What is the core problem of today’s newspaper industry? What is the central challenge of the Internet to the old certainties of the news business?
THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM(VIDEO)
According to Clay Shirky, the New York University professor of new media and the author of the 2008 international hit book Here Comes Everybody, the central problem is that there isn’t a central problem. It’s the disappearance of the centre, Shirky argued when he and I spoke at Ryerson University in Toronto last weekend, which is most undermining the old industrial newspaper industry with its top down hierarchies and tangible centres of power.
Perhaps Shirky will entitle his next book Everything Changes. According to him, the Internet does indeed change everything, absolutely everything, about the news industry. The digital revolution collapses audience and author, making what he called “the shock of inclusion” the democratising cultural force of our new interactive age. The Internet undermines traditional news bundling, forever unstitching the necessity of combining disparate content in a single product. Internet technology does away with the oligarchy of newspaper publishers, enabling anyone to publish anything they like in real-time at minimal cost on an always-on global network.
Shirky is, of course, absolutely correct. The core reality of the Internet is its absence of a centre. The distributed Internet, all edge and no heart, has done away with the centralised structures of power of the old industrial world. And without a core, the news can’t be controlled by a central power. It can no longer be owned.
The Internet is like a blob, a centreless yet all powerful monster, impossible to destroy and yet able to devour everything in its path.
In a wonderfully scary 1958 movie, Hollywood imagined the Blob as a fictional horror story. Today, however, the blob has become a not-so-wonderfully-scary monster for the old media powers-that-be like News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch and the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Unfortunately, neither Murdoch nor the FTC were in the Ryerson University audience last weekend. They therefore still have faith in the old industrial organisation model. They still want to own the news. They imagine they can become the new centre of the internet. They think they can kill the blob.
Murdoch, in particular, could do with a dose of Shirkyian wisdom. Old media’s most battle-scarred warrior seems to think he can take on the Internet and survive. His latest warlike manoeuvre is to build a big wall around all News Corp content on the Internet and then charge subscribers to access the news. The storied Australian pugilist, the man who used to own the news in old industrial economy, is trying to rope off the blob from the millions of Internet users who aren’t paying for their content.
According to Murdoch’s The Man Who Owns The News biographer, Michael Wolff, the 79 year-old News Corp chairman is ready for a final, winner-take-all battle with the internet. “Rupert To the Internet: It’s War!” screams the title of Wolff’s latest dose of Murdochia in this month’s Vanity Fair magazine:
“He relishes conflict and doesn’t back down—one reason why he’s won so many of his fights and so profoundly changed the nature of his industry…. Now he’s going to war with the internet.”
The only problem, of course, is that Wolff has his metaphors mixed up. Going to war with the Internet is like fighting the ubiquitous Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a never-ending, always-on battle without a core. It’s like wrestling with the blob.
And so Murdoch’s “war with the Internet” in which he tries to rope off his digital properties from the digital masses is likely to be his last stand. For all his glorious victories in the past, the old News Corp general will probably be remembered as Custer and the war against free Internet content threatens to be Murdoch’s admittedly noble yet militarily catastrophic Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Like Rupert Murdoch, the American Federal Trade Commission has a bit of a Custer complex. Once the sheriff of the industrial media ecosystem, the FTC – as the self-styled protector of American consumers – is now trying to lay down centralised rules for determining the veracity of online information. Like Murdoch, the FTC has declared war on the internet. And like the News Corp war against free content, the FTC war against dishonest content is unwinnable.
The FTC has turned its punitive gaze to online news and information and it doesn’t like the increasingly murky distinction between advertisers and content producers. What this centralised Federal body wants to reestablish is the clear church-state division between content and advertising that used to exist in the old industrial economy.
Going after bloggers and tweeters who take payola from sponsors, the FTC intends to fine online content creators $11,000 per violation. But for all the nobility of its purpose, this FTC initiative is patently absurd. Should you really be fined $11,000 for authoring a 140 character tweet favouring a product? Will the FTC also fine dishonest reviewers on Amazon, Yelp and the thousands of other user-generated consumer review sites? And what about anonymous commentators on blogs – should they also be fined $11,000 for failing to reveal their commercial ties with the manufacturers of products that they are critiquing? No, rather than Custer, the FTC resembles King Canute, fighting a heroic rearguard action against the tide.
As Clay Shirky argued last weekend at Ryerson University, the Internet has so confused and collapsed the distinction between audience and author that the ethical rules of the old economy no longer work. The old dichotomies of content and advertising, once governed from above by all-powerful, centralised organisations like the FTC and News Corp, have been made increasingly redundant by the internet.
Here Comes Everybody, Shirky warned in 2008. He was right. Unfortunately, however, neither the American Federal Trade Commission nor Rupert Murdoch seem to have noticed the arrival of everybody on a stage that they once monopolised. They better wake up soon to this new reality, however, before they get consumed by the insatiable blob.