Annual Report 2009

Opinions in the Age of New Media

The New Media Landscape by Espen Egil Hansen

  • Editor-in-Chief VG Nett, Oslo

How to safeguard journalism in times of diversity

If the press position itself in
the available space between traditional
and social media, the best years of
journalism lies ahead of us.

The New Media Landscape In the media business we have been living in a wonderful world of monopoly. Since establishing newspapers, or TV- and radio stations, demands very large investments, geographical monopolies have in practice emerged. Thus, the press has not only had the power to set the agenda, it has had the power to decide what should not be on the agenda. Media have been crucial to building democratic societies, but its near monopolistic hold on dissemination of information has also represented a democratic dilemma.
Now this monopoly is dead, killed by new technology. Today, you can launch a media operation without making any other investment than the labour you put into it. A few years ago it was necessary to have access to a printing press, lorries, transmission equipment, special licences etc., now anyone with a decent mobile phone is a potential publisher. However, as anyone who reads the comment sections of online newspapers can observe: owning a mobile phone does not necessarily make you a great commentator.
Many people, especially journalists and editors, play down the internet's increasingly important role in forming public opinion. They compare the best newspaper content to the worst digital content. They find information of dubious quality and conclude that the internet is not to be trusted. Pleased with themselves, they retire from the arena.
Of course, the critics are right in that there is a lot of rubbish on the internet, but they ignore a vital fact: it also offers unparalleled, direct access to expertise and ways in which to filter the vast amount of information available, highlighting only the most relevant information and sources. The result is a radically altered media landscape where mainstream media constantly finds itself challenged where it hurts the most, i.e. on quality, relevance, speed and popularity.
It is sometimes easier to survey this landscape from a slight distance. In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election in Iran, when alleged electoral fraud caused widespread protests, the authorities managed to throw out foreign journalists, censor their own journalists and close down telephone and mobile phone lines - all in an effort to crush the increasing number of demonstrations. However, today it is almost impossible to suppress digital conversation. In what has been named the Twitter Revolution, demonstrators and eyewitnesses in Iran posted messages and pictures to micro-blogging site Twitter continuously. In this way, the Iranian authorities' use of force was exposed to the international community, as well as Iranians not caught up in the events, in real time, while the clash between protesters and police was taking place. The protesters did not only expose what was happening on the streets of Teheran by way of social media, they used Twitter to mobilise people to take part in the actual demonstrations and to secure international support.
In 2008, Chinese authorities and enterprises tried to put a lid on an ever growing milk scandal. More than 300 000 children were poisoned, and many died after a number
 Espen Egil Hansen is Editorin-
Chief of VG Nett, member
of the board of Nettby,
20 minutos in Spain, and the
Association of Norwegian Editors
(Norsk Redaktørforening).
Espen Egil Hansen has 20
years of experience as journalist,
photographer, editor and
executive of VG, Expressen,
Agderposten and VG Multimedia,
among others.
of dairies had sold milk containing the toxic substance Melamine. On blogs and in social media networks however, the number of eyewitness reports grew to a level where it was no longer possible to control the story.
It is still possible to control journalists and editors - 136 journalists are now imprisoned in China according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). But, it is not possible to silence a nation of 750 million mobile phone users. It is easy to understand why the authorities and the press in totalitarian societies are challenged by the new media. It is perhaps more difficult to accept that the same mechanisms manifest themselves in free democracies.
A snapshot
As I write this, there are great expectations attached to two important events taking place at the same time. One is Barack Obama's first State of the Union address to the Congress. This is delivered at an important stage of Obama's presidency, his popularity is falling and one of his most prestigious projects, the health reform, is in jeopardy. With the American political élite gathered in the hall, and millions of viewers watching on live TV, this is among Obama's most important speeches so far. If he is to get the health reform, the new financial policy and a number of other reforms through the Senate, it is vital that he convinces some of his political opponents.
The other important event taking place on the same day is Apple boss Steve Jobs' presentation of the company's newest product: the iPad. As always when Apple launches a new product, the expectations and advance speculations are enormous. Steve Jobs has on numerous previous occasions launched products which have totally changed the competitive conditions and the rules of their market segment.
If we turn the clock back a few years, this kind of event was a festive occasion for journalists. Typically, the newspapers published advance articles leaking information, predictions, giving expert advice, etc. The next day they provided reports, expert analyses, political commentary and summary, all of which the commentators would put into context. Letters to the editor and debates followed, and the Saturday paper rounded it off with an extensive in-depth feature article. Of course, the highlight was when the editor-in-chief stood up, raised his glass and announced the paper's official opinion in the editorial pages.
