Follow the Risk: Amateur Journalism & Democracy

Adapted from a reply on John Jarvis’ Buzz Machine blog:

The Internet and cheap digital tools allow crowd-sourcing of news by amateurs, not just because the technology makes production and distribution fast, easy and cheap, but also because it diffuses risk through the crowd. So it makes any individual’s share of the risk small enough to be acceptable, and makes the small compensation (recognition, fun, etc) acceptable as well. In the same way, the net itself has been made available for next to nothing by diffusing the cost (risk) through countless servers and routers.

But in discussions of the amateur future of media there’s an issue of risk management that usually goes unexamined. Traditionally, risk has been contained by corporations (for profit or not), and individual reporters have been able to risk time, effort and potential liability because a corporation was both compensating them for and insuring them against risk.

The question for the future is how we make sure we still cover important stories if they require a lot of risk to be taken on by one or two individuals. The diffused risk model is fine – and may even be better in some ways – for reporting stories that can be reported from the outside, by amateur observers. For example: speeches, earthquakes, riots, terrorist attacks, etc.

But some of the most important stories will still require individuals to take on very large amounts of risk, including months or years of time and potentially huge liability. For example: financial crimes, political corruption or wars.

We might dismiss old ways of doing things, but we can’t just dismiss risk (I’ve noticed – and certainly been guilty of it myself – that when risk has been lost track of, hand-waving starts). In the new media world, some risks (such as printing costs) do disappear into the cloud. But only some.

Not all risks are financial. One possible outcome of the “amateurization” of news is that politically important stories stop being covered (and I’d say such a trend is already well under way, as the unit value of hard news coverage drops relative to to coverage of the nexus of sex, death, entertainment, shopping and celebrities. Not because only old-style experts can possibly report hard news, but because the risk isn’t being managed (including, I’d have to say, the risk involved in becoming an old-style expert).

This transition might lead to a financially optimal result. It might also amount to democratization in some ways, in that publishing is opened to all. But socially, the picture may not be all bright. It amounts to whether or not it matters if there remains a distinction between citizens and consumers.

I’m not saying “old ways good, new ways bad”. But neither am I saying “new ways good, old ways bad”. As is usually the case, I think the new reality is likely to be complicated. We’re going to have to find new ways to manage risks – like maintaining a healthy democracy – that will still be worth taking even after the old ways of handling those risks are gone. The “buggy whip maker” argument says that you shouldn’t try to force your fellows to pay you for economically unproductive activity, such as, by some lights, journalism. Again, not all risks are financial.

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