Starting today, Howard Rheingold (Smart Mobs: book, blog) will be teaching a Winter quarter class on Digital Journalism at Stanford University. He will explore how shifts in media technologies, business structures and the organization of public life over the past twenty years have combined to change the practice of journalism, the nature of the public, and the interaction between the two.
His syllabus covers everything from hierarchies to public spaces to collaborative citizen journalism to social software. He asks questions such as: "What news-shaping forces are emerging from search, tagging, blogging, and other web-based media?". And he gives his students a series of interesting mandatory readings including Dan Gillmor's We the Media and Larry Lessig's Code. He is also asking them to read an essay that I wrote in 1997 for the online peer-reviewed journal FirstMonday: A new media tells different stories.
Back in 1994 Howard's The Virtual Community was one of the texts that shaped my understanding of the Internet. So it's a gratifying surprise to see my essay in his syllabus, and to realize that many of the things I wrote then about the future of journalism have passed the test of time and are still relevant.
The full text (about ten pages) is here. Following are a few excerpts. Your comments?
The small newspaper in the Italian part of Switzerland which gave me my first opportunity in journalism was one of the last dailies in the country to set their type in lead.
This was twelve years ago.
I have now spent the last twenty months conceiving, developing, and finally managing the editorial part of the first Swiss online newspaper: Webdo.
It was obvious to us also that in order to respond to this challenge, the only way would be to take full advantage of what characterizes this new medium - interactivity, hypertext, and multimedia capability. With this in mind as a starting point, everything was to be created. A logic of production, consumption, and commercialization. A language, a rhythm, a new kind of connection with our readership.
As George Gilder wrote, by establishing the existence of a mass audience, therefore necessarily a homogeneous one, the media in fact negate the individuality of their readers, their generous diversity, the real scope of their interests and passions, their multiple lifestyles and ambitions. In a way, the papers we publish today are contradictory to human nature.
Though there is much said about interactivity it is my feeling that it's not fully understood by the press and everyone in the publishing field yet. The concept of interactivity is not about the user clicking on an icon to unlatch a reaction from his computer: it is above all about connecting people.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the interactive digital environment is the progressive vanishing of the lines dividing the producer and the consumer of information. On the Internet, everyone is at once a potential writer and journalist, editor and reader, seller, and buyer. "The users are your best teachers, listen to them", someone said, and how right he was.
The relationship between us and our readers becomes less clear in its definition yet stronger by its need. Answering your readers' e-mail as well as opening forums for debates or chat rooms on Web sites are the first steps in developing what I call a community: a group of people who identify with a certain newspaper not only because it provides news but because it allows connections, a space for sharing ideas and developing solutions. As Katherine Fulton writes, "content is people as well as information". II fully agree.
With this in mind, facts and information can circulate without interference and without the journalist acting as a filter. He will have to give up part of the power he used to have - based on his competence as well as on his position. The role of the journalist is changing into a more central figure, a mediator. He directs traffic, explores, becomes a facilitator of discussions. His new power will depend on his ability to animate a group of people, to develop methods and means to enliven the community, to organize information-gathering and use with the participation of the members of the community.
The newspaper is no longer a product. It becomes a place. A place where people from the community stop by, make contacts and come back again to build a common future.