That's how it was when George Washington gave his first State of the Union address in January 1790, that's how it was when Harry S. Truman gave his address in 1947, the first ever to be televised, and that's how it is in January 2010. Journalism has not changed, but everything else has. We no longer have the stage to ourselves. The monopoly is broken and mainstream media has to fight to get, and keep, the attention of "the people formerly known as the audience" who often are busy broadcasting their own opinions or experiences, or listening to what bloggers, expert sources or their friends have to say on the matter.
The social media analytics platform Viralheat analysed the stream of information on popular social media sites Facebook and Twitter in the first 48 hours after the two events took place. In that space of time Obama's speech was mentioned as much as 68 000 times. Still, this is modest compared to the "buzz" created by Steve Jobs and the iPad. Almost 500 000 messages about iPad were transmitted over the same period, and these were exposed to more than 22 million readers who were part of the networks through which these messages were published.
And that was only a minor part of the digital conversation. Over the next seven days the word iPad was registered 130 million times on Google's search engines.
The numbers as such do not say anything about quality, relevance or influence. Primarily, they bear witness to a monumental change in the way people use media. Although the internet is already in its teens - the online newspapers celebrate their 15th anniversary this year - these media habits are fairly new.
The technological three stage rocket
The changes were instigated by a technological three stage rocket:
1. The actual start engine was the internet itself. The internet connected computers, allowed us to exchange information, send e-mails, read digital newspapers, look at pictures etc. On top of this, we have the search engines which help us find accurate information.
2. Then broadband was rolled out to ordinary households. With the computer and the mobile phone "always" logged on, other users and all kinds of digital information is easily accessible at any given time.
3. Nevertheless, the last, and in my opinion crucial, stage of the rocket launch is social media, which has provided most of us with access to the equivalent of our own printing presses. These tools allow us to communicate and share experiences with other people irrespective of geographical and social divides.
Although this aspect of the web has been with us from the early days of the internet, new platforms and software improvements have radically lowered the threshold for participating on this arena, and, now that social media has reached a critical mass, we are starting to see a huge impact on our day-to-day lives. These days, even Grandma Jo is on Facebook, and internet cafés and mobile internet is giving large segments of the less well-to-do and people in remote, even the most politically oppressed, corners of the world access to the web. It is this last stage of the rocket launch that creates the biggest changes and challenges for the mainstream media. The world of social media
is complex. There is no beginning and no end. There are no responsible or defined senders. Communication and content production take place simultaneously and business models are vague.
Media tradition
Newspaper history is firmly linked to political parties, -movements and business interests. Historically, the newspaper was a mouthpiece for a clear political agenda, and the editors-in-chief were in general central figures with great influence in the party machines and organisations.
Although modern media cut its ties to the political parties and special interest groups a long time ago, the basic communication technique - the monologue - is still the same.
We have a tradition of speaking to - not with - the readers. We find the clearest
examples of this among commentators and columnists: here pure monologue is the tradition.
Newspaper commentators are high-profile employees with large by line photos and a permanent spot on popular TV debate programmes. They have a central, yet not undeserved position, in the editorial organisations. They are among the most eloquent of journalists, often with a unique aptitude for identifying important trends or turning points, for seeing the bigger picture, showing correlations and providing insight.
The commentator's standing also illustrates how the media's position has been associated with volume. The larger a commentator's audience, the more influential the commentator.
The social aspect of traditional media use has not been associated with a dialogue between the commentator and the reader, but media use has always been social. People read papers to have something to talk about at lunchtime.
Network economy
This social dynamics is multiplied on the internet. For every person spending time on the internet, the value increases for others doing the same.
In the article "New rules for the new economy" in Wired Magazine in 1997, Kevin Kelly outlines 12 rules for what he calls network economy. In the rule "Plenitude, not scarcity" he uses the telefax machine as an example. The first person who purchased a fax machine had no use for it. There was no one to send messages to and no one to receive them from. The value increased as soon as another person got a machine, and because new machines were connected to a network the value went up with each new fax machine. Kelly also pointed to an interesting characteristic of the owners of the fax machines. The value of being present in this network is so great that any new fax owner automatically becomes an evangelist of the fax network. "Look at my new telefax - you should get one too!"
The same mechanisms manifest themselves in social networks. Machines do not generate value, people do. Once you start using Facebook, Nettby or Twitter, you have a clear self-interest in making your friends do the same. The more people taking part, the greater the value.
