In the discussion about news, there’s always a divide – because news loves divides. The splits have been old vs. new, mainstream media vs. blogs, professional vs. amateur, institutional v. entrepreneurial and, lately, paid vs. free.
But I fear another divide we’re beginning to see develop: walled vs. open. The legacy players – in what I believe is their last-ditch effort to save their old ways, model, and empires — are threatening to put up walls. News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS) is forever rumored to be putting up both pay walls and more walls to keep Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) hordes of Huns (aka us useless asshats) out.
Some say, 'fine, digital suicide couldn’t happen to a better mogul.' But I say we should fear the precedent, the balkanization of the web into isolated worlds. It’s true that all the data on the web is not today available via search — content trapped in data bases, in Flash, in comments, in video — though I see continuing efforts to bring that content into the tent. The momentum is toward including ever more data. But now come Murdoch and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), threatening to take their balls and go home. It’s their right to do so and, as Google always points out, it’s also easy to do so.
But I would hate to see walls go up just as we are tearing them down. That’s how Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger began his road show on the mutualization of news for my students a week ago, showing the wall between the press and the people coming down. But then, Rusbridger recognizes that the future of news – any industry, really – is about handing over control. That is what Murdoch et al fear most.
I fear balkanization. I fear stupidity, too – that others will follow Rupert the Pied Piper over the cliff. And I fear the impact on democracy.
At some events lately, I’ve heard it argued that information needs to be free to be democratic. I don’t agree. But I do say that when information is free, it becomes more democratic. Or, to put it a better way, the cheaper news and information is, the more people can be informed and the better that is for democracy.
Rusbridger reminds us that advertising freed newspapers from ownership and control by political parties and special interests who exercised that control via patronage. Advertising gave journalism independence. Advertising also subsidized news and reduced its cost so more people could get it. Surely the mission of news is to serve as many people as possible and so things that serve that end serve the mission; things that don’t, don’t.
I’m accused by those who don’t listen to what I say of arguing that – in the too-often paraphrased half quote – news (information, content) wants to be free, as if that is my cause, my religion. No, I say that I want to support news in the most sustainable and profitable way possible — and I believe today, that’s still advertising, which will work better in the open. I want to make news more efficient and less expensive so it can, again, be more sustainable — which will also work better in the open as networks, collaboration and links serve that efficiency. And I want news to be as open as possible so as many people as possible can use it. That’s as close as I get to a cause -- not that information wants to be or must be free but that it is better to be open.
Murdoch thinks Google is doing evil — kleptomania — because he doesn’t understand the new realities of media. Microsoft knows better. Its alleged attempt to woo old-man Murdoch is an act of deepest cynicism. It’s evil.
I believe that the next wave of virtue in society will flow from openness -- from government transparency, from corporate transparency, from personal publicness and an ethic of openness that will bring greater accountability, deeper connections and meaningful sharing.
Walls used to contain value; that’s why it’s the reflex of the legacy powerful to want to build them. They don’t see that today. In an open society and economy, walls no longer preserve value, they diminish it.
So I’m not rooting for Murdoch to build his walls as good sport. I really wish he wouldn’t, for his sake and ours.