February 28th, 2006

Do We Need Professionalism In Media?


Do we need professional journalists, editors, and publishers to help filter the sea of information and help keep us informed — do they have a place in Media 2.0? Most Web 2.0 advocates would argue, NO (we don’t need no stinkin’…)!

This school of thought embraces what I can only describe as anti-hiearchicalism, which, at the extremes I’ve often seen, strikes me as the foolish pursuit of ideological purity, with little regard for how human systems actually work and with little regard for pragmatism. Kind of like the history of communism — it FEELS great on paper, but doesn’t play out well in practice.

This school of thought asserts: WE don’t need anyone to help us — WE can do it ourselves. Consider this from Opposable Mind:

Another apt metaphor: early 20th century industrialists believing they know what’s best for workers, until the workers realized their collective voice new better than the bosses. I believe we are just around the corner from consumer unions, and they won’t be clumsy automatons like their labor ancestors. This wave of evolved collectives will be much more robust, resilient, and nimble.

That’s a very romantic view of unions, but it’s historically inaccurate. Workers didn’t organized themselves with some kind of group mind — they were organized by union leaders who sought their own forms of power. Unions reflect the same hierarchies and power struggles as every other human institution — witness the AFL-CIO split.

Opposable Mind also offers this:

How about a non-threaded, non-siloed discussion non-forum. It could be a tag-driven conversation as well. Boundaries to be collaboratively decided by optimizing for each reader. Sounds messy? I bet that it would converge nicely.

This is precisely the type of nonsense you get when you take anti-hierarchalism to its extreme.

To be clear (this is the part that no one will quote): The pendulum is undoubtedly swinging, and media needs to evolve by embracing participation and leveraging collective intelligence (which Umair calls developing “edge competencies).

But does that mean media needs to (d)evolve into pure collectivism, where hierarchical professional roles like publisher, editor, and journalist have no place?

Well, let’s test that notion with some other (ostensibly) professional spheres. Who will be the first to champion the following Web 2.0 concepts that leverage the collective intelligence?

LawAdvisor — Somebody suing you? Post the suit here and get legal advice from people with an interest in law (anyone can read case law online for free — the barriers to entry have fallen away). Then, defend yourself in court.

LegislatorWiki — Why trust elected legislators to write the law? They’re all corrupt anyway. Let the people write the law. What will be legal and illegal in your state? The collective intelligence of LegislatorWiki will decide. If someone goes in and edits murder to be legal, don’t worry! The collective will spot this error and correct it.

MedAdvisor — Have a medical problem? Post it here and get medical advice from people with an interest in medicine — after all, anyone can read WebMD. Who needs patriarchal doctors, when WE the patients can learn about our own diseases. Need surgery? No problem — MedAvisor can show you how.

Does “news” and information filtering really require professional “expertise” at any point in the process, or can we really just do it all ourselves? Since we know that professionals are fallible — doctors make mistakes, stupid laws get passed, lawyers want to sue everyone — let’s get rid of them altogether. Or, maybe we just embrace the idea that “news” isn’t as important as law and medicine — who cares whether we get it right?

No doubt responses to this post will cast it in the extreme — Scott Karp rejects participatory media and thinks we need to depend on Old Media hierarchies because we’re too stupid to figure it out ourselves.

NO, I didn’t say that. I’m advocating for BALANCE (a state of mind that doesn’t jive with ranting). I’m advocating for COLLABORATION between collective intelligence and professionalism. Media professionals need to have their minds expanded by the collective intelligence — and the collective intelligence can use some professional help.


I thought it was worth an update to respond to the thoughtful comment from Cal Evans below:

That having been said, I do believe there is a place for people who can write a good, well-balanced news article, short or long form. I believe that these people should be compensated for their talents. A good example is this article. While I do not agree with parts of it, it’s a well-thought out argument. Tell me Scott, did you have an editor work with you on this piece?

I didn’t work with an editor, but if I had, I probably wouldn’t have confused a smart guy like Pete Cashmore with my use of the word “professional.” The interactivity of comments is great to debate people with different viewpoints, but it’s not the best place to discover that I’ve been unclear with my original argument.

How many fact checkers do you employ?

None, but the consequences of having my facts wrong are not that great when discussing theories of new media. When an article is about an administration’s case for a preemptive war, you damn well better believe you need a fact checker — and even then, as we saw, it’s not enough.

When it comes to the consequences of media and the need for fact-checking, there is a HUGE range.

(I acted as spell checker for Cal and changed “to you employ” to “do you employ”)

Did you have to pitch this idea to a publisher and get permission to have it included in your blog?

Yes, I had to pitch it to the publisher of Publishing 2.0. There are a lot of ideas that get considered for posts on this blog, but only a fraction of them ever get published.

The point is that we do not need people standing between the content creators and the content consumers.

It’s so utterly facile and reductive to say that ALL types of content should go directly from the creator to consumers. Why does this discussion always reduce to black and white?

