While this guide covers the most prominent aspects of new media, such as blogging, social networks, aggregation, and content marketing, it isn’t with the idea of teaching you how to engage in them. That’s better left to others, many of whom will be cited here. Moreover, new media is evolving so rapidly that any attempt to offer training in this guide would quickly become outdated.
My aim instead is to explain what I see as the basic principles of new media, and show how they work in the various platforms discussed here. Like Jaiku and Google Wave before them, LinkedIn or Tumblr might soon become passé. But the principles that animated them will be unchanged. You’ll be better able to appreciate and adapt to their successors if you understand those principles.
The first thing to understand about new versus old media is how much both have in common. Their shared concern is communication, and they involve many of the same concepts. But what differentiates them is where they place their emphasis. Though not the only ones, the following six new-media preferences are to my mind the most significant:
- Dialogue over monologue
- Collaboration over control
- The personal over the corporate
- The open over the closed
- The transparent over the opaque
- The process over the product
As I’ll suggest in the rest of this guide, these principles lie behind many of the practices of new media that may by turns confuse, anger, or enchant you.
Journalism as Conversation
In 1999, when Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote in The Cluetrain Manifesto that “markets are conversations,” it was a fresh, radically new idea. Today, for anyone who’s thought much about social media, it verges dangerously on being trite. But however obvious the idea may seem, it remains a powerful, foundational concept for new media. We ignore it at our peril.
Searls and Weinberger were addressing their comments above all to public relations and marketing people. In the beginning of their chapter, in fact, they point to magazines as a “form of market conversation.” But the publishing industry’s advantage is only relative; it too has tended either to ignore or to dominate the conversation.
Before the Internet, journalism was largely a one-way form of communication. Publishers talked to their readers, but few readers could talk back, and in only limited ways. Digital technologies have dramatically changed the balance. Now, readers can easily and immediately comment on stories by commenting on blogs. What’s more, they can now be publishers themselves, whether through their own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media. Not only can they talk back to publications, but they can also compete against those publications by talking to other readers directly.
This change means that traditional distinctions between the journalist, the reader, and the news source are breaking down. Journalists can no longer rely on the idea of professionalism as separating them in a meaningful way from “amateur” bloggers and other kinds of citizen journalists. Now, as Storyful’s David Clinch told Mashable, “journalists must be able to pivot quickly between the idea of using the community as a source of news and as the audience for news, because they are both.”
As a result, the nature of journalistic discourse is transforming. The journalist’s role is no longer to dominate or control the conversation, but to participate in the conversation, support it, and help a variety of other voices to be heard.
For producers of traditional media, this can be a difficult lesson. We tend to forget that a conversation is not simply one person talking, then the other. For any participant in a communication, the most important elements are first, truly listening to what others say, and then meaningfully responding to them. As their use of a social-media platform like Twitter shows, even today journalists tend to think of their primary media role as talking. But true dialogue demands an equal emphasis on those other conversational skills: listening and responding.
Collaboration vs. Control: User-Generated Content
The notion of giving up editorial control can be a challenging concept. Many print veterans have difficulty accepting the idea that good editorial content can be provided by readers volunteering their work. As one prominent business-to-business publisher recently put it, “People who write for free will give you exactly what you pay for in the long run.” (Ironically, he made this statement in a presentation he was giving for free.) Behind this perspective is a bias to professionalism. In this view, journalism is a complex product that can only be produced by trained career journalists who are paid for their work. It’s their job to write, the readers’ to read, and the advertisers’ to pay for it all.
But in the social media era, roles and responsibilities are not so clear-cut. When journalism’s role is seen as enabling conversation in a community, the journalist’s voice is no longer privileged. Others may speak with as much or more authority and insight, and without needing payment to do so.
The print veteran’s tendency to discount contributions from users is amplified by the form of those contributions. In keeping with the nature of online media, user-generated content tends to be decidedly unprofessional: incomplete, unpolished, and personal—in other words, conversational.
To survive in the new-media era, journalists must not simply accept such content, but aid and abet it; they must aim to collaborate in the conversation, not to control it.
Personal Versus Corporate
The dynamic that raises the reader’s voice to the level of the journalist changes the journalist’s relation to his or her employer. The journalist no longer needs a traditional publisher to talk with readers. Formerly, most reporters and editors were, to readers, little more than a name on a page or on a masthead. But in the social media world, they have an increasingly personal and direct connection to their readers. In the terms of commerce, journalists are becoming brands, potentially the equal of their employer’s corporate brand.
Having a personal, conversational relationship with an audience inevitably means having a distinctive voice and point of view or, in new-media terms, a personal brand. To traditionally trained journalists, this may seem not simply unfamiliar, but unprofessional. Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s journalism program manager, puts it this way:
“As journalists, we often squirm at phrases like ‘personal branding.’ But the reality is that social media, and the social Web in general, have created a shift from the institutional news brand to journalists’ personal brands . . . [and] a consumption environment that encourages conversation as much as content, and the personal as much as the professional. It’s a shift from the logo to the face.”
