Interview: Charlie Beckett on SuperMedia

“This book is my manifesto for the media as a journalist but also as a citizen of the world. As a journalist you are constantly being told that the news media have enormous power to shape society and events, to change lives and history. So why are we so careless as a society about the future of journalism itself ?” [1]

Saving JournalismThis is how Charlie Beckett presents his book “SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), in which he tackles the main challenges to journalistic practice in our days, and its influence to maintain free and democratic societies .

Charlie Beckett is a journalist with a 20 yearscareer at the BBC and ITN, and he is also the founding Director of POLIS, a think tank about journalism and society at the London School of Economics. “SuperMedia” is a work that gathers and structures several streams of thought about the future of Journalism as a essential service to contemporary societies, and how the changes in the news industry, beyond inevitable, are necessary.

Alex Gamela posed a few questions to Charlie Beckett about his book (Portuguese version available here).

“I estimate that we have five years – perhaps ten – to save journalism so that journalism can save the world. “

So, why is journalism in danger? For Beckett, this is due to a “mixture of economic pressures, political repression ( [in] places like Africa, Russia etc) and the shift of people’s attention to new media alternatives”.

The traditional media have kept their relationship with the audience fairly unchanged in the past few decades, which seemed to work just fine, but with the coming of new technologies that relationship shifted, and the news industry seems to be having some difficulties adapting to the new circumstances.

I had to ask Charlie Beckett a question he himself raised in his book: “What is wrong with the media business?” “It is too formulaic, too closed, too limited.” In fact, the trouble and the fears are increasing in the “dead tree” industry: dropping profits, lower circulation, staff cuts, and the reluctance of many professionals to embrace the new ways of communication.

Despite all that, journalism’s job is still the same: to inform. And the flow of information in a free environment allows a better knowledge of what surrounds us, and a more effective interaction with it. But, for a long time, journalism took the part of the messenger that was never accounted for.

And what is its role nowadays?

“Journalism has many roles: entertainment, watchdog, informer, forum, economic medium and more. Societies with open and thriving news media seem to be richer and more well-adjusted.”.

At the heart of the news process are journalists, an ill-viewed class at the eyes of most citizens. Under such a pessimistic perspective on the function they perform, I asked if journalists had forgot about their responsibilities:

“Of course not”, says Beckett, “but a journalist’s priority is to do their job well. Wider responsibilities should be considered by the journalist and their organisations, but everyone will shape them differently. Networked journalism allows the public to help define and then share the responsibilities.”

Networked Journalism

Charlie Beckett spends a large part of his book talking about networked journalism. As he explained on BBC “Networked journalists share the news process with the audience right from the start: from information gathering to distribution, in active, participative way.”[2]

In a nutshell, Beckett described it to me as a “thorough-going change in journalism practice which challenges the basic assumptions of mainstream journalism. It synthesises the functions of editing, reporting and packaging with much public involvement throughout the process.”

As long as they have access to a computer or a cell phone, any member of the audience can collaborate with journalists as a citizen journalist, through wikis, blogs, or providing multimédia contents. Or they can just sit back and watch the results of this collaboration.

This implies new perspectives and an extension of the news agenda that expands with each participation. This synergy can rebuild public trust in journalism, and an increase of media companies’ knowledge about their audiences: “People are increasingly sceptical but that can be a good thing. Old Media didn’t take audience seriously because they never met them.”

But the participation of amateurs in the news process raises the content quality issue. For Charlie Beckett this does not apply: “There are vast amounts of rubbish on corporate media.”

Another one of the most discussed subjects on New Media is how they can generate revenue: “Much too big a question! If I knew the answer I would be very rich.”

We’ve been watching practical examples of this evolution: the celerity of how the Sichuan earthquake was reported on the web, the democratization of multimedia content, the development of social networks and virtual communities, etc. But more than a technological evolution, networked journalism is a philosophy: “(…)is a return to some of the oldest virtues of journalism: connecting with the world beyond the newsroom; listening to people; giving people a voice in the media; responding to what the public tells you in a dialogue. But it has the potential to go further than that in transforming the power relationship between media and the public and reformulating the means of journalistic production.”.[3]

The multiplication of ways to communicate means that there is a whole lot more information than ever before, where each individual can express himself according to his own agenda. I told Charlie Beckett that the media landscape looked like a broken mirror, with different platforms in different media, for fragmented audiences, using various applications. He replied: “What’s wrong with diversity and difference and distance? But generally more public participation allows greater voice and more connectivity.” Between people, and between audience and media companies. Are the new networked media outlets becoming the heart of communities? “Yes – but they might also be on the edges of communities or outside of them. NJ naturally works best when supported by groups of people but those communities might not be geographical.” The geography that we relate to now is the one of concepts, tastes, ideas.

