‘Mosaic’ and the future of news

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, delivered the keynote address on April 3. 2014 at the 39th Edward R. Murrow Symposium at Washington State University on “The Global Face of Journalism.” Below is an edited version of his speech.

‘Mosaic’ and the future of news

This is the story of a television program, “Mosaic,” of its impact and of the lessons I think it tells us about the qualities that help media projects succeed in the 21st century.

“Mosaic” started in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center and ran for 11 years. It was a five-day a week sampler of what 280 million people in 22 Middle Eastern countries were seeing on their nightly news.

One reporter called it “an usual news program.” Another said it “drew raised eyebrows and puzzled expressions from many in the television news business.” Why? Because it presented the news unfiltered, the way the Middle East actually saw it, not the way we would have reported it.

“Mosaic” was an innovative program that in 2005 won a George Foster Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence. It influenced network coverage. When its time slot changed, the White House called to find out what happened to it. Over time it drew in cumulative terms millions of viewers and millions of dollars in funding to satellite public access television, and inspired other news-as-they-see-it programs, “Latin Pulse” and “Global Pulse.” It led to a news literacy game on News University. It was the most successful program on its fledgling channel, Link TV, an iconic show that drove the channel’s growth.

What was Link TV? The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of television’s best kept secrets.” Launched in 1999 after winning an FCC-mandated public access channel competition, it was at the time a standalone nonprofit that ran a 24-hour channel bringing satellite news from around the world to American households. Its music videos, documentaries and news programs were available on DIRECTV Channel 375, DISH Network Channel 9410, and selected cable channels.  

Because of “Mosaic,” Link was suddenly the subject of coverage in The New York Times and coast to coast, including a piece on ABC wherein Peter Jennings, peering into the makeshift San Francisco offices of “Mosaic,” said he was looking at “a production room, let’s call it.”

For me the “Mosaic” story begins the week of 9/11. I was new to the Knight Foundation. Link TV’s launch had received a grant of ours. It was a departure from our traditional work of endowed chairs in journalism, endowed fellowship programs, major mid-career training projects, First Amendment and freedom of information support, high school journalism programs and support for industry organizations.

So I had scheduled a get-acquainted call with Kim Spencer, president of Link TV, a call that had to be canceled because of the terrorist attack on the United States. The attack cut short the Knight Foundation’s quarterly board meeting. I recall being ready to make a presentation on a grant to the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., which wanted to start a photojournalism program. The question was whether a school known for art could be serious about photojournalism. All I can remember saying was that Corcoran students had that very moment been dispatched to the Pentagon, where a terrorist-controlled plane had just taken out a chunk of the building. (The Corcoran program, by the way, was a success).

I didn’t know it at the time but Kim was on the line with the TV control room at the United Nations when 9/11 happened. Link had a grant from Ted Turner’s U.N. Foundation to put the U.N. General Assembly on the air. I also didn’t know it at the time, but Kim had been trying to figure out how to get the new Middle East channel Al Jazeera before American audiences.

We had our get acquainted call on the Saturday after 9/11. All over the news stream American journalists were asking the question: “Why do they hate us?” Many were shocked to see street scenes of celebration after the attack. A common theme was “the world has changed.” Kim and I disagreed. The world hadn’t changed, we said. What had changed was that a large window had been opened and Americans wanted to know more about the world.

But how? If Link could show what the Middle East was watching on TV that would explain at least some of what the Arabic world thought of the United States. Knight Foundation made a $250,000 grant to launch the program.

As it turned out, working with the worldwide news channel Al Jazeera would take months, but in the meantime many other channels were available – and the bounty of satellite feeds gave rise to the name “Mosaic.”

This brings me to the lessons of the success “Mosaic” had and what that tells us about new enterprises in the digital age.

