The January/February 2008 issue of Technology Review has a fascinating article on the networks' view of news ("'You don't understand our audience' - what I learned about network television at Dateline NBC", by John Hockenberry). The author is particularly interested in "explor[ing] how the Internet might create new opportunities for storytelling, new audiences, and exciting new mechanisms for the creation of journalism," and contrasts the networks' obsession with audience size ("[Content] exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements.") with the users' desire for smaller-size communities. Maybe Internet will fulfill the promises television didn't keep: "The United States is arguably more isolated and less educated about the world than it was a half-century ago," despite "the ability to transmit pictures, voices, and stories from around the world to living rooms in the U.S. heartland."
The anecdote about the network decision to resume prime-time scheduling after 9/11 because one could not "sell ads around pictures of Ground Zero" was quite sobering, the story about how NBC wanted to cash in on all the emotion surrounding firefighters' deaths at Ground Zero by creating a show similar to Cops at a firehouse made me shake my head, but I will leave you read the paragraph on entertainment driving news coverage by yourselves - no excerpt would do it justice. (It starts at the bottom of p.68, for those of you who have the magazine; for online readers, the first sentence of that paragraph is "Sometimes entertainment actually drove selection of news stories.") How episodes of Law & Order and American Dreams could affect Dateline programs, for the sole reason that the latter was used as lead-in to the former, is just sickening. And if you are not disgusted enough, the following pages will do the trick (the network' reaction to footage of prison guards using deadly force on a mentally ill prisoner, GE [parent of NBC] blocking Dateline's attempts to interview relatives of the most wanted terrorist in Saudi Arabia because it did business with them).
But can we really "use technology to help create a nation of engaged citizens"? Local newspapers (see for instance Allentown's The Morning Call) seem to have etched partial (mis)information into their online business model: writing articles that tell readers little about what's going on guarantees that many will come back to the site later to see if things got sorted out - a boon for advertisers. The game is stacked against concise and relevant reporting, because the goal is, or certainly seems to be, to make banner ads viewed as many times as possible to extract high rates from advertisers. Many posts on my local newspaper's website are nothing more than the transcription of scanner reports and citations. Really, police departments in the county should just get together and hire someone to take notes and post that stuff online - at least the money they'd get from companies to advertise on the site would go to police training or equipment or some kind of valuable purpose. But don't tell me this is journalism.
I enjoyed Hockenberry's example of the entrepreneur Charles Ferguson who spent $2 million of his own money to make a documentary (No End in Sight) about Iraq, which gives a dispassionate account of "how the U.S. military missed the growing insurgency"; I also liked how NBC's David Bloom was able to file live stories from his "Bloom-mobile" thanks to advances in technology, and appreciated the emergence of soldiers-bloggers in Iraq who were able to create and distribute their own content. Technology is certainly bringing about change. But what these examples have in common is their location: far away from here, and you don't get there unless someone pays for the trip; you also don't get your voice heard unless you provide the users on YouTube with a compelling reason to watch your video rather than someone else's. Fires don't start without a spark; viral marketing can only do so much.
Iraq is attracting a lot of attention right now but what about other Asian countries? Where did the "technological insurgency", to use Hockenberry's expression, leave them? For now grass-roots efforts to take advantage of technology seems to drown the voices of people who have a point to make with those of people who talk even when they have nothing to say. The most viewed videos on YouTube aren't breaking-news stories; instead you find a lot of clips with presidential contenders and video games - nothing that would qualify as eye-opener. Maybe we will witness the emergence of a not-for-profit and philanthropy-driven model for the news business, with billionaires paying their own teams of journalists in the interest of the greater good and fair reporting. After all, few people expected Bill Gates to give so much money to charity when he was still running Microsoft, so we can still hope this will happen at some point, and that it won't turn into CNN. In the meantime, my TV is stuck on PBS.