurity. Take government records, for example. Just because some government records are called "public" doesn't automatically make them available to the public. Someone has to fight for access to them. Someone has to find them. Someone has to copy them. Someone has to interpret them. Someone has to report them. Someone has to publish them. And then, those someones have to do it all over again, day after day, month after month, year after year.



Today's Associated Press story revealing the appraised value of Facebook provides a great example of creative sleuthing by a determined journalist: "Large portions of that hearing are redacted in a transcript of the June hearing, but The Associated Press was able to read the blacked-out portions by copying from an electronic version of the document and pasting the results into another document."

It is this kind of work that regularly brings important news to light, from reporting on local school board negotiations with teachers' unions, publishing how Merrill Lynch "bonused" its executives with taxpayer bail-out money, or tracking political contributions from government contractors. This stuff matters. It matters a lot.

Unlike some others, however, I do not believe that the Fourth Estate will just disappear as the newsrooms of traditional media companies contract. Or, said differently, I don't believe that a "Fourth Estate vacuum" will exist for long. I believe that people care too much about these issues, so entrepreneurs will step in and fill the void. I believe in what Jeff Jarvis calls "Entrepreneurial Journalism."

What will the Fourth Estate of the future look like?

I think that our new media watchdogs will look more like craigslist or Google or Facebook than they will newspapers or news magazines or evening news shows. I can imagine new journalists -- maybe trench-savvy citizen journalists -- building specialized search engines or mash-ups that crawl public records and permit citizens to dig and find just what they're looking for, and then create mash-ups of their own with maps, graphs and other databases.

I can imagine citizen-to-citizen information exchanges like craigslist where these new journalists can post these findings and connect to others with relevant information, compare notes and coordinate efforts. I imagine these new journalists will use blog platforms to publish this information and create comment-driven discussions of their findings with others. I imagine they will use photo-sharing sites to upload and share images and graphics that help tell their story. I imagine they will use video distribution platforms like YouTube to distribute videos of their interviews or videos of public meetings and events as well as their own commentary. I imagine they will use meeting and event organization platforms like MeetUp to create face-to-face meetings of other folks that care. I imagine some will use self-publishing book platforms like Lulu to publish both print and e-books filled with their research and commentary.

I think that we should stop mourning the Fourth Estate. I think that we should stop spending so much time and money trying to find new business models to support the outdated, costly and wasteful media distribution methods of old, and focus instead on building a new Fourth Estate that leverages all of these new, amazing, inexpensive and accessible -- and, many times, free -- Web-based information platforms that can impact a billion people around the world in real time.

Now is the time to look forward, not backward. Now is the time to focus on the noble mission of the Fourth Estate and the societal importance of shining light on the actions of governments, politicians, businesses and criminals.

That is what matters, not the smell and feel of newsprint or the baritone voice of the news anchor. That's my opinion. What do you think?

17 comments about "The Fourth Estate For The Future".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, February 12, 2009 at 3:20 p.m.

    My problem with the watchdog is that pays disproportionate attention to the failings of Republicans. Even when a Democrat does get in trouble, the news cycle is attenuated. No one really noticed this when media elites controlled the news flow, but now that Twitter and Drudge are at the helm, the disparity is stunning. The response to the crisis is another book from the NPR clan dispelling the myth of the liberal media. If I am wrong, why is the public's opinion of journalists at an all-time low?

  2. Dennis O'neill from Studio4Networks, February 12, 2009 at 3:42 p.m.

    There aren't any new media operations that have investigative journalists that scoop stories like SI just did with A-Rod's steroid use. We better hope the digital operations of traditional media are successful otherwise the 4th estate will go away.

  3. David Gould from American Express Publishing, February 12, 2009 at 3:52 p.m.

    The Fourth Estate, in its late 20th-century form, had significant strengths and many failings -- in particular a herd mentality in DC that stunted curiosity and rewarded or protected insiders of all kinds. You can't simply whip out a brave-new take on public journalism that doesn't include any theorizing about what its weaknesses would be. It's going to be overly noisy, most likely. In other words, so free of hierarchies as to be, at times, inchoate.

  4. Cynthia Thomet from Akaku: Maui Community Television, February 12, 2009 at 4:34 p.m.

    The feel and smell of a newspaper and the soothing "baritone" of the evening news anchor was part of the packaging and marketing of news--more so than the news itself.

    The new technologies that you mention redefine how we have been accustomed to recognizing news. In that sense, the marketing of the Fourth Estate is in the process of changing drastically, but the core product remains the same--even if, through citizen-powered sleuthing, we may find ourselves with a news product that better reflects the multi-faceted nature of our communities. So, how does one package and market this organically (or virally) growing ... product?

    Many decades ago, Big Business was keen enough to notice that controlling information, media and distribution was a sure ticket to protecting its assets and also feeding its bottom line. Watchdogs have to eat, they surmised, we'll give them a bone, so they don't bite the hands that feed them--and we might make a buck in the process!

