Exactly what use is the media in the modern Net world?

I’m sat on a particularly uncomfortable seat on Olympic Airlines flying to Athens to attend the first Internet Governance Forum as I write this.

Despite the best efforts of the chair-kicking imbecile behind me, I am piecing together readable versions of the various workshops going on in Athens to be posted on the IGF2006.info, and as I read through the various proposals produced by a range of people, all of whom are seeking to understand and review the impact that the Internet has had on their lines of work, I have in turn started pondering the Net’s impact on my own profession – usually summarised as “the media”.

There are extremely few journalists registered for the IGF – something that has puzzled me for weeks since the IGF is not only important but a veritable goldmine of stories. All the people that usually merit stories when they produce papers, or when they are outspoken about a particular issue, will be there. And what’s more they will debating with one another. Clashing viewpoints from world authorities on cutting-edge topics that affect us all – how can this not be worth reporting on?

As I have gone through these workshops though, it has slowly dawned on me how people at the top of their professions often see the media. Not as my mind sees it – as a fundamental power and tool in education, protection, discussion and promotion of society’s values and problems – but as something far more threatening and far less useful.

Information is power

Communicating with and through the press and media is rarely, if ever, raised as an aim by people, except where they are seeking to promote basic facts to the widest possible audience. Instead, all the talk is about contacting organisations directly, and providing them with the information first-hand. The Internet has made this possible. Suddenly you can post huge amounts of information on a website and anyone can access it when and if they want. There’s almost no expense in making information available once it is produced – no leaflets or brochures, or countless phonecalls, secretaries and envelopes.

And the Internet has made it such that all the organisations most likely to benefit can congregate in the same places, no matter where they are in the world, again for no more than the price of an Internet connection.

In this scenario, the fundamental media role of dispersing information looks shamlessly out-dated: just another inefficient middleman that the Internet will cut out to everyone’s benefit.

I’ve surprised myself by agreeing with the notion that for many organisations, the media is in fact a hindrance. A common complaint is that the media over-simplifies and in so doing gets things wrong. This is perfectly true. You do have to simplify alot of issues to make it immediately understandable to a wider group of people, but this to my mind is the price you pay for spreading information as wide as possible (and I am willing to argue for hours over why wide dissemination of information is *always* better than keeping it contained within smaller boundaries).

But with the Net, we are no longer talking about the price of printing and paper: it costs exactly the same to publish 10,000 words as it does 100 online. Is the argument for simplification running out? Isn’t it starting to look a bit more like many have always suspected: laziness and arrogance?

Scandal and gossip

The media is always criticised for focussing on scandal and gossip to the extent that facts are never let to get in the way of a good story. I’ve always felt that this is a slightly childish and hypocritical criticism to level at the media. Scandal and gossip *is* news, and everyone loves hearing it.

The thing about not letting facts get in the way of a good story is also something that doesn’t actually happen that much – although journalistic bluster will claim it happens all the time. Usually people’s complaints come because they have put their point across and feel upset when the story takes a view other than their own. That’s just tough I’m afraid. It does people good every now and again to have their pomposity pricked.

But if I look at what the media is mostly producing at the moment, it really is little more than gossip and scandal. And facts are frequently not ignored – they’re not even elicited. These days as a freelance journalist, if you want a pitch accepted you have two choices: celebrities or pictures, preferably both.

You could have a fascinating article that you know will be one of those articles that makes people think “now I didn’t know that” but unless you have some kind of catch, it will never get past the commissioning editor. The system appears designed to throw the baby out with the bath-water, and pull the hair from the plug-hole as its reward.

Magpies and bimbos

So you have to provide something that appeals to their magpie-like mind – something shiny. And the shiniest things are celebrities. Paris Hilton gets cybersquatted – there’s your feature on the latest changes in cybersquatting – even though the changes are six months old. If Madonna is even seen typing on a computer, the gates open on a 100 different features sat rotting in the corner.

There is another equivalent to celebrity – hype. For some reason that I’ve never been able to fathom, the media insists on feeding off itself incessantly. Examples: Google. Basically you can write anything you like if Google has something to do with it. Why? Google is only one company – but at the moment  its name excites commissioning editors for no logical reason whatsoever. For a long time it was anything to do with iPods (a celebrity with an iPod!) – even when it wasn’t in the slightest way interesting.

It has been this glut of really uninteresting stories, combined with the ever-increasing power of PR companies and the ever-diminshing critical faculties of journalists, that has led to the appalling situation where the news media now spends most of its time not actually producing any news but instead pretending that carefully managed product launches are, in fact, newsworthy.

Back to the IGF

Perhaps it isn’t surprising then so few journalists are interested in the IGF. It is complex, time-consuming, thought-provoking, forward-thinking. All this is 1,000 times harder to work with than the latest press release and hand-holding press event. It is also much more expensive. And yet the readers – at least the readers left buying the paper – would rather read the latter anyway.

There is a huge place for the media on the Internet – after all, someone has to actually make sense of all this information and explain it to everyone else. But it strikes me that there is one glaring omission in the workshops at the Internet Governance Forum: that of the media discussing what they have to do to work with other “stakeholders”.

At the moment, the media doesn’t think it has to engage. It just does it job. But then isn’t that how everyone felt not too long ago? And as with everything on the Net, the days of monopolistic policy are already gone.