Yochai Benkler on the Role of New Media for 21th Cy Journalism

Excerpted from an interview conducted by the Harvard Law Record, on the occasion of Benkler’s role as witness in the Manning trial. The rest of the interview covers mostly surveillance issues.

OTR: Could you discuss the role New Media plays in the 21st century and the future of Journalism?

YB: I think a core feature of network economy is the radical decentralization of the capital necessary to produce, process, and store and communicate information, knowledge and culture. This is true for software, it’s true for music, it’s true for video, and relatively later in the game it became true for journalism. We now see a wider array of strategies being deployed to provide the basic thing we call “the news of the day.” Some of it is purely social and voluntary – we see this when people capture videos of riots. We see this when people capture abuses by police in Occupy or in Tahrir Square. Some of this happens with people who are politically motivated, engaged with people who are particularly motivated and engaged in a recreation of the party presses like the Daily Cause or Town Hall. Some of it is small-scale commercial like snopes.com or talking points memo where you essentially have a very small scale organization doing an outsized job able to sustain itself on a low cost low returns model rather than the very high costs, high return model of the traditional media. And some of the traditional media, like the Times, continue and grow and reach to an international English reading audience. Perhaps in this regard the most interesting example is the Guardian which moved from being a respected UK publication into being one of the top ten news outlets read in the United States, with many more readers in the U.S. than in the U.K.

So the network fourth estate really now combine all of these components put together. We see organizations anchored in academic institutions like factcheck.org or media matters that are focused specifically on fact checking and media criticisms. We see experts who may be academics or may be in think tanks creating outlets that become much more professional. You can agree or disagree with them.

So that’s what we’re seeing – we’re seeing the emergence of a new multidimensional, multi-type of organization and motivation structure media ecosystem. But we also see traditionalists hanging on to the old way of doing things and refusing to recognize the value of the new. And the place we see this the most clearly is the reporters privilege debate and the questions over reporters privilege now in congress where we see the traditionalist hanging on for dear life to the concept that you can only give reporters privilege to people who make a living or somehow make money off of journalism and refuse to recognize the incredibly important role that amateur journalists and people who are not journalists but nonetheless report on specific issues and become major experts play.

There’s no question for example that Alexa O’Brien played a larger role in reporting on the Manning trial and provided more professional and thoughtful and really deep understanding of the case than any of the traditional media because she was there following it the entire time. She understood the context. And any law or framework that ignores the journalistic role that she played in covering that case simply misses the critical component of what journalism is today.”

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