Murdoch, Kindle and digital mass communication
An article from Mil’s new endeavour, Zebra Red, slipped by me a few days ago. It dealt with an issue that I’d been meaning to go into for some weeks, ever since Robert Thomson called Google an ‘internet parasite’ and promised that ‘content creators’ would no longer bear the burden of creating said content while Google and others reaped the rewards. This interview by the editor of the WSJ was part of a broader intervention by People’s Champion of Free Speech, Comrade R. Murdoch in which he promised that the future would involve us all forking over more cash to him and his enterprises.
In his article, Mil foresees paying for online news coverage becoming like paying for our digital TV etc: we pay a regular subscription which we don’t even notice, in the end. Mil also mentions one potential alternative: Kindle. This is a software and hardware platform for reading e-books and, as it turns out, Murdoch is attempting to develop his own version to rival both it and the Sony Reader. Murdoch’s version is going to be bigger, however, aimed at syndicating the content of newspapers. So eventually we’ll be like the people in Spielberg’s Minority Report, reading digital newspapers on the train as we travel to work. It all sounds well and good.
Except. I run this site based off three national news sources and about fifteen blogs the RSS feeds to which sit in my bookmark toolbar. When I publish an article, I’m referencing content that is not legally mine – and if I have to pay to access that content, then we’re in difficulty because the people who read this site might not be paying to access the same content. They might be getting it for free via my commentary, or via the commentary of a million other political and cultural blogs which flourish by discussing events reported by the news media.
That’s a minor issue and I’m not overly concerned about it. What does concern me is that we’re essentially feeding the hand that bites us. I accept that individuals, however resourceful, can’t compete for news gathering ability with the giants of the media – and the reason being that the established media gathers immense amounts of cash and can use it to pay professional journalists, flying them to the location of major events and so forth. This type of journalism is decreasing because of a demand for profit – and pay-per-view simply equals more profit.
Unless people can be critically engaged in news values, in production values and in editorial values then it’s not news that we’ll be paying for, whatever platform we’re using to read it from. It’s more of the same churnalistic nonsense. And yet, as the internet progresses, tools are becoming available for people to be that engaged – whether through blogs, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Even while journalists were at the scene of the April demonstrations against the G20, others were uploading pictures and videos they’d taken themselves.
Background research is always going to be more accessible to a professional journalist – but via the internet, should the major news companies switch to a pay-per-view or limited-platform model of distribution, some of us are going to have to take on that responsibility because the major news companies aren’t doing it well enough. This is difficult since I live in Canterbury and perhaps the news is happening in Newcastle. I don’t know anyone in Newcastle. That’s a problem that can be solved by embedding the news into our political movement – which is national.
There are other potential solutions too. Ensuring full and social access to the internet should be a national priority and to that cause we should be prepared to dedicate tax revenue. Whether by providing more computers in libraries, subsidising internet businesses in poorer areas or providing a scheme whereby the government distributes free computers and the BBC operates its own ISP, everyone should be able to access the resources of the internet. By expanding the reach of the internet, we increase the number of volunteers who might help construct a social media.
Information is power; the deluge of information we get every day from broadcast, print and internet media is largely devoid of importance, missing important contextual elements or completely distorted by editorial values. Instead of recycling Council press releases, if someone on the ground could access online resources telling them how to check these things for accuracy, we might actually get some genuine news content on the web. Meantime the big news companies can take their privileged platforms and shove them where the sun ain’t shining.
Some steps have been taken in a positive direction by groups such as Liberal Conspiracy – involving professional journalists such as Sunny Hundal or humanitarian aid worker Conor Foley, who writes some spectacular articles on subjects that are mistreated by the media and large swathes of the commentariat. Another site which I can’t sing enough praises to is David Harvey’s online lecture series. Some of Professor Harvey’s actual honest-to-god lectures are even webcasted online. This is the milieu from which a social media could be created.
Such sites as Lords of the Blog, where blog sixteen members of the House of Lords (though only four with any regularity), are great for the insider’s view. The disadvantage is that from such sites we only find out what the authors want us to find out unless we have the time and resources to perform investigative practices – such as going along to events and the people involved to find out what’s going on that may not be so conducive to the narrative certain parties wish us to take away. Building those resources, however, will take time for us just as it did for mainstream newspapers.
However, it’s not like we’ve got anything better to do, as we sit about reading the same recycled crap in our daily paper, in the emailed government press releases or on any of a thousand blogs peripheral to the mainstream media – from Comment is Free to the Telegraph blogs. The positive thing is, we can start small. We can go to events, we can talk to people. We could even get some support from the NUJ for a liberalisation of press card policy and perhaps a bit of training to professionalize such volunteers as we have. Things like this can only make a social media stronger – and make it easier to stick it to one R. Murdoch and his fee-charging, content-policing attitude.