Civic media comes into its own, thanks to MIT center

This piece is one of a series that looks at the Knight News Challenge winner, and their thoughts on future trends, on the occasion of the challenge’s 10th anniversary. 

As Ethan Zuckerman recalls it, a decade ago, journalism was enmeshed in a “wretched” debate over the merits of journalism vs. blogging, regardless of its community value.

“Oh my God,” he said in mock fear, “will the world of bloggers destroy journalistic institutions? Does participatory media potentially threaten journalistic media?”

Ten years on – and as many Knight News Challenges later – we’re late in that debate, with select bloggers having carved out some hard-earned real estate (and grudging respect) for their nontraditional approach to reporting.

“What Knight really did for the Center for Civic Media was carve out a territory and a turf that nobody else was exploring,” said Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and associate professor of the practice of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab. “What’s nice about civic media is it gives you a term and a concept that cuts across who’s producing the media, and what the media is good for. The question is, ‘Is the media helping you become a more effective citizen?’ That might be media that I’m making completely as an amateur. That might be media that’s being made by the New York Times. Similarly, not everything from the New York Times helps you become a better citizen. There’s a lot of stuff from the New York Times that, you know, is basically the sort of nonsense that keeps you reading, but doesn’t necessarily help you figure out where to have an impact within your community.”

According to Zuckerman, in awarding the then-new Center for Civic Media a Knight News Challenge grant, the foundation helped put a stake in the ground, “arguing, a) that this purpose is more important that the medium; and b) that by putting it at the Media Lab at MIT, it was going to be a high-tech proposition where we might need to build new tools and technologies.”

A lot has happened in the field since then, including the creation of a Boston Civic Media group, based out of Emerson University, which includes the MIT Center for Civic Media as a member organization. Civic media has now become its own field and field of funding. The MacArthur Foundation is refocusing a lot of its media funding around civic media; civic media is being taught, and showing up as a course in syllabuses.

“It was really a question of creating a space,” Zuckerman said.

As far as making the center a potential recipient of foundation money, he says that it’s “incredibly unlikely” that MacArthur would be funding the Center for Civic Media as a core player without Knight having taken that step in that space.

“The center did not exist before that grant, would not have existed without the Knight grant, and the center, I think, has been instrumental in getting people to see civic media as a particular lens for understanding this intersection between participatory media and civically relevant media,” Zuckerman said.

The most significant developments of the decade since the News Challenge launched, according to Zuckerman, have to do with the closure of the internet ecosystem.

“So much of what’s happening on the internet these days is not through the open HTML, open linking web,” he said. “It’s through apps, and app environments. It’s through projects that are embodied within the Facebook environment. We’ve seen a sharp change in hyperlinks, and sort of a de-prioritization of the open web vis-a-vis things shared in something like a Facebook environment. It’s the rise of all these deals where we’re somehow linking the content and the way it’s delivered. Much earlier, the web was a content-independent delivery mechanism. And you could use the content in almost any different context. That’s the change, for better or for worse.”

Zuckerman pines for the days when the web was an open architecture where you could build any service as long as it followed a couple of basic rules of compatibility. “At this point, you actually can’t build a whole lot of services because you would need to get your app approved by the Apple Store or the Android Store. You would need to get Facebook to agree to it,” he said. “We had a sort of benevolent hegemon at that point in Google, which had a lot of power by virtue of the fact that it indexed everything. But we have much more aggressive power brokers now with Apple, with Facebook. Jonathan Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It’ has turned out to be a very prophetic book on this front.”

Looking ahead, as change accelerates, Zuckerman hopes that the 2016 presidential campaign-related wave of support that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others have gotten “might spread out to local journalism, that we’re going to start seeing a wave of interest in ensuring that we have oversight analysis at the local level, as well as the federal level. I’m not necessarily convinced of that. But I think that that would be a terrific development, and one that I would hope to see happen. I also hope that we’re going to see increasing responsibility from platform providers to recognize that the systems and incentives they set up may be favoring sensationalistic click bait over news that actually helps us understand the world. I’d love to see those platforms become more civic, and understand that they have a civic responsibility, and that they see themselves more as publishers than as neutral networks.

“That’s a hope, not necessarily a prediction.”

Bob Andelman is a Florida-based journalist.

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