News existed before newsprint. Will it exist after? Of course, according to Yochai Benkler. What we confront, he argues, is a set of practical questions: what do we need in our news? What do we care about? The author of The Wealth of Networks describes our shift from the newspaper we get to the newspaper we seek.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now we pause for a really old ad we found on YouTube.
JON BON JOVI: As a kid, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be a baseball player, an astronaut or a rock star. But my parents said, whatever you do, get into the habit of reading.
[PAPER RUSTLING SOUND] I'm Jon Bon Jovi. Encourage your kids to read everything, especially newspapers. Reading newspapers will bring the world to their door. And who knows? One day they could reach the top of the charts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yochai Benkler probably would dispute the idea that we require newspapers in order to become informed rock stars. He’s the author of the magisterial Wealth of Networks, which describes how the one-way capital-intensive professional information economy, the one that’s supported the great American newspaper for more than a century and a half, is giving way to a many-to-many, low-capital cooperative model. And he applauds the transition to a mixed system in which concerned citizens combine their time and expertise with professionals to unearth and disseminate important information. It’s already happening, he notes. A patron-funded independent investigative newsroom called ProPublica won the Pulitzer Prize this year for its coverage of a New Orleans hospital making life and death decisions during Katrina. And there are many examples.
YOCHAI BENKLER: So let's take, for example, the story of the video of the helicopter shooting at civilians in 2007 in Iraq that was on Wikileaks. You have the traditional model of Reuters looking for two years through a Freedom of Information Act to find the video of its reporters who were killed by the shots. Then you have one internal source leaking the information, since then arrested, putting it out on the website of a group that sits globally in various countries, most recently in Iceland, where they can be protected by the law, and making that material available, then commented on by the rest of the world. The source of funding is user contributions from around the world. So that’s what I mean when I say that there’s a new system developing. If you've got questions of political reporting, suddenly you've got the reemergence of the party presses in the form of sites like Daily Kos, like Town Hall, and don't need the commercial motivation, and certainly do it on an amateur basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier in the nation’s history, a lot of the reporting was done by activist presses. What you’re saying is that because information comes from a source that may have a strong opinion, it doesn't necessarily mean that the information can't be trusted. Right?
YOCHAI BENKLER: Objectivity as it’s been practiced um, in journalism as a profession ends up skewing the evidence. When you compare treatments of global warming in -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
YOCHAI BENKLER: - peer-reviewed scientific papers to the treatment of global warming in newspapers, the sense that objectivity needs to be expressed by giving equal air time, as it were, to both, completely skewed the presentation of the quality of the scientific evidence. Second, the public perception of the ideal of objectivity led to a level of trust in newspapers as opposed to a continuous act of critical reading.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So much source material is available online that readers themselves can do the job of getting second opinions, of fact-checking, of reading the original documents backing up the assertions of reporters until a sense of trust builds anew.
YOCHAI BENKLER: We assume suddenly that a good report will give us access to the underlying material so we can see for ourselves as opposed to “trust me.” Instead of trust, you get access and conversation. You get a respectful engagement. I think that’s very healthy for a democratic readership.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clay Shirky, in a blog posting last year – he’s an expert in social media – wrote, quote: “When someone demands to know how we're going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won't break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice, rather than upend it. They are demanding to be lied to.”
YOCHAI BENKLER: I think what he captures there is the fear. We can't assure continuation of anything. And it’s not clear that the news-scape of the late '90s or early 2000s, just before the revolution we're in now, is in fact anything like the Utopia that hasn't been there for decades, if it ever was there to begin with. What we need to do is essentially say, what do we care about? We care about there being some set of people who are professionals, who will investigate on a sustained manner, that they can make a living without necessarily being millionaires. We need the ability to extract information from powerful entities against their will, so we need some form of leak extraction and preservation mechanism. How do we do that? Well, that actually we might not need professionals for. That might be best done by a distributed system of peer production and collaboration online by people volunteering because they care. We need a system for people who are politically engaged and mobilized to be able to observe their representatives. Well, to some extent, we might need commercial. To some extent, we can do that with volunteers. The questions are not existential. They're practical. Their implications are existential but the questions are practical. Music wasn't created with the invention of copyright and the phonograph, and it won't disappear. The necessity of people looking at their government didn't emerge from the moment of the large scale advertising-supported newspaper, and it won't disappear at its end. We just have to understand how the systems will fill in those voids that exist and see whether they're better or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You listed all the different ways that other entities and other individuals could fill in if the newspaper as we currently know it goes away. But how much of this are we seeing?
YOCHAI BENKLER: What’s absolutely true is that one of the research questions, that we don't have the answer to yet, is one that actually allows us to quantify how much of this has happened here, how much of that has happened there. When you look at the Iranian reform movement, I think you have to accept that as the first Gulf War was to the 24-hour news channel, so the Iranian reform movement was to people with their mobile phones on the streets, in places that are extremely difficult to reach, being the sole source of raw footage. This is very powerful. When you look at this year’s Pulitzer Prize and the reporting on the New Orleans hospital, you say, a nonprofit based on foundation funding was able to deliver some of the most important and impressive reporting for this year. That’s one measure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me throw out one last question. What some studies have shown is that people who are inclined to be informed are better informed now because of the Internet, but those people who aren't interested in information are less likely to encounter it because the public square, so to speak, has been deserted, and that this is worrisome.
YOCHAI BENKLER: What are we lamenting? Are we lamenting the decline of a shared culture that’s relatively dominated by a small number of people who can decide what everyone needs to know? That’s not obviously a state that we have to yearn for. On the other hand, the fact that we have facilities for people who do want to be engaged to become much better informed, if it is easy – and here we have major questions of skills and education and socioeconomic status influencing who can and can't access, and that is a major focus for policy to assure – but assuming that that needs to be solved, from the perspective of a democratic society, this new state seems to me to be not Utopia, but more attractive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, thank you very much.
YOCHAI BENKLER: It’s my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yochai Benkler is a professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.