47 – #FAIRFAX

Of course I found out over Twitter. Sitting in my cafe, settling in to write another chapter, I found Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC, tweeting about the changes just announced at Fairfax, Australia’s oldest news publisher. Twenty percent of the staff sacked – including a large portion of editorial – plus the transformation of flagship broadsheets Age and Sydney Morning Herald into cheaper-to-produce tabloids, and migration of most web-accessible content behind a metered paywall.

I found out over Twitter because Mark Scott posted the tweet, then half a dozen people I follow retweeted that tweet, and more retweeted those retweets, a Katamari-like snowball of awareness that encompassed nearly my entire tweetstream for a few minutes. This is breaking news in 2012, and how news gets broken: One person, somewhere, sees something and shares it. Once shared the dynamics of salience take over. Everything is shared according to its degree of perceived importance. Something unimportant, or important only to a very few, will not be shared widely. Something of immediate import to 22 million Australians will receive an almost immediate and universal response.

Twelve million Australians walk around with smartphones connected to mobile broadband and wifi, hyperconnected and sharing, hyperdistributing everything that comes their way and catches their fancy. It could be the report of a car accident, sighting of ticket inspectors at the train station, a brush with a television personality, or almost anything else. It happens all the time, everywhere. It’s a completely natural behavior, a form of gossip which has only recently been amplified to global scope by hyperconnectivity.

The national broadsheets (and indeed, newspapers everywhere) consider themselves threatened by the migration of the ‘rivers of gold’ advertising to specialty websites like Seek and Craigslist. They now repent of their decision to offer their news freely through their own websites – realizing that the aggregation of Internet eyeballs provides only a small percentage of the profitability of print, and will place themselves behind a locked door, opened only for a fee.

Newspapers will suddenly become invisible, but Australians will not care, because they will not notice. In the era of hyperconnectivity, the news does not come from newspapers, does not rely on reporters, has no editors, needs no printers or publishers. The news is simply what’s being shared by someone, somewhere. If that sounds banal, well, it is until something like a tsunami or a financial collapse or an unexpected moment of utter tenderness reminds us of the hegemony of salience.

That which is meaningful captures our eye. We share the significant, and if it is important enough, news comes and finds us. Everything else is habit. All of the ritual and regalia surrounding journalism, all of its traditions and practices, however venerable, are now meaningless in the specific even as they approach a universal application.

We may be drowned in observations – the price of the Age of Omniscience is to be aware of too much – but we do not rely a newspaper to tell us what is important, or interesting. We expect that information to come from our relations. They tell us ‘look here’ and we look.

None of this speaks to truth, of verifiable facts from reputable sources. It speaks instead to passion, and this militates against wisdom. Hyperconnectivity and hyperdistribution open the door to demagoguery, but no more than many a newspaper, baying for blood while banging the war drums: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”

We are left where we started, but without the institutions that supported the amplification of ideas into policies and passions into prejudices. These we do ourselves, using the tool at hand – our mobiles – paired with the power of hyperdistribution. A mobile on its own is not enough. Twitter on its own is not enough. Bring the two together and the hybrid energy released gives us a permanent and growing situational awareness, but – without so much as an afterthought – it also blows down institutions we consider essential both to our democracy and our culture.

We can’t outsource the work of situational awareness to an institution, however constituted. Hyperempowerment means doing things for ourselves, using our extended and extensive capabilities to manage meaning and salience. We each filter for one another, we each forward matters of salience along to one another, and we each find things – because of who and where we are – which demand to be shared. Every one of us is now journalist, editor and publisher, and not in some lofty, theoretical sense, but in our actual, immediate practice. Every time we share something, we make news.

Making news was until recently a protected province, powerful and impregnable. Publishing was an artifact of the information asymmetries commonplace to all power structures before hyperconnectivity. Now hyperempowered, everyone outside the publisher knows more than the publisher, who suffers in a state of a relative ignorance, less aware and less connected to the world than the putative audience.

The hyperempowered can not be served up as an audience; they can only participate. They may choose to watch, but even viewing will not be a passive activity. They will connect and share and learn and act as suits their purpose. There is no institution, anywhere, just the actions of hyperconnected, hyperempowered individuals, hyperdistributing everything salient. This is not publishing, nor journalism, because it is not a job, simply an activity, an awareness of the moment extended across an entire planet now collapsed into a single point of connection. The global village has become the global nucleus.

This is not the end of people telling us what they think we should know, or believe. But it does represent the end of one form of that telling, an artifact of the time before the last half billion seconds. Before we were all connected. A newspaper is disconnected, isolated, and singular. We are none of these things, and find ourselves losing any connection with something that bears so little relation to what we have already become. The newspaper is an antique artifact from a past so recent it looks familiar, yet so alien we now come to wonder how it ever worked at all.

7 thoughts on “47 – #FAIRFAX

  1. ah, newspapers .. i have to laugh now at the continuing dialogue about “saving journalism” and “saving print” … none of those professionals debating this seem able to look at their content and underlying worldview and admit that it is out of sync with the contemporary collective consciousness ( at least in the “west” … still going great guns in china, india, etc) (also, the last holdouts for manipulative advertising, stuff that would no longer work in media-sophisticated cultures)

    am enjoying these posts, thanks

  2. Interesting points Mark – but in the end, we are hyperaware and hyperconnected to information; Mark Scott linked to an announcement, content created by someone else; we share, recommend, link to – content, created by others usually. The choice of that content, what we care about enough to share, I think will come down to its quality. In its most basic form, journalism is about gathering facts, connecting dots, creating a whole story from many parts. Creating quality journalism – and indeed curating quality journalism – is a skill – one that is not universal. We may not be able to outsource the work of awareness but I think we still need to outsource the work of curating a story. Reports of the death of journalism are – to paraphrase Mark Twain – greatly exaggerated.

    • I did not say that journalism is dead. I did say that newspaper publishing is already dead. Journalism loses its specific focus around the newspaper at the moment that it becomes a universal quality, something everyone embodies to some degree as they find and share things through their relations. That is the new medium, and to the degree that journalism infiltrates and becomes part of the behavioral suite in that new medium, to that degree it will survive and thrive. This is perhaps the only path open to journalism.

    • Journalism is needed more than ever as we have so many complex and interconnected changes going on locally, state-wide, nationally and internationally, and in particular areas of society. But searching through all the other irrelevant ‘low grade’ content in The Age to find the bits of journalism. Why would that model have longevity. I don’t understand why good journalists and concerned commentators don’t put out a call via social media for people who are keen to support good long form journalism to show it via a Crowdstarter business proposition.

      I personally have no interest in supporting The Age to continue in a variation of its current format online. I would be interested in contributing financially to a new on-line form of commentary and analysis.

  3. I hope journalism does find a way to survive and thrive in this new environment. David Simon (The Wire) has a great piece on what we lose in saying goodbye to journalism as a paid job with institutional support: “Dirt Under The Rug” http://t.co/8MOa4EZg

    • If we want journalism to survive, we must experiment now. Because it’s riding on a horse that’s fatally wounded, and stands a chance of going down with the ship. To mix too many metaphors.

  4. Pingback: Letting Slip | Louise Pascale

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