    I think one of the problems associated with the failure of the commercial model for the Fourth Estate is that being a watchdog and a bulldog is a full-time job, for which some people need to earn a living to dedicate themselves to the relentless pursuit of suspecting news, researching sources, finding information and reporting facts. Feeding watchdogs and protecting your assets can get expensive. (Ever seen one of those movies where the burglar breaks past the mean guard dogs by tossing them a couple steaks to distract them?)

    Lucky for us, some dogs are relentless at what they were born to do. Take away their bone and they will still do their job.

    Community media centers (like public access TV), community radio and other independent media organizations have helped members of countless communities gain access to mass communication distribution platforms. As you note, IT juggernauts who strive to "do no evil" have also created platforms that empower people's voices at relatively low-cost.

    However, both models (nonprofit and commercial) have shown that they need a certain amount of funding to feed their staffs, keep their equipment up-to-date and keep their consumers/communities committed to producing the core product.

    So, as we witness the emergence of new content-manufacturing models for news (from the hands of "gatekeepers" to the fingertips of just about anybody) -- we may have to consider drastically new marketing models to fund and preserve this pillar of our democracy. (Sorry for the long post...)

  5. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, February 12, 2009 at 5:50 p.m.

    I think that one of the likely failings of our new citizen journalists in the near term is that a disproportionate number of them will be single issue focused. We aren't likely to see the same kind of broad-based coverage of government, or the same kind of relatively neutral coverage that we have today.

  6. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields, February 12, 2009 at 6:59 p.m.

    I have faith that many people have a true thirst
    for news that has relevant content and context.
    It is the message- not the media- that is critical
    to them.
    As our fourth estate may take many forms,
    first-person reportage-- hopefully-- will continue
    to carry the water. We can not afford to loose the
    identity of our information sources. That-- is crucial.

  7. Lois Wingerson from CMP Medica, February 12, 2009 at 10:29 p.m.

    Thanks for the long post, Cynthia. You're right.

    Whatever one may say about the biases and shortcomings of American journalism, what we will face is a great loss of expertise. Most "citizen journalists" are unfamiliar with the standards of solid reporting, including independent validation of statements and the difference between background, off the record, and quotable. They actually do teach things in journalism school.

    Especially given the volume and diversity of information on the web, it will take ages for people to learn what is trustworthy and what is not, if commercial newsgathering yields to social media. I foresee a free-for-all.

    Let's all give up ice cream and bottled water so that we can increase our support for public broadcasting.

  8. naomi Marie, February 13, 2009 at 1:27 a.m.

    Doug, I think that the public's opinion of institutions of any sort is at an all time low.

    Personally, the style of over opinionated journalism on both sides is boring and creates great confusion. Clearly most people in the news business are not journalist or even reporters but minions of their personal and corporate positions.

    I long for more facts and fewer opinions, more truly American radical, creative news. This past election was a prime example of how media has too much influence on our lives. What if the media actually reported the facts and not the slant? I for one think that Ron Paul would have had more air time - the state of our current economic affairs proves he has been right for a long time. What if they had given his radical message a voice?

    The newspapers are falling for the same reason the auto industry is falling, irresponsible behavior and clinging to self important delusions. They call it Karma in some places.

  9. David Merrill from OR Newspaper Publishers Assn, February 13, 2009 at 12:22 p.m.

    Huge metro dailies are suffering, but small community papers are thriving. Why? Because the relevance of news to readers has become diluted as big fish consume small fish and then try to fill their shoes. Stories about the Watergate break-in and the Downing Street memo are certainly important, but it's a mistake to believe that the gritty, activist, public-service journalism you refer to is always meaningful on a worldwide scale. The most earnest journalistic battles for government transparency and accountability are fought at the local level with school boards, county commissions, and city councils. That news is meaningful mostly to the affected citizens, and that news is the lifeblood of community newspapers.

  10. Owen Driskill, February 13, 2009 at 12:33 p.m.

    One of my frustrations is the emerging idea that journalism is easy, that any citizen can (or will want) to do it. Many "new" models seem to assume this. Professionals journalists make it look easy, just as a professional musician makes playing an instrument look easy. I would not want a citizen-engineer building my bridges. I do not want a citizen-journalist keeping an eye on my government.

    A good journalist can sit through a four-hour planning commission meeting attended by 2 citizens, boil down the often wandering discussion into a coherent piece that is distributed to the rest of the citizens who were at home watching American Idol. Are there bad, agenda-pushing journalists? Sure. There are unethical and careless people in any profession. By and large, most journalists work hard to serve the public. They are talented. Great listeners. Curious, Flexible of mind. Most are far from elite. They work in communities across the country, not just the big cities. They keep an eye on things, and because it's their job, they understand the seriousness of their work, how it can hurt people (and help). They know a wrong fact can really injure someone. They are careful. I don't think amateur journalists (and let's call them that, rather than citizen-journalists) have that same sense of accountability and responsibility, and any business model that relies exclusively on their judgment, to me, is ill-conceived.

