We’ve well established by now that the Internet has crippled the news industry’s role as gatekeeper of information in society. News sources now can communicate directly with the public, with unprecedented immediacy and scale. When the President of the United States wants to send a message to the public, he can issue a statement, call a press conference or schedule an address. But those means require news media participation to reach the public. Today, the POTUS can bypass the media, posting a note to the fans who follow his Facebook page, or e-mailing his millions of supporters.
Sports stars break news not through press agents and sportswriters, but by writing tweets. (Okay, many of those tweets might be written by agents, but they no longer need sportswriters as a go-between with the public.) Parents can examine their children’s schools’ test scores online, without having to read a story in the paper, or drive down to some office and ask for a secretary to pull the report. Even within journalism, reporters can make direct contact with readers through blogs and Twitter accounts, where many no longer have to go through layers of editors to get information out to the public.
So, thanks to the Internet, the information world’s pretty flat now?
While the Internet’s made it possible for information to flow more directly from source to consumer, in practice, much information consumed on the Internet now flows through many more intermediaries than before. Sources tweet information that then shows up on blogs, which are picked up by radio reporters, then make their way into newspapers, where readers post the stories to their Facebook pages, which prompts someone else to tweet about it… and the cycle begins again, taking slightly different paths with each circuit.
On the Internet, no one has to be a gatekeeper, but everyone can be.
Publishers, including online journalists, need to remember this if they’re to maximize the audience for their work.
Wikileaks has attracted worldwide attention in the past weeks for its reports, leaked from within the U.S. military, on the course of the war in Afghanistan. While Wikileaks provides a new medium for anonymous sources and whistleblowers to channel information to the public, the vast majority of individuals who’ve heard about the Wikileaks report didn’t read about it on the Wikileaks website. They read about it in the New York Times, the Washington Post or some of the many websites that reported upon the report.
Wikileaks, in one sense, is serving a function analogous to ProPublica or the Center for Public Integrity, organizations that are producing news reports that reach their widest audience through distribution by other publications. The editorial director of California Watch, a similar non-profit in OJR’s home state, recently described the ways organizations such as his distributes stories via “old media” partners. At our Knight Digital Media Center News Entrepreneur Boot Camps at USC, we’ve worked with several aspiring news entrepreneurs who are pursuing this model with their news start-ups.
A slew of online consultants and “social media experts” have sprung up to help businesses, politicians and others seeking influence in society to help them develop messages that can “go viral,” with the help of hundreds, or thousands, of Twitter users, bloggers and YouTube publishers who can spread the message to their spheres of influence. And so forth. Again, the point isn’t to communicate with the public directly. It’s to reach a larger audience by distributing your work through many, many more gatekeepers than efficiently possible before.
I’ve worked with several businesses that thought they could eliminate their marketing cost simply by establishing a blog or website. They thought that would allow them to communicate directly with customers and potential customers, eliminating the need for advertising and media promotion. What they soon discover, however, is that simply having a website does not draw any significant readership. You need to make connections with other publishers – other gatekeepers – to build a social network that delivers readers to your site. That’s one reason why I believe that the advertising model will endure, even as forms of advertising change. After all, the quickest way to reach an audience remains paying to access it. Ultimately, that’s what an ad does; it delivers you an opportunity to connect with someone else’s established audience in exchange for money or something else of value.
So rather than ending the era of the gatekeeper, the Internet actually may be leading is into it the golden age of the gatekeeper – when everyone has the opportunity to become one.
All that’s been lost has been the established news media’s once-monopoly status as those gatekeepers. What’s lost is lost. Those who’ve gained money and influence by assuming gatekeeper status won’t easily give it up to old media competitors simply because those newspapers, magazine and TV stations want back their monopoly profits. If the gatekeepers of today are to lose their influence, they will lose it the same way that the old media gatekeepers lost theirs – because they aren’t paying sufficient attention while someone else was finding a better way to reach their audiences.