In his book, Beckett extensively reports on how the networked media can influence the political conscience of citizens when mainstream media is alerted to subjects that usually would remain hidden under the stack of the news pile that fills newsrooms everyday. Networked journalism allows a reformulation of the news agenda, making way to news that are important to smaller communities, or society in general, but of which is disconnected for not being provided with information about that reality. The main example that Beckett uses is Africa: how can societies with few economical resources, educational and democratic deficits, and a low technology penetration rate can benefit from something like networked journalism? Africa does not have widespread internet network, but in most countries there are structures that enable a good cell coverage.

The participation of independent voices in the construction of a news image of Africa, created far from governmental pressures, may give us for sure more insightful perspectives than the ones provided by state media, or by correspondents that can’t reach everywhere. With the easiness of spreading information via mobile devices, Africa may become the perfect testing ground for networked journalism.

“It’s not the perfect testing ground. I said that it is the ultimate test, because so much old media has failed in Africa. Networked journalism offers a fresh opportunity that can be grounded in African’s own experience and expertise.”

But is this a path without risks? The power of networked journalism is to influence common people’s lives, but are there any dangers in this way of doing things?

“Who are the ‘common’ people? I honestly don’t see any real ‘dangers’ in new media trends that aren’t common to old media dangers. People will still be dishonest, biased and greedy online as well as offline, but I honestly don’t think that new media has any new threats compared to old mass media.”

Hyperjournalists

There are clear advantages in embracing new media: they’re cheap, fast, more effective, and their potential is almost infinite. Still, there is a lot of suspicion over them:

“People always resist change. New media means learning new tricks. Some jobs will go. And it challenges the assumptions of old journalism so some people will find that threatening.”

And what standard procedures journalists must follow in this brave new world? “There should be NO standard procedures. That is old thinking.” In “SuperMedia”, Beckett defends that versatility and the ability to adapt are the most important features for future communication professionals, not only to new Technologies and market characteristics, but also to their relationship with the users. The journalists of the future must know how to use social networks in their favour, create and package news in several formats, and know how to manage user contribution before, during and after publishing.

To Beckett, “Journalism likes to think it is a superhero when it is really Clark Kent.”[4]. A journalist’s superpowers are his ability to colaborate with the audience, but that doesn’t mean that his activity will become more precarious: “The journalist is just as needed because you need filters, editors, and packagers but they will have to become facilitators, connectors and enablers as well. It’s a more complex and interesting job and just as vital.”

Will the heightening of the complexity of journalistic activity make journalism more reliable, even better? Beckett believes that “it will be as reliable as the people who make it. ‘better’ is a very subjective word. But yes I think that public participation raises standards by increasing resources.”

Hyperjournalists training for Super Media reality should be “much more multi-skilled and work more on problem-solving to foster a craft of creative engagement with the public rather than spending months learning to copy journalists of the past.”

The problem is that the relationship of journalists with elements outside to newsrooms hasn’t been easy. Beckett wrote extensively about the journalists’ relationship with another emerging class, bloggers, that seem to be living above the rules imposed on journalists, and that rapidly won their way as information distributors. Have bloggers as many responsibilities as journalists nowadays, and should they have their own ethical code? Or will quality become the true regulator of their activity?

Beckett believes that bloggers don’t need an ethical code: “Most journalists ignore any codes they might have. The guarantee of quality or reliability is diversity, accountability and that comes with networked journalism.”

After all, we all can become journalists. As Beckett says, journalists are “people who report, analyse and comment on events and issues for other people to consume.” And it’s in the crossing of these relationships that Supermedia is created.

The SuperMedia Challenge

“Supermedia” is a networked book itself. Charlie Beckett resorted to the ideas by Paul Bradshaw, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen and other new media thinkers – besides referring to other personalities that affected that reality to ground and develop his own concepts.

What comes out of it is a rather optimistic perspective (at least that is how it seems to me, despite the gloomy principle it stands on) that provides practical indications on how media, from corporate to personal, could and should develop. It’s a fundamental work in this period of transition and definition of what it is journalism, what is it good for and who is it good for.

Enriched with the author’s perspective about the social importance of media, it’s the perfect digest of several streams of thought on the ways industry and audiences should follow in the future. It’s not a complex book regarding concepts, but it is in the implications inferred, and i believe it will turn into an excellent guide for professionals and journalism students, to understand how we pass from a one way, corporate and limited communication, to another, networked, relational, costumized, communitary. And the questions raised in the book don’t have necessarily only one answer.

Above all, Beckett defends the increasingly mooted idea that the news is a service, not a product, therefore the public interest stands above all the rest. It’s a strange way to liberalize something that belongs to everyone, and that must serve the common welfare.

Like he says in his book, “journalism can be a greater force for good.” I asked him if that “mission, should we accept it”, is possible: “Of course anything is possible. But it is a choice. We get the media we create.”

You can buy “SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World” here, or download the first three chapters from Polis website.


[2] for BBC3 Night Waves radio show , June 2nd 2008

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2 thoughts on “Interview: Charlie Beckett on SuperMedia

  1. Pingback: Interview: Charlie Beckett on SuperMedia - English version « O Lago | The Lake

  2. Pingback: Top5: Most annoying discussions | Discussões mais irritantes « O Lago | The Lake

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