Monday, July 09, 2007

Festival of Ideas -- 'Digital Ink: the future of journalism', concluded

... continued from here ...

So it was left to Paul Chadwick, just as I had given up hope of hearing anyone say anything that was both knowledgeable and interesting about traditional journalism and possible online futures, to restore my faith. Walkley winner, former Victorian Privacy Commissioner and recently-appointed inaugural Director of Editorial Policies at the ABC, Chadwick is obviously an extraordinary person as well as an extraordinary speaker.

His background is in law and it is very easy to imagine him in court: he is one of those lucky few with a gift of speaking on his feet in complex whole sentences full of good grammar, audible punctuation, skilful rhetoric and lyrical speech rhythms, and he appears to be composing these remarkable sentences as he delivers them, in one smooth integrated action. He also appears to be not so much a 'Glass Half Full' type as a 'Glass Overflowing With Veuve Clicquot and Here, Have Another One, Why Do You Think God Gave You Two Hands?' sort of bloke.

Like Marion Nestle the following day, except without the PowerPoint, Chadwick had thought in detail about the structure of what he wanted to say, knowing (as do all lecturers and ex-lecturers) that information can be more easily delivered, and more of it retained, if it's presented in dot points, with headings, in a logical order. This he did. It isn't possible if all you have to say is waffle, so when someone does do it you can be sure that they are actually telling you something.

His three headings, or 'angles', were (1) History, (2) A Romance, (3) Opportunity, but before he embarked on any of them he gave his answer to the question implied in the title of the session: 'Has journalism a future? Yes. It is an essential service.'

'History' turned out to be exactly that: a quick, focused, potted history of journalism that laid the foundation for what was to come. He took us through a few precursors of modern journalism as we know it -- the names he mentioned were Defoe, Paine and Hazlitt, who were, he suggested, early prototypes of bloggers -- and through the relationship between technological innovation and changes in the nature of journalism, pointing out that the practice of 'journalism' changed dramatically in the 19thC with the invention of newspapers -- 'great lumps of paper with ink on them' -- as we know them.

He then drew a direct parallel between the historical moment around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries when the combination of a rise in mass literacy with progress in mass print technology enabled the evolution of modern journalism, and the historical moment we're currently in, 200 years later. Both, he argued, were a matter of 'technology enabling growth'; contemporary computer-literacy he called 'a different, parallel literacy ... a literacy assisting journalism in its new incarnation.' The internet, he said, was 'a tool for mass disclosure' that was available to everyone.

The 'Romance' turned out to be a rather dodgy love story about a recent bit of nepotism between lovers in high places that was immediately pounced on, exposed and torn to bits by bloggers in the US. This Chadwick used as an example of the 'new transparency' provided by the blogosphere.

A disconnect has developed, he argued, between the previously reliable Fourth Estate and its previously trusting audience; while people these days expect to be lied to by the newspapers, the emergence of blogging has enabled if not ensured the rapid investigation, exposure and exhaustive analysis of most such lies. Bloggers, he said, can and do quickly raise questions about conflicts of interest (both personal and business) in the MSM, 'and if you think Media Watch is tough ...!' There is, he said, 'a new transparency now abroad in old media, imposed upon it by new media.'

He enlarged on this point later in general discussion when he was talking about contemporary journalists' loss of confidence, not only because 'the economic model has been shaken by the new technology' but also because of this new online scrutiny: what bloggers are doing, he reiterated, is analysing and exposing journalism itself -- 'doing to journalists themselves what journalists, as a privileged caste, have been doing for 200 years.' This kind of change, he said, is quite frightening to those who have been used to controlling information: 'It's really hard, to lose that power.'

Under the heading 'Opportunities', Chadwick described what he saw as another vital role for the blogosphere: the support and augmentation of news-gathering and primary content delivery, a point on which Colleen Ryan, in the general discussion, later agreed: 'Bloggers provide such a fabulous resource,' she said. 'Some bloggers have amazing expertise.'

Chadwick's example of the kind of journalistic support he could see the blogosphere providing was the sifting and analysis, done very quickly because done by so many, of news as it broke -- the release, say, of a substantial government report that the MSM was expected to respond to overnight if not sooner. A 'critical mass of bloggers', he argued, can quickly process this kind of information, 'sifting and ordering the haystack' in such a way as to make it a great deal easier for frontline journalists to find the needle. 'What we're seeing in the digital world is an augmentation of journalism, potentially to its and our benefit.'

Broadcasts and podcasts via Radio Adelaide.

In chronological order, here are the earlier posts on the Ideas Fest: June 7, July 1, July 5, July 6, July 6 again, July 7, July 8 and July 8 again.

And more to come.


Zoe said...

Wonderful posts, Cat. Any chance there's a podcast of the talk?


Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes indeed: go here for all your Adders Ideas Fest podcast needs.

I should add that link to every post, but I keep forgetting. Good thing I'm not being paid. :-)

Francis Xavier Holden said...

Thanks for all this pav.

btw. this site is looking bad in Opera - all dark and noirish (I knew you were going mean streets) but hard to read - I'll check in other browsers

Pavlov's Cat said...

I'm glad people are liking this festival stuff - there still a few posts to go. Of course you could listen to the podcasts but that's a pain for people with dialup (or on budget broadband limits like moi) or limited time to listen -- the written summaries are quicker, with what I like to think is value-added comment, scene-setting etc.

FXH -- I mostly write it in Safari so of course it suits that; it looks okay in Firefox. Dunno about any others. Browsers are weird.