Rusbridger: better late than never

Three years passed between Rusbridger’s description of the newspaper industry under siege from the internet and his more upbeat assessment. Three years is an eternity when it comes to digital technology. Myspace was all the rage in 2006, but that social media site had been supplanted by Facebook. The protest in Iran showed how Twitter and smart phones can turn everyone into a journalist.

By 2009, Rusbridger’s paper The Guardian was starting learn how to harness some parts of the web and to collaborate with those citizen journalists. These innovations  require the mainstream media (MSM) to cede control to tweeters, bloggers, smart phone users. That means we journalists could be collaborating with a cast of millions.

That’s scary. These people bring their motives, skills and beliefs to the game. They are partisans. But so are the government, religious, social service folks that  journalists  interview daily. They just speak our language, and we see them at the same social events..

That brings me to Rusbridger’s description of the debate between Walter Lippman and John Dewey. Lippman believed that many of the issues of the day were “too complex to be grasped by the public – whom he likened to “a deaf spectator in the back row.” Dewey thought the public needed journalists and academics to explain  the game and the rules of government, business and foreign affairs.

Dewey disagreed. He had more faith in the public’s ability to understand the rules of the game. Lippman viewed public life as a lecture where the elites dumbed down the complex sausage making process of governance and parsed the informatio to the ignorant masses. Dewey saw democracy as more of a Socratic conversation in which all members of society had the ability to participate and learn.

It’s easy to understand why Lippman’s viewpoint prevailed in journalism for so long. It’s also easy to see why that model is insufficient now. Lippman debated Dewey in the 1920s. Vast swaths of people were illiterate, women had just received the right to vote and blacks were denied the franchise in much of the south.

Today, the vast majority of Americans can read and write. Massive amounts of facts are available at the touch of a computer keyboard or smart phone keypad. Additionally, years of betrayal by government, business and the media means that all three of these institutions have earned the mistrust of the American people.

At it’s extremes, this mistrust has people doubting the 9-11 terrorist attacks, climate change, President Obama’s birth place and whether the Sandy Hook shooting actually happened.  More often than not this mistrust is manifested in a healthy skepticism on the part of the public.

Rusbridger tells journalists that social media tilts the debate in Dewey’s favor. Readers don’t want to be spectators. They want to be a part of the game. Successful papers find ways to let readers play.

Rusbridger describes four instances where Guardian journalists collaborated with their readers to write investigative pieces, break news, crowd source information and invite more diversity onto the paper’s opinion page.

These methods are  risky. Rusbridger cites an instance where another paper placed unfiltered tweets on their home page and the publishing a bunch of messages that we unfit for a family paper. However,  inviting the highly informed, passionate, technically savvy and insightful readers to be citizen journalists can improve  the product and engage the public in ways that enhance democracy – and the bottom line.

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