1.     Building over planning. “Mosaic” was a small, nimble startup within Link TV, which was a small, nimble startup. Its leaders were dynamic. They could stretch a dime and spin on it. Small and nimble has an advantage over big and slow in the digital age because building can be more important than planning. The cost of entry for new media ideas is so low, as the MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito notes, it is easier to just build things and see what happens. If I had been working with a large institution on “Mosaic,” the first grant would not have been a launch grant, but a planning grant, and by the time the plan was done the moment would have been lost.

2.     Sunglasses as well as searchlights. The project recognized that we now live in a world in which mainstream journalism is not the only news and information people can and should create and use.  But this digital age bounty also creates information overload. The producers of “Mosaic,” starting with a few feeds and ultimately monitoring 38, watching what the Middle East watched and pulled out stories of interest. The program called itself unfiltered because the individual programs were unaltered, only captioned or voiced in English.  But the way I see it they were both an aggregator and a huge filter. We still need to shine the journalistic light so people can see, but sometimes we need to provide journalistic sunglasses so people can see. We are in the “seeing business,” not the “shining business.” That was “Mosaic.”

3.     Collaboration. “Mosaic” was produced by an open, collaborative team. Its co-creators were David Michaelis, an Israeli journalist, and Jamal Dajani, a Palestinian-American producer. Dajani, who had been president of the Arab Cultural Center in San Francisco, discovered and brought in the lion’s share of the feeds, starting with Jordan TV, Palestine TV, Dubai TV and Arab News Network. Nile TV, Abu Dhabi TV, Syrian TV followed. The many voices meant the creators of “Mosaic” had to set a standard for tolerance in a news program that could have starkly contrasting stories, one saying an explosion was a suicide bombing by terrorists and another referring to the same blast as a martyr attack by freedom fighters.

4.     Iteration over rigid execution. The concept that Americans needed to hear what the world had to say was not at all new. But the “Mosaic” team brought a news sense to it. They immersed themselves in the feeds. Dajani remembers sleeping on the couch during the Iraq war. Because they mined the feeds for news, “Mosaic” had a freshness that made it compelling. You didn’t just see different points of view. You got stories like the civilian victims of war or Abu Ghraib before you saw them on American television.

5.     Engagement. The “Mosaic” viewers were not a passive audience. They were an active community. A crawl across the screen told them that some broadcasters were state controlled and others were independent. The crawl sent them to the “Mosaic” website, to a who’s who of the people behind those feeds. Had tablets been popular then we could have called it a second screen experience. The broadcast alone was not enough. Because each side would call the other side’s content propaganda, you needed to understand the context.

My role was to coach not on content but on the news process. From the first phone call I argued for the things I thought would make the program a different type of journalism rather than something else. The website had to give meaning to the feeds. The crawl had to send people to the site.

Whether each of the pieces of the “Mosaic” was truthful on any given day could be debated. But together the program provided an independent, accurate depiction of what the Arabic world was seeing on TV. It was a fair and open battlefield upon which truth and falsehood could contend.

The issues behind the news were discussed in regular specials by Dajani called the “Mosaic Intelligence Report.” There was a lot to talk about. This was the first time in American history that such a wide array of voices was seeing American airtime from a region where we were at war. “Mosaic” brought Iraqi TV to America when America was at war with Iraq. It ran back-to-back packages from Israeli and Iranian television. Dajani was a widely sought interview, his insights routinely making it onto network air. Michaelis and Dajani were in newspapers across the country.

“Mosaic” had impact, and it was not just the State Department watching it, or the other programs and donations it inspired. It was not long before other networks were using the feeds, and that improved what everyone saw. Eventually, the feeds included Al Jazeera too, and I think in cultural ways “Mosaic” may have helped that network finally break into the U.S. market with Al Jazeera America.

You know you are having impact when someone tries to ban you for being un-American, which an activist of the town of Newton, Massachusetts did, unsuccessfully. My most vivid memory of “Mosaic” content came in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. My wife walks in as I am watching a report of the anti-war protests at the convention. The views of the demonstrators are being covered in some depth. “What network is this?” she asks. “I haven’t seen these protests anywhere else.” I replied: “This is Iranian TV.”

