Frontline is currently running a four-part series called News War: An Investigation into the Future of News, and they’re putting it all online as it airs. Part I (the only part that has aired so far) was fantastic, and I was happy to be able to see it in high-quality video with no stuttering. The accompanying site looks pretty, and is fairly easy to navigate, but the way the accompanying material presented is a wasted opportunity. The web content for Part I consists of some extra interview transcripts, an FAQ on the freedom of the press, some supplementary documents, and a really great curated set of links. All of these are of interest, but after watching the (gripping) documentary, going through this material feels a little like homework. Why not present this material at the appropriate times as I’m watching the video, so that I can not only go deeper or get some more context for what I’m seeing, but that I can make the decision to do so at the moment of seeing, instead of relying on my recall of what I finished seeing? It might be objected that doing so would interrupt the flow of the video, but the video is already split into segments. The relevant material for each segment could be presented after a segment, and linked to the appropriate shots from that segment to allow easy navigation back to what was just seen.
OK, enough about the architecture of the News War site. What about the Future of News? I’m going to withhold detailed commentary until I’ve seen the whole series, but Part I did a good job of explaining a facet of the Valerie Plame case that I didn’t understand all that well: how it represents the overturning of 30 years of de facto recognition of journalists’ right to not reveal the identity of confidential sources. Though this right was explicitly ruled not to exist by the Supreme Court, activist lawyers had succeeded in persuading states to adopt an interpretation of this ruling which did weakly recognize this right, and journalists were rarely subpoenaed. That has changed in the wake of the Plame case, since Richard Posner, and then a circuit court, stated that the activist interpretation was unsupported by the law.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, particularly Part III, which will look at “citizen journalism” and new media news. But I suspect that Frontline will drop the ball by looking to elites like Eric Schmidt for insights into this stuff. Schmidt basically shrugs his shoulders and says (I am paraphrasing here), “the Internet has determined that the power formerly concentrated in the press shall be concentrated here at the GOOG. It’s perhaps not ideal, but what can be done? We’ll try to send some traffic your way, though, ’cause hey, we have a kind of nostalgic regard for editors and all that manual processing of information stuff. Good luck with that making a living thing.” This kind of arrogant technical determinism is what keeps getting Google sued. Talking to chiefs of staff when you’re reporting on the government or the NYT is a good strategy; when you’re reporting on a loosely interconnected set of networked forums it may not be. Neither Schmidt, nor network architecture, nor Google’s algorithms will determine the future of news, and we needn’t sit back and accept the dissolution of institutions of news gathering and dissemination as inevitable.