The Economist’s News is Social

The Economist’s persuasive summary of the issues facing news and media spreads insights across 5 articles that investigate the modern ecology of news and is worth a quick review.

The first two articles remind readers that global news media is changing not dying, and changing differently around the world: print subscriptions are sharply up in BRIC countries; the basic advertising based revenue model brings a smaller fraction of cash to (subscription dependent) papers in Britain, Germany and Japan compared to (failing) counterparts in the United States; and pay walls, walled gardens and many other innovative money making schemes are afloat.

The last three articles link the digital changes brought to consumption, production and the sociality of news to forecast a return to what sounds like plurality. How liberal of them.

Generally, history remembers the printing press as the bastion of modern freedom, spreading new ideas across lands and forming nations against Kings. Oppressive religions and political regimes fell to printed bibles and pamphleteers. The Economist opines otherwise, calling on the ‘media gurus’ of New York City, including Jay Rosen, to point out that mass printing and distribution also broke the traditional social link of media that existed before the 19th Century. ‘Steam powered’ printing presses put broad-casting power in the hands of few. These few entered a grand bargain to bring the greatest audience possible to their advertisers with ‘objective’ news that had broad appeal vs. narrow political interest. Thus spoke Economist.

Adam Smith’s friends skip the effects on power and control as the opinionated, partisan and polarized were relegated from The Story to the literal margins of the page in ‘op-ed’ columns. In place of overtly political knowledge, a new system of control through mass media was born. The fallacy of an objectivity consensus, or the control in determining which knowledge system is portrayed (as objective, rational or true) is well documented. We do not need to turn to Chomsky (video!) or Derrida to remember ‘the media’s’ treatment of WMDs in Iraq.

Obviating objectivity, new (social) media return the social graph to the forefront of social impact. Friends are who tell you what’s important and why. The Economist figures digital distribution and the related decentralized production of media, flow in social networks – much as they did before the industrial age invented mass media. So before terms like neo-plurality or post-neutrality are bandied about to describe socially connected discursive news communities, we should remember the opinionated, partisan and polarized coffee houses, whisper campaigns and town criers of old. (Not to mention, the 18th Century viral political media networks, the 16th Century ‘friend books’, and the Roman elites sharing letters that were all examples of socially sharing news and enacting social political relationships).

Finally, to replace the trust that objectivity offers for knowledge, The Economist points to transparency.  “Transparency is the new Objectivity” to quote Weinberger. Laying bare motivations, affiliations and biases while holding reporting to accuracy and intellectual honesty opens a new dialogue, and a much sharper discourse than a position-less telling of objective facts that allows no conclusions. Or responsibility.

How far to take this idea of transparency is the battle that can be seen being waged by mass media producers and groups such as WikiLeaks as well as other less anarchistic media organizations. NGOs, internet communities, for profit companies and your twitter friends, are all players in the ecology of a socially built plurality in media.

Whether The Economist’s market ever clears and social plurality reigns, is a contentious and liberal hope counterweighted by ever new schemes of control that creep from the networks. But hey, at least it will be our friends telling us so.