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the old story of new media

A conversation with comparative media expert Henry Jenkins about how the Internet revolution compares to past media innovations, how new media and old media interact and how we'll get our news in the future.

Henry Jenkins is the director of the Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. He is the author and/or editor of nine books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. Jenkins recently developed a white paper on the future of media literacy education for the MacArthur Foundation, which is leading to a three-yearproject to develop curricular materials that will help teachers and parents betterprepare young people for full participation in contemporary culture. He is also one of the leaders of the Convergence Culture Consortium, which consults with leading players in entertainment to help them adjust to shifts in the media environment. This is the edited text of an e-mail interview conducted on Feb. 23, 2007.

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Henry Jenkins

Are we living in a unique moment of media revolution and transformation? How does the emergence and growth of the Internet compare to past technological shifts?

We are living through a shift in the communications environment on a scale that has only occurred a few times in human history, comparable to the shift from [an oral tradition] to literacy, the emergence of print and the rise of modern mass media. Each of these moments fundamentally altered pretty much everything in the culture, touching every major institution, impacting all aspects of everyday life, and fundamentally reshaping our understanding of what it meant to be human. Each of these [previous] transformations occurred in a more [prolonged] time frame, so that the pace of the so-called digital revolution has been much faster than any of the previous moments of media change.

Keep in mind that the changes we are describing are not simply digital: Mobile technologies will ultimately be as significant in reshaping the media landscape; and changes in digital media are reshaping the way older media forms operate. That's the central thesis of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.

Also keep in mind that we are still in the first phases of the changes that are currently occurring -- living in a moment of transition and innovation out of which a more stable media ecology will emerge. Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s that "media are put out before they are thought out." In this case, we have had better tools for media analysis that have from the start speculated [about] and interpreted the changes that are occurring, but the [media] changes consistently are coming faster than most of the population can grasp their implications. The result is periodic bursts of moral panic with lightly scattered euphoria. This is simply the shock wave of technological and cultural change working its way through the body politic.

Can you give some examples of how introductions of new media prior to the Internet have reshaped the content of old media?

In the case of the news media, we might consider the impact of the telegraph as a new media that reconfigured how the American press operated, in several ways. First, the telegraph accelerated the flow of information across the country, paving the way for something closer to national news [delivered] as it was occurring. Prior to that, news traveled slowly, resulting in a much more fragmented understanding of what it might mean to be an American.

Second, the telegraph contributed to the shift from a deeply partisan media (which reflected very localized interests) to an ideal of a more objective reporting (so that the same story might be reproduced across a range of publications through a syndicated wire service.) Third, the structure of news [was] altered, in part because of the uncertainty of the telegraph. We evolved the lede [to address the] need to spell out the core of a story quickly and the inverted pyramid structure, where the information becomes less essential as you go forward. Both of these reflected the possibility that the transmission might be cut off at any point, and thus the need to put the key data at the start of the report. More generally, writing styles became more streamlined -- or "telegraphed" -- as a result of the need to write for this new medium. We see it in the difference in prose style between 19th century writers (Mellville, Hawthorne) and early 20th century writers (Hemmingway, Steinbeck).

“[Media] changes consistently are coming faster than most of the population can grasp their implications. The result is periodic bursts of moral panic with lightly scattered euphoria. This is simply the shock wave of technological and cultural change working its way through the body politic.”

Surprisingly, though, American newspapers remained locally focused despite the emergence of a newly national communications channel, suggesting the power of old institutions and ways of thinking to slow the rate of change that might be predicted by the introduction of a new technology. By comparison, the Web enables global communications, yet our news media pays less attention to international stories now than it did a few decades ago, again suggesting how hard it is to predict the impact of technological changes.

We might similarly trace the impact of photography and color reproduction (as technologies that augmented the newspaper), of the telephone (as a technology which assisted reporting), or of radio, cinema, and television (as technologies that competed for the newspaper and introduced other ways of accessing news and information). We might see the current reconfigurations being wrought by digital media as simply another in a series of factors that have forced newspapers to reinvent themselves in almost every decade of the 20th century in the face of technological and economic change.

