Andrew Keen on New Media

I came to bury journalists but in the end I could only praise them

Monday 19 May 2008 00:00

Rather than marching for international brotherhood, I celebrated a belated May Day this year by burying journalists. Fortunately, the dead hacks were all imaginary. I came to London for the Unesco World Press Freedom Day debate "Is New Media Killing Journalism?" And I drew the short straw. Unesco handed me the spade. It was my job to argue that the internet is killing journalists.

To cut a long debate short, I lost. It was my motion, rather than imaginary journalists, which died. Three-quarters of the writers and broadcasters who showed up at London's Frontline Club on 2 May for the debate rejected news of their own imminent death and voted down the motion.

I have to confess that these optimists may have a point. Of course, it isn't hard to causally link the meteoric rise of new media and the dramatic fall of old media. In America, in particular, there is obviously some sort of connection between the proliferation of amateur bloggers and the mass lay-offs of professional journalists. That said, the assumption that new media is killing journalism is a vulgar over-simplification. Indeed, as one of my opponents in the UNESCO debate, the presenter of the Radio 4 show The World Tonight Robin Lustig, pictured, argued, online self-publishing tools such as blogs are actually empowering traditional journalists to distribute their information directly to the public.

The chink in the argument of the optimists is economics. As NBC mogul Jeff Zucker has argued, the dollars of analogue media revenue are today only translating into pennies of online revenue. Zucker is right. Wikis and blogs might be exciting publishing tools for the independent reporter, but for a journalist eeking out a living off the internet where, exactly, is the money in today's digital economy? As even a dead hack knows, the truth is always muddy. And the truth is that today's internet is so radically transforming traditional journalism as to make the terms "new" and "old" media increasingly redundant. Take, for example, Sky's innovative news show Sky News Unplugged, launched last Wednesday. Is this irreverent and interactive show, which is only available online or on Sky News Active, old or new media? As a professionally managed news broadcast which incorporates user-generated-content into its programming, Sky News Unplugged is both, of course. And this hybrid model is the future of journalism. It's where all news media is headed.

It's certainly where the newspaper business is going. Take the grandest of old media American newspapers, The New York Times, which now not only has its august journalists blogging and podcasting, but has also partnered with Jet Blue airlines to film its writers for an interactive in-flight and online video magazine. Or take the newest of new media technology blogs, Mike Arrington's Techcrunch, which has just announced a deal to syndicate its content on The Washington Post newspaper's website.

Just as new and old media are becoming one, so print, audio and video journalism are also rapidly converging online. The journalist of the future will be a synthesis of the old-fashioned television, print and radio reporter. Like the staff at The New York Times, they will have to be masters of all media. As new business models emerge to make this converged media economically viable, journalists must change or die. So my advice to aspiring reporters is to master all the latest video and audio technologies. The Robert Fisks of tomorrow will interact with their reader/listener/viewer not only through primitive text, but also via online video blogs and audio broadcasts.

So what about all those dead journalists? I'm afraid that the only hacks mortally threatened by this convergence are "new media" columnists like myself whose livelihoods depend on pontificating about the chasm between new and old media. I'm the Tyrannosaurus rex in this evolutionary saga. So next May Day, instead of getting roped into another Unesco gig, I intend to march in solidarity with myself. I just hope I can stay alive till then.

Microsoft's failure to acquire Yahoo! was a boring goalless draw but also a win for Google

Unlike the British, Americans don't do draws very well. So it's not surprising that the post game analysis among American digerati on the aborted Microsoft acquisition of Yahoo! is that both companies lost. The winner, the Monday morning digital quarterbacks have determined, is Eric Schmidt's Google, whose quasi-monopoly of the online advertising market has been supposedly strengthened by Microsoft's failure to swallow Yahoo! But I'm not convinced by this zero-sum logic. Just as IBM wasn't a threat to a trimmer and more virile Microsoft 20 years ago, so neither Yahoo! nor Microsoft are really much of a threat to Google today. The search-engine leviathan has already crushed Jerry Yang's Yahoo! in the online advertising wars, while Microsoft is viewed by most Google executives as more of a bumbling joke than a strategic threat. The brains at Google know that their real threat is from nimble technology start-ups whose futuristic products will replace search at the centre of the digital economy.

So, not for the first time, the American digerati are wrong. The Microsoft-Yahoo! game really was a boring draw a dour, instantly forgettable nil-nil affair in which there were neither winners nor losers. We are back to where we were on 31 January, the day before Steve Ballmer blustered and blundered into his $45bn (23bn) hostile bid for Yahoo! Google was the hegemonic Web 2.0 power, Yahoo! was a rudderless Web 1.0 company and Microsoft was searching to redefine its core strategic role. Fast forward three months. Nothing much has changed.

Booking their place in history

I spent last week in Seoul speaking at the annual Independent Publishers Association Congress. In contrast with their cousins in the music business, book folk recognise that the digital tsunami is coming and they are already bracing themselves for the impact of mass online piracy on their business. In the long-term, they recognise, the physical book is dead. The question the 64-billion-dollar question is what will replace it.

To really get into the head of their digital thief enemy, book people should watch the downloadable-only, free online documentary series Steal this Film. Partially financed by those generous folks at Channel 4, the two-part documentary sympathetically explores the online movement against intellectual property. But the one question that Steal this Film doesn't answer is how to make money out of free peer-to-peer distributed content. From nearly five million downloads, the documentary has generated the un-princely sum of $5,000 (2,500) from online donors. Not enough, I'm afraid, to finance a half-decent book launch party let alone save the book industry.

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