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Feb. 9, 2010, 11 a.m.

Institutions, networks, and policy directions for a healthy journalism

Today I’m attending Making Media Work, a half-day panel in Washington, which is the kickoff event for the New America Foundation’s Knight Media Policy Initiative. (You may remember the announcement that they were hiring part-time fellows a few months back.) It should be an interesting discussion; for starters, the talk today is already starting to break down the cast of “usual suspects” we normally see at these sorts of events, but I also think the NAF initiative has the potential to become a big deal in the journalism policy world. I’ll be sure to let you know if anything interesting happens (and see my full disclosure, below).

For now, though, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been triggered by the excellent research of two of the presenters today, Tracy van Slyke and Jessica Clark over at Beyond the Echo, as well as by a recent post by Josh Wilson at the Save the News blog. What do Clark, van Slyke, and Wilson all have in common? In a few words, they see the future of journalism not in terms of “newspapers vs. bloggers” or “old media vs. new media” or even “Demand Media vs. Everyone.” Rather, they see the future as a question of institutions and networks. Regular readers of my blogging here will know I’ve been thinking, writing, and blogging about journalistic institutions and networks for years. And the startup of the initiative at the New America has got me thinking about the intersection of public policy and networked forms of journalistic work.

In their report, The Reconstruction of American Journalism, Len Downie and Michael Schudson talked about newsrooms this way:

In the age of the Internet, everyone from individual citizens to political operatives can gather information, investigate the powerful, and provide analysis. Even if news organizations were to vanish en masse, information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge would not disappear. But something else would be lost, and we would be reminded that there is a need not just for information, but for news judgment oriented to a public agenda and a general audience. We would be reminded that there is a need not just for news but for newsrooms. Something is gained when news reporting, analysis, and investigation are pursued collaboratively by stable organizations that can facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics, and legal services, and present their work to a large public. Institutional authority or weight often guarantees that the work of newsrooms won’t easily be ignored.

I think Downie and Schudson make an important point, although I also think its too easy to go from the (excellent) argument above to the (less excellent) claim that we need to “save newspapers.” Rather than talking about “newsrooms,” which imply the existence of a physical place, I’d rather talk about institutions.

Here’s how Josh Wilson, over at Save the Press, defines institutions. They are:

social organizations with a gestalt that is singular and self-prioritizing…It has a superabundance of gravitas and resources, [and] its administrative infrastructure makes it attractive to capital.

He compared these to what he calls “peer relationships,” or what I would call “networks”:

the egalitarian multiplicity with common goals and mutual needs. This idea of peer-to-peer relationships is built into the physical architecture of the Internet itself.

And while traditional institutions have been historically important the the practice of journalism — and remain so — Wilson draws attention to the manner in which institutional logic and the logic of the Internet are often at odds.

Institution[s] and practice[s] [or networks] are quite separate — indeed, in today’s media ecology, they are also unequal, which is downright poisonous to the peer relationships that animate the Internet as a radically inclusive democratic medium.

When thinking about reforming or rebuilding journalism for the 21st century, Wilson concludes, we need to do more than figure out how we are going to save news institutions. We need to think about how we are going to facilitate the creation of news networks that will pick up some of the slack of vanishing institutions. “What our democracy really needs.” Wilson concludes, “is new journalism infrastructure — decentralized, mutually interdependent, peer-driven infrastructure that can facilitate the work of journalists, citizens and communities wherever and whoever they are.”

While Wilson’s post is helpful in distinguishing between networks and institutions, he is less clear in defining exactly what networks are. And this is where Clarke and van Slyke come in. In a series of posts that draw upon research in their new book, Beyond the Echo Chamber, Clarke and van Slyke depict what they call the “four ‘network layers'” — networked users, self-organized networks, institutional networks, and networks of institutions — that lie at the heart of the new media ecosystem. By networked users they refer to media consumers (and producers!) who simultaneously consume traditional media content and redistribute that content to their other social networks. (I would add, following Katz and Lazarsfeld, that users have always been networked, but that the Internet affords both an ease and traceability of distribution that is new.) Van Slyke and Clarke turn to these social networks themselves when discussing self-organized networks, defining them as “ad hoc networks around unifying elements such as shared issues and/or breaking events.”

When they discuss the third and fourth networked category, the authors of Beyond the Echo Chamber start to add flesh to Josh Wilson’s sketches, discussed above. The key characteristic of institutional networks is that they are social networks grounded in actual institutions, giving them a measure of stability and permanence that more ad hoc networks lack. Finally, Clarke and van Slyke come full circle, noting that institutions themselves may join networks of other institutions:

With this layer, we break down the walls preventing journalism and media organizations from working together and with other organizations. In fact, we argue, in this new networked media environment, when faced with increased competition and reduced resources, collaboration and cooperation are key to impact…Media makers and outlets can form collaborative networks to jointly report on complex issues, and structure new models for innovation and revenue,” as we elaborate in the book.

By combining Wilson’s theories about institutions with van Slyke and Clarke’s description of the four network layers, we can advance a powerful theory about the organization of cultural production in the Internet age. Indeed, this entire post has been something of an extended meditation upon Jeff Jarvis’ dictum, “Do what you do best and link to the rest” — which I feel really captures the spirit behind much of the thinking behind networked journalism.

Most of the time, theorists discussing emergent news networks tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they bemoan the downfall of traditional news institutions, or they praise the rise of news networks — often assuming that the growth of networks is inevitable. In my follow-up post, I want to make a somewhat different argument. I want to discuss the barriers to network formation, and discuss ways that both journalistic entrepreneurs and smart public policy can help overcome those barriers to networked production.

[DISCLOSURE: I’ll be working as a very part-time Knight Media Policy Fellow for the New America Foundation starting this spring. And I was research assistant for the Downie/Schudson report.]

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2010, 11 a.m.
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