The eco system
The internet has a few key functions and characteristics which makes it an effective communication channel and a sustainable eco system for information exchange. These are characteristics which also challenge mainstream media and its traditions.
1. The editorial role is re-created in link recommendations
Mechanisms which at first sight seem totally insignificant are probably the most powerful elements of this eco system, such as linking.
Since most things posted to the web has an address (a url) it is also possible to link to it.
Not many years ago, linking to content outside our own news site met with resistance even in my newsroom. Our tradition and our competitive instinct as journalists impelled us to hold on to our readers - not send them to other sites and risk losing them.
Now, linking is defined as a central element of the journalistic assignment. In the same way as the journalist decides what information to include and what to exclude in an article, she also provides the reader with background material and points him or her to where they can find more information.
However, even more important than linking from an article is the fact that you can link to an article.
This is, in my opinion, becoming a major problem for printed newspapers: you cannot link to a piece of paper. Newspaper articles are thus cut off from the digital conversation. Facebook alone has more than one million new users every day. More and more people spend an increasing amount of time communicating online. A basic characteristic of these conversations is link recommendations: "Have you read this", "you should see this film", etc. Many of the conversations circle around articles or videos, but the users don't stop there - they link to the content. Furthermore, hyperlinks is the way in which online users communicate with each other. A blogger will often add his or her experience or thoughts on an issue raised by another blogger or in a newspaper, and linking to the first story is not only a service to the blogger's readers, but also a way to invite the original source into the conversation.
Recent figures from the web community Facebook show that their members make five billion recommendations each week and several American websites now find that they have more traffic from social media than from search engines.
The editorial role is in reality re-created through these link recommendations. The networks of the social media are woven by people with common interests. Media enthusiasts in Norway are linked together with media enthusiasts in the US, Australia and Spain. As for me, my network on Twitter is now my most important source of information on media developments. Instead of following the international periodicals and magazines specialising in this field I now find that my "editors" are far more efficient in pointing to articles I should read. I have, over a period of time, learnt which members give me the most relevant recommendations, and who does not provide much value.
Therefore, when Barack Obama and Steve Jobs fought for attention, I did not have to navigate the millions of pieces of information, blogs and articles that were produced.
Nor did I have to wait for next day's newspaper. I knew that the best and the most relevant content would come to me by way of the mechanisms of recommendation, all I had to do was to keep an eye on those in my network that I trusted the most.
From mostly being confined to the best writing that Norwegian papers can offer, these days I'm constantly alerted to the best writing the world has to offer. One day it can be the New York Times' commentator David Pogue, another day a political blogger in Prague.
My media use is more and more about who to follow to get the best recommen-
dations and steadily less about which media to use. Before, I looked for content on certain news sites or in newspapers - now the content finds me.
2. Build on, create
The users of new media do not stop at reading and recommending. They create their own content and build on the content of others.
This is, in its simplest form, the comments on a blog post or a news site's article. The article has a definite owner and a sender, and the users can offer their opinions or share information and experiences underneath.
Once again, social media has not only increased the amount of content, it has added functionality which dramatically increases the value of the content, and its users have invented ways in which to easier communicate about it. For instance, on Twitter, the hash tag is used to make key words more easily searchable. When Steve Jobs introduced his e-reader, iPad immediately became the key word for this subject. Thus the users could easily navigate between information and content on the same subject, whether created in Boston or in Bergen.
If we delve deeper into the problem, traditional journalistic mentality and practice are once again challenged in a key area.
In journalism we produce our own content - our job is primarily to create an independent journalistic product which we then offer to our readers. In the digital world that kind of mentality makes sense only in part. If a blogger refers to an article, she will also link to the original article and add her own take on it, experience, pictures, videos, etc.
Content created by professional media is only a small part of the production in this eco system where everyone can contribute.
3. Extreme quality, extreme depth
Imagine an area of interest or a field of specialisation, the circumstances of life, a product, an idea or an issue you consider to be completely marginal. Then Google it. You know the answer already; someone has already created a website or blog dedicated to it.
Some people like to give the impression that content on the internet is of poor
quality, short and superficial. That picture is wrong. It can be difficult to find your way on the internet and it can at times be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. But the one characteristic of the internet as a medium is that it gives you access to extreme quality and extremely in-depth articles.
Academia, trade unions, politicians and institutions have been slow in approaching new technologies and new ways of using the media. They are, however, under way: today everything is digitalised, everyone is on the internet and everyone feels the need to be present in the digital world.