Increasingly, the context that makes your personal brand and your social interactions meaningful is not the corporation but the network. The network—and we could also call it a community—is both a means to and a result of cultivating those interactions and creating the basis for further exchanges. When you get a helpful or insightful comment on your blog or a retweet on Twitter, for instance, it’s the opening for a relationship that develops only if you cultivate it. That process starts with a thoughtful response to each commenter.
But that’s only the beginning. Your network should cast a wide net. Don’t limit yourself to one platform, like your blog or Facebook. If your relationship begins with a blog comment, look to expand the basis of that relationship to social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook. Likewise, engage with people in those social networks with the aim of introducing them to your blog or website. And return the favor. Make sure you follow, like, and retweet the people who follow you.
As all forms of media become more personal, the bonds that link media professional to corporate employer become weaker. At the same time, the connections to social networks grow stronger. For journalists the implications of this trend are simple: embrace social networking, or say goodbye to your career.
Open or Closed?
One of the key distinctions in the digital world is between closed systems and open ones. One example of a closed system, from the early days of the online experience, would be the original America Online or Prodigy of the 1990s. These “walled garden” systems restricted who could participate, and relied on custom-built, proprietary systems that could be difficult to use and impossible to adapt. The internet, by contrast, is an open system, built on published standards and accommodating a wide range of modifications.
Another example of closed and open digital systems comes from software. Proprietary software programs, like Microsoft Windows, are closed. Their source code is hidden and cannot be legally modified. Open-source software like Linux, by contrast, exposes its source code to the world, and not only allows modification by volunteers, but is built on such voluntary involvement.
From the user’s perspective, closed systems are generally expensive to buy and to implement, while open ones are free and can cost less to put in place. In theory, closed, custom-built systems can more directly address the needs of the users who pay for the service. Open systems may be more difficult to adapt to individual use, but allow for interoperability with other systems.
This distinction between open and closed is useful to understanding and participating in new media. In general, old media prefers closed systems, allowing entry to some but excluding others, whether through paid or controlled subscriptions, copyright, or professional restrictions on content creation.
For legacy corporations, acceptance of openness is difficult. But given that new media favors the personal, individuals should find the transition easier. In fact, individual journalists stand to gain much more from open systems than do their employers.
Learning an open-source content management system like WordPress or Joomla, for instance, is more likely to benefit individual content creators as they change jobs than would a proprietary or custom-built system. Similarly, while restrictive paywalls may increase revenues for some publications, editors will often find more value to their reputations and careers in having their content accessible to all.
Media businesses may fear open systems, but individual journalists shouldn’t. Openness is their future.
Transparent or Opaque?
Because one of its foundational ideas is openness, new media encourages and rewards transparency. Traditional media organizations have tended to be opaque, aiming not to reveal much about the people and processes behind their product. But the nature of new media is to reveal everything, to make everything public. If the organizations don’t reveal their own inner workings, the increasing likelihood is that someone else will.
One of the ways new media encourages transparency is ethical, as represented by the popular expression, “transparency is the new objectivity.” Traditional news organizations have wanted individual journalists to hide their subjective feelings and inclinations behind a veil of objectivity. As Mathew Ingram argues, this is an increasingly untenable stance in the new-media era. The only ethical strategy for journalists now is to be open about their biases and conflicts of interest, and to let readers judge their reliability as reporters for themselves.
Another mode of transparency is operational. Transparency doesn’t stop with individuals. To be seen as reliable, organizations themselves must practice media transparency in many, if not all, aspects of their operations. By showing how their process works—through methods such as sharing internal policy documents with readers, explaining how news subjects are selected and prioritized, or live-streaming editorial meetings—media producers will give their audience reason to trust them.
To work, transparency must be a committed, conscious choice. But it’s something of a Hobson’s choice. In the new-media era, there’s no long-term alternative to transparency.
Process or Product?
The new-media principles of transparency and openness mean that readers can both see and participate in the process of journalism itself. They are no longer handed the finished product in the form of an article and asked to move along. For both reader and writer the change can be liberating, exciting, and rewarding.
The downside, of course, is that the process is messy and prone to mistakes. Behind every fact-checked and edited story is a tale of false leads, dead ends, and empty promises. Letting their audience in on that ugly and wayward process seems unwise to many traditional journalists.
But the benefits of journalism as a process ultimately outweigh the drawbacks. By turning the process itself into the product, formerly behind-the-scenes editorial judgments can be discussed and validated, news and other information can be shared more rapidly, and inevitable errors can be more quickly identified and corrected.
The controversial aspects of putting process ahead of product are obvious even in older types of online media such as blogs. But they are far more dramatic in real-time formats such as live-blogging or Twitter. Traditionalists might contend that such real-time publishing leads to a fragmentary and confusing picture. But to new-media proponents, it is a truer picture than that painted by a traditional journalistic product like the self-contained and superficially coherent news article. Rather than imposing a neat narrative structure on events, real-time journalism acknowledges that the information is as yet fragmentary and its meaning still unresolved.
As Jeff Jarvis puts it, changes in the nature of media create effective new ways to communicate: “No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information.”
The process is not pretty. But hiding it benefits no one. Only by sharing the process as widely as possible can we reach the closest approximation of the truth.
Next: Ways to Use This Guide