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?