Great bloggers are not only great writers, they are great editors. One person can play multiple roles, but only if they are good at all of them, which is not true for everyone.

If I were a war correspondent, you can bet I would want an editor, a fact checker, and a publisher to help make sure I had body armor to help keep me from getting killed.

Let’s remember that there is a bigger world out there than blogging about media and blogging.

  • Scott and others,

    I'd like to address a couple of the points being debated here. I'll be the first to admin that I'm not a huge fan of traditional journalism or journalists. There are precious few that put any faith in these day precisely because of Matthew's point. There is no governing body for Journalists and yes, there are significant consequences to journalism, just no accountability other than reputation.

    That having been said, I do believe there is a place for people who can write a good, well-balanced news article, short or long form. I believe that these people should be compensated for their talents. A good example is this article. While I do not agree with parts of it, it's a well-thought out argument. Tell me Scott, did you have an editor work with you on this piece? How many fact checkers to you employ? Did you have to pitch this idea to a publisher and get permission to have it included in your blog?

    The point is that we do not need people standing between the content creators and the content consumers. Gary Hammel talked about disintermediation; that is what we are seeing happening to Media 1.0.

    Personally, I like the fact that I no longer have to get all my news from one place. I get my daily dose of Web2.0 from TechCrunch and Mashable*, I get endless duplicates of tech stories from slashdot and I get my tech giggles from TheRegister. Each of these silos are good at what they do and a better source of information than any general purpose site like digg or newsvine. Since they are all community oriented (I can participate in the discussion if I like) they are better than Media 1.0 versions, even web based Media 1.0 versions.


  • Hey Scott! Great debate we got going here. Just to clarify a couple of points, though. First thing is that I definitely don't think that we should be trying to get away from Hierarchy. I'm a huge Hierarchy fan. I just want to augment the meaning-spaces with non-hierarchy as well.

    My sense is that the world of information isn't absolutely a tree-structure, but only appears so because each person is the root of their own information structure, and so tree structures that more closely match the way that I naturally view the organization of the world look right, and everything else looks wrong.

    But the freaky thing is that this is true for everyone, and what ends up happening is that different global hierarchy trees look better to some people than they do for other people.

    The organization is really more like a graph than a tree. This makes a lot of sense when we can step back from it a bit to get some perspective.

    I'll be hosting a SXSW panel (Beyond Folksonomies) which is exactly to this point. The synergistic value of combining top-down hierarchies (taxonomies) with bottom up non-graphs (folksonomies) is very powerful.

    I also love your statement about Sports Fisherman knowing more about Fishing Rods than housewives will. Dead-on right. The trick is, there is a whole bunch of content out there that has yet to be trafficked so heavily as to justify a whole magazine in which an ad or article might appear. That's where I think the bottom up view can help most, by augmenting existing meaning structures and extending the knowlege (and, yes, wisdom) of the crowds.

    - David

  • Mathew:

    Journalism may not have a licensing process but it DOES have standards -- yes, some of them are hard to uphold (like objectivity), and there are plenty of bad journalists (just like there are bad lawyers and doctors), but that does NOT mean these standard don't serve a real purpose...

    I don't think you want to suggest that a failure to uphold journalistic standards can't get people killed -- one word: IRAQ.

    Much of this boils down to whether you believe that media has real and significant consequences -- I think it's deeply naive to suggest that it doesn't.

  • Nice try, Scott :-) And I know that you're recommending balance, which is good -- and I think there is a place for old media warhorses like yourself (and myself, for that matter) to help with the whole participatory media thing, whatever we choose to call it -- although I wish you wouldn't keep dragging the whole communism comparison into it.

    Anyway, that's not my main point -- my main point is that your comparisons are flawed. Aside from the fact that I think all three of your suggested "open source" advice ideas might actually make some sense (even though you intended them as satire), you can't really compare professional journalists to doctors or lawyers -- although I know a lot of my colleagues would like to believe otherwise.

    Why? Because doctors and lawyers are professions, with actual qualifications, and a governing body that ensures that they adhere to those specifications. What sort of professional qualifications do journalists have to have in order to get a job? None whatsoever. You don't have to pass a test, get called to the bar, show that you can operate without killing someone, or get a license. You just get a job and start writing. And no one can take away your right to call yourself a journalist no matter how many bad stories or lies you write.

  • Seth, there's a big difference between leveraging the value of LawWiki and Democracy 2.0 (hugely worthwhile) and saying that we don't need professional laywers and lawmakers.

    sbw, you're right that professionalism is earned and titles don't matter. There are plenty of bloggers who are acting as consummate professionals (and outdoing their Old Media counterparts). The path to professionalism is rapidly changing -- but that's a separate issue. The fact is that I still trust INDIVIDUAL bloggers acting in a de facto professional capacity to point me at what I should know more than I do the collective or technology intelligence of memetrackers, Digg, etc.

    Rex/Phil, you're right that the system IS effectively evolving, and most people take a balanced view. I'm responding here to some more extreme views that I here from various quarters -- but these are by NO means universally held views.

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