What would Murrow say? I would hope he would have looked upon the program with interest and let fly with some of his quotable quotes, such as “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home,” or  “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” or even, ok, that’s better than just “wires and lights in a box.”

In the end “Mosaic” did something that is also symbolic of the way of news organizations in the digital age. It died. In 2012, Link merged with KCET, the Southern California TV station, which had become the nation’s largest independent public broadcaster by splitting from PBS. “Mosaic” ran out of money just before the merger. That said, it was the hardworking leadership and staff of both “Mosaic” and Link that turned the channel into a sought-after asset.

Media death is more common in the digital age. Programs and even companies come and go at a pace many times faster than ever before. “Fail fast and fail forward” is a Silicon Valley mantra. Consequently, we are coming to value people over projects and networks over organizations. As Dajani put it: “Technology makes things possible, but in the end it is still about people.” “Mosaic” may be gone but the people and ideas behind the program live on, so you never know.

In the book I argue that the digital age is the fourth great age of human communication. This means things like citizens as communicators, open collaborative teams, continuous media innovation and an interactive community are not passing fads. They are as fixed in the new world, as democracy would come to be in the centuries after the printed book launched the start of the age of mass media.

We are in the early stages of this new digital age. To some it feels like science fiction because, well, it was. Arthur C. Clarke’s geostationary satellites are real. The cellphones from “Star Trek,” real. The tablet in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” real. Skype from the cartoon “The Jetsons,” real.

This constant stream of new media is not to be feared but in fact is a staple of American history. Every generation since the pamphleteers of the Revolutionary War has grown up with a major new form of media in ascendance. Weeklies, dailies, the telegraph, radio, TV — an unbroken line of innovation.

Generations are shaped by the media that comes of age when they do, and then they shape it. The boomers and TV; Gen Xers and personal computers; millennials and social and mobile media.

Why wouldn’t this continue?

If it does, after the millennials a cyber generation will grow up with a batch of technology that exists now but is not yet mainstream: a global cloud, smart grids, ubiquitous sensors, wearable media, drones, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Journalism, if there is to be journalism, will need to deal with that.

If technology continues its rapid growth, the generation after the cyber children will come into an era of bio-media, with augmented reality built into us with implants, nanotechnology and enhanced human capacity.

People in this room will live to see it.

After that we enter the realm of futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believes in a future of sentient machines. That makes cranial downloads, thought aggregators, smart environments possible. In the final generation of this century, should things continue apace, we would see thought projection, telepathy, teleportation and telekinesis. Things that today are science fiction but some day may be real.

The current day reality of the influence of technology in our field and the strong potential for faster and deeper influence in the future make being a good journalist and teaching future journalists harder than it once was.

Murrow saw how things are getting more complex. “The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”

The “what to say” part is hard enough. But now the “how to say it” can mean more than a clear sentence. It can mean knowing which way to launch that sentence, or image, or interactive infographic, or algorithm and using what hardware and software. To do these new things we need to learn the lessons of “Mosaic,” to iterate, to experiment, to be open, to stay nimble.

There’s no avoiding it. To stay relevant we in journalism will need to learn more about numbers and technology. We need to move beyond statistics to big data. We need to move beyond building broadcasts and front pages to building products. We need to move beyond learning some topic knowledge and some technology to being able to rapidly learn any topic knowledge and any new technology. This is why I believe schools need to teach journalism by doing it, but also pioneer new technologies and community engagement.

There is much to be proud of here at the Murrow College. Exciting changes, growth, new possibilities. Progress on the road to a full-blown teaching hospital. Yet the work is not done and the world will not stand still.

If Murrow were giving this talk, if he believed in this, how would he end it?

Perhaps, inspired by the conclusion of his “Harvest of Shame” documentary, this way:

“The people we see inventing the future of news have the strength of engineers and computer scientists. They do not have the soul of journalists. They can’t bend the new technology to hold the journalism society needs. Maybe we will. “