Last autumn I was invited to a seminar by the judiciary's media group which has representatives from courts of law all over the country. Their task is to give advice
to the different courts of law on how to handle the media and to assist journalists requiring information.
At that time, the group felt a need to establish its own website where it could present its own versions of events and give more detailed information in matters of public interest. In a diplomatic way those present signalled that the courts did not always recognise the way in which they and the work they did was presented in the media.
I don't know if this website will ever come to anything, but it is an example of how the information monopoly of the press has been broken. The power of experts and niche web sites also increases dramatically when they not only publish their side of the story, but also exploit the opportunities the internet offers to connect people, share experiences and mobilise people around an issue.
In June 2005, Michael Arrington, a member of the legal profession, was fed up with his job and established his own technology blog Techcrunch.com. His in-depth
analyses of new technology undertakings were so good that other capable, tech-
nology-interested people spent time commenting on his blog. This in turn attracted more readers, which made the site even more of a must-read for tech people.
In 2008, only three years after the start-up, Michael Arrington was named one of the world's most influential people by TIME Magazine. Arrington was in the position to determine the success or fiasco of new technological products.
At that time, the blog was still operated from Mr. Arrington's bedroom.
The last analogue generation
I belong to the last analogue generation, the generation that grew up with printed newspapers and had to learn how to master the digital world as an adult. Some of the great experiences of my youth are associated with the discovery of the printed paper and agenda-setting journalism.
In my first year in upper secondary school we had a free period between 11:00 and 12:00. That gave me just enough time to get on my bike and pedal down to Spisekroken café in downtown Grimstad. In the spring sunshine, on a bench outside the café with a mug of coffee and the café's own croissant with butter, cheese and ham, I read Dagbladet.
It was a wonderful time of life to discover the pleasure of newspaper reading. Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady, hit back.
The Apartheid regime in South Africa was beginning to crack, there was a curfew in Warsaw and Yasser Arafat fled to Tunisia. Ronald Reagan intensified the cold war by launching his Star Wars programme - a weapons system placed way out in space. Here at home "Nei til atomvåpen" organised protest marches against nuclear weapons, mobilising hundreds of thousands of people, while the movement to stop hydro electric development of the Alta river had to accept that the battle was lost.
The editorial of the day was discussed on the bench in the spring sunshine. The
town's red wine drinking author (was he ever published?) needled Karl-Christian who had lived in the US for 30 years and who was soon to dismiss Dagbladet, NRK as well as all Norwegians as a bunch of Moscow-controlled communists.
It was a wonderful time of life to discover newspapers, and here is the point: I was 17 years old and at the stage of life when habits are formed, habits we keep throughout life. That goes for media habits as well. I got hooked on newspapers that year, not because I was told reading was important, but because Dagbladet gave me relevant information and pleasure: the newspaper gave me ammunition for discussions in the social economics classes and at late night Saturday parties.
I have that in common with the majority of my generation. Politicians, civil servants, professionals, union leaders, business managers, organisational people and media people actually tend to be my of age. That means that they have about the same
references and habits as I do.
Therefore, newspapers will continue to play an important role in forming public opinion for many years to come.
But the question is, do young people today get on their bikes in their free periods to steal half an hour with a printed paper and a cup of coffee? Of course they don't. I think we can safely put teenagers who are enthusiastic about the printed press in the same category as those who collect stamps or play bridge. They are there, but there are certainly not many of them.
Why are the media so irresolute?
When it comes to the newspaper industry, two considerations are tied in a seemingly irresolvable knot.
A key element in its business model is the fact that the readers pay for the newspaper. A large part of newspaper income (and cost) is associated with the old media, and it is difficult to find equally steady revenues from new media.
As the old media still yield considerable income, it seems logical to maintain most of the journalistic efforts and investments here.
Many newspapers still confine commentary and more analytical, in-depth journalism to the print because they believe this to be an important reason for readers to buy
the newspaper. At the same time they preclude this part of journalism from the in-creasingly more significant digital conversation, even though it is especially suited for the web because it invites exchange of opinion, communication, involvement and sharing.
The other reason is in our heads. Newspapers have been monopolists for so long that it is difficult to deal with the fact that we are no longer alone. The users have always come to our media and this makes this new media landscape seem foreign to us.
The industry is characterised by the widespread and pacifying attitude of "It
shouldn't be like that".