What innovations are our current moment of media change bringing to the field of journalism? How are these new forms of reporting interacting with the traditional press?

The most exciting trend at the moment has to do with the emergence of various kinds of citizen journalism, including blogs, videoblogs, podcasts, Wikipedia, and various database projects. In most of these cases, a complex dialogue emerges between amateur and professional journalists. In some cases, this relationship is adversarial -- not in the sense that it is antagonistic, but in the sense that our courts are adversarial. Citizen journalists seek to hold mainstream media more accountable for the information it prints, and mainstream media seek to hold bloggers more accountable for the information they circulate. In this way, they both keep each other [on] their toes. Many blogs, in fact, are aggregating and commenting upon news drawn from multiple professional news sources.

The blogger functions as a grassroots intermediary who distills information for a specific niche readership that may be underserved by any one news source. A smart publication uses the blogosphere to identify holes in their service to their potential readership. In some cases, we are seeing cooperation between professional newspapers and the bloggers to help identify relevant sources for articles and to broaden the range of expertise that reporters tap to cover recurring stories.

What happens to news photography, say, in a world where most of us have cameras embedded in our cell phones that we carry with us everywhere we go? Most of the key images of the [July 2005] London bombings came from these amateur photographers, and amateur photographers in New Orleans reshaped the coverage of Katrina by sharing with us the experiences of the refuges rather than those of the government officials.

Over time, this dialogue between professional and citizen journalists has the potential to further diversify the marketplace of ideas and to insure that more voices get heard in debates about public policy. On the downside, there is a risk that we may be returning to something closer to the kinds of partisan press that dominated American media in the early history of the republic, as bloggers read the news through specific ideological filters and tend to attract like-minded readers.

The new media configuration, in theory, allows us access to more diverse sources of information but in practice may be narrowing the range of what at least some people read and think about. Part of living through a transitional moment is that contradictory developments occur around us as the culture is pulled first in one direction and then in another.

Should we be worried about newspapers becoming extinct? What about the nightly news on network TV? How will we get news in the future?

I do not think the newspaper per se (that is, a professionally produced publication focused on news and current events) is in any great danger. I cannot say the same for any given newspaper. I think all evidence suggests that the American tradition of local news coverage may be in serious danger. In most of the rest of the world, national newspapers have become the norm. There's evidence that we may be moving in that direction.

Most Americans today get at least some of their news from national publications like USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or The Christian Science Monitor. Most cities have only one daily paper, whereas in the past they might have had competing dailies. The next step might be further consolidation into regional dailies and then finally national dailies. One way to slow that trajectory would be for newspapers to adopt "centers of excellence," so that Web browsers knew to access the Los Angeles Times for the best entertainment news, the New York Times for the best international news, The Washington Post for the best coverage of national politics, The Boston Globe for the best coverage of education and so-forth. We have already seen this, say, in the role of the San Jose Mercury News as a source for news about the tech sector, and we will see more of this as more and more people get their news digitally rather than from print publications.

Most of the major changes that will impact television news have already started to unfold: the breakdown of the notion of the evening news as something we watch at a particular hour every day in favor of 24-hour news stations and Web sites that allow you to download news footage on demand. We are also seeing the use of YouTube as a channel for citizen journalists to distribute news footage of events that might otherwise not receive significant national coverage.

For example, there was the recent case of the video -- captured on a cell phone camera -- of a UCLA campus policeman tasering a student in the university library. In a world where everyone has a camera on them at all times, and the web provides opportunities to upload and circulate that content globally, we are going to, more and more, turn to the web for information that might not otherwise get covered by professional media.

While television news was preoccupied by Anna Nicole Smith, I was able to download and watch the Barack Obama [2008 presidential campaign] announcement online. As a result of these shifts, the newscast has become unmoored in time even as the newspaper has been uprooted from geographic space. These [changes] will force both institutions to rethink what constitutes news and who constitutes the public for their information.


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posted feb. 27, 2007

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