  11. David Merrill from OR Newspaper Publishers Assn, February 13, 2009 at 1 p.m.

    Frustrating indeed how so much is touted as "easy" these days. It's easy to do a so-so job, but it takes experience, training, and dedication to do anything well.
    Let's not forget that most "real" journalists don't operate on their own: they are part of an organization dedicated to the task. Usually, a journalist's work is assigned, and the results reviewed, by an editor. Citizen journalism is "easy" because it doesn't have to pass muster among seasoned journalists. Perhaps that's why, slowly but surely, "citizen journalism" is giving way to "user-generated content".

  12. Mark Mills from Nationwide, February 13, 2009 at 4:12 p.m.

    There's no doubt that things will have to change for true jounalism to survive. I'm very leary of the validity of "news" from iReports by amatuer journalists. There's no fact-checking, just a rush to be first. And that's where the current Fourth Estate has to go to reclaim it's audience. At some point, I hope people will finally tire of talking (or shouting) heads and self-proclaimed experts, and honestly seek out the truth that only investigative journalists have the skill to uncover. It's worth looking again at the updated version of the "Googlezon" video. A scary look into the future.

  13. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., February 13, 2009 at 8:01 p.m.

    When I was a "news reader" (I was *not* a "journalist," just one of those guys with a "baritone."), all I did was read the hourly AP "5-Minute Summary" each hour of my shift. Nevertheless, I can tell you I was among the best-informed people in my social set. I knew more about world and national affairs than anyone I mixed with in the real world.

    IF there's a liberal bias, maybe it's because the liberals have gotten it more nearly right. Consider that.

    So long as "journalism" is corporate, it simply cannot be trusted. News media, whether they be papers, magazines, radio or TV, *must* be family- or individual-owned. And then, you'll have to know who the family or the individual is, and especially, what their agendas are (and make no mistake, *everyone* has an agenda). Eventually, everything owned by corporate entities falls victim to the "profit first" dictum. Only families and individuals have a chance of having principles.

    And, as several here have said, "amateur journalism" isn't the answer either (I agree that "Citizen Journalism" is a misnomer). As someone once said to me, "Everything worth doing is difficult."

    Objectivity is the greatest myth of journalism. It is as impossible as it is for two objects to occupy the same space at the same time. Accept that subjectivity reigns, then try to gain some perspective on the subjectivity of the reporter.

  14. Jim Courtright from Big Thinking By The Hour, February 16, 2009 at 5:46 p.m.

    The Internet and it's Wiki-like filters will help build the reputations of freelance journalists who are indeed hardworking, honest and truthful. One day, a select few of the best ones will become the rockstars. People will them follow them like they follow the New York Times. Disintermediating the editors of the mainstream media like the Times will not affect the end product that these good journalists deliver. Let them be freelancers and sell their content to the highest bidder. That's the democratization power of the Net at it's best.

  15. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 19, 2009 at 9:44 p.m.

    Sorry for the lateness....

    Aside from the on target remarks from above (or below) regarding the payment of services rendered and fact checking and editorial boards, the sheep - the herding - the crowd crazy for publicity and more - can too easily turn into a whispering down the lane story - you know changing just a bit as the story develops until it does not really even resemble the truth. Religion, the more organized the more severe, has more whispering down the lane than truth when communication sources were so very limited. Talk about belief. Now, the truth be told, we all blabber more than we listen which makes unchecked facts scream with more opinionated stories than ever in history.

  16. Cynthia Thomet from Akaku: Maui Community Television, February 20, 2009 at 4:30 p.m.

    Paul Starr wrote a really pertinent article for The New Republic called, "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption". In it Starr echoes one of my points: "The reality is that resources of journalism are now disappearing from the old media faster than the new media can develop them. The financial crisis of the press may thereby compound the media's crisis of legitimacy." It's a long article, but well worth the read.

  17. Jb Vick from FanDriveMedia, February 21, 2009 at 10:41 a.m.

    The business model for media has changed. In the past media evolved to carry advertising. Now advertising doesnt need media to carry it anywhere.

    If the business model is dead why continue to look to the past for financial solutions to the future?

    There is a demand for news and entertainment and that demand is growing. There is no demand for news/entertainment and advertising bundled together. There is a demand for interactivity. Reputation and attention are currencies. You can monetizes just about anything if you understand mobile. Dont believe me? How many conversations do you hear about people ditching their cable service? Compare that to how many conversations you hear about people ditching their cell phones. The cell phone is the credit card terminal of the 21st century.

    Giving more money to public broadcasting is a ridiculous idea and so is alluding to SI as an investigative journalist. The fact that A Rod used steriods was put on the table 4 years ago in a book by Jose Conseco but everyone was so quick to proclaim him as whack job that the content was forgotten. SO actually SI only took what Jose said and reconstituted it to make it their own. Isnt that what Google does? My point. New problems require new solutions. You dont find new solutions by trying to solve them with old formulas because the values have changed. Thats Algebra 101. And all this is just my opinion and I could be wrong.

Next story loading loading..