The result is that there is not enough journalistic focus on digital platforms. We
do not exploit the potential of the new media, but let ourselves be governed by the limitations of the old. Cost levels, business models, production and work methods continue to follow century-old industrial traditions rather than utilising the powerful network mechanisms online.
A large part of the media industry is thus in danger of landing in the same situation as the tall ships industry in my hometown did at the transition to the 20th century. The industry was sceptical to modern inventions like engines and steel and defined their business to be sails and wood. The outcome was, as we know, disastrous. Others saw the potential and went for it. These traditional ships are now only used for training purposes and in tall ships races.
The vacant in-between position
I am convinced journalism does not have to end up as training ships or trusts. The world needs journalism, and there is a market for it.
It is up to us. We must exploit the best mechanisms of social media, but position ourselves with regard to its weaknesses: it encourages polarised viewpoints and debates; anonymous senders cannot be held responsible; the niches tend to get so deep that
the users disappear into the depths. Only seldom do they provide the big picture, continuity or a common experience for large groups of people.
And this is exactly where the strength of journalism lies. Journalism creates content and presents it so that it is relevant for many people, not just for a few and their friends.
Journalism stands for tradition, ethics and a profession cultivating quality and relevance. It has a burning desire to make an impact, to be influential, to entertain and to be at the centre of things. Journalism has knowledge and tradition of editing, emphasising and making content relevant for a larger audience. It has responsible owners and regulations ensuring editorial independence and integrity.
The future of journalism lies in the vacant position between traditional and social media. We must build on the best qualities of journalism and we must be present where people are. It must be possible to link to what we do and share it. Journalists, editors, commentators and journalism itself must take part in the open, digital conversation. Media use has always been a social experience. People read content because their friends have recommended it, and because common references strengthen their relations. In this in-between position we can strengthen the social aspect and turn the journalistic products into topics of conversation in the digital world.
VG Nett is an example of a successful editorial product in this in-between position. The product is deeply rooted in journalism, but it utilises the best elements of social media.
We have managed to create profitable business models and we have a higher standing in the reader market than any other online newspaper worldwide.
We shape VG Nett's editorial product along two major lines. Firstly, we continue the strong tradition of the brand name by offering the best possible editorial coverage
of news, entertainment and utility. We focus hard on journalism and journalistic presence utilising the narrative techniques of digital communication.
Secondly, with VG Nett we try to break the industry's tradition of one-way communication. I usually illustrate this by drawing two overlapping circles where one represents traditional journalism, the other social media.VG Nett's journalism is in the middle and absorbs elements from both sides.
We therefore combine our news reporting and editorial tradition with establishing platforms where the users can create their content alongside ours. That is why journalists and editorial sections have their own Twitter profiles and Facebook pages where they meet readers and get input. I have identified the social aspect of our journalism as being so important that our aim is to have our journalists spend at least
10 per cent of their working hours on this. I regard this as crucial when it comes to creating a stronger community for our brand and expanding our range of sources. Our journalists have web profiles instead of by lines, and we weave functionality that encourages reader participation and the sharing of articles into the articles.
In the future, we intend to put a greater emphasis on commentary journalism by using more profiled bloggers and commentators. They will not be senders but participants.
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one". The legendary New Yorker journalist A. J. Liebling wrote this in the article "Do you belong in journalism" in May 1960.
The issue then, as now, was the death of newspapers - or maybe rather the killing of them. Liebling's concern was the continual decrease in the number of newspapers due to the wealthiest papers purchasing and closing down troublesome competitors. Thus, they didn't only have an advertising monopoly, they also had a monopoly over opinions. The article was a battle cry demanding journalistic diversity in a democracy.
"Diversity - and the competition that it causes - does not insure good news coverage, but it increases the chances", he wrote.
Today diversity is ensured, but journalism is threatened. New technologies have created prerequisites for an open and democratic exchange of information, but they have at the same time shaken the foundations of the most important funding models of the press.
Liebling's question in 1960 "Do you belong in journalism" is still topical, but the problem is now reversed. "How to insure diversity when journalism gets too strong" has now become "How to insure journalism when diversity gets too strong"?
I think it's up to us. The profession and identity of journalism are associated with the monopoly and sender mentality. We must concentrate one hundred per cent on journalism, but we must change the journalistic attitude. We cannot continue to be senders talking to our readers, we must get out there and be part of the open conversation.
If we can do that, journalism will be more relevant and play a larger part in peoples' lives. This is not a position we will be given - it will have to be fought for and won every day.
If we are successful we may enter the golden age of journalism.