Will YouTube be the USA Today or Wall Street Journal or New York Times of 2015 or 2020? According to Mediapost.com “YouTube’s Secret Citizen Journalism Plot Exposed.” Referring to a SF Weekly article by Eve Batey “YouTube Explains Top Secret ‘News Experiment’ to Local Media, But Doesn’t Really” the reporting is that YouTube plans to hire groups of citizens in major cities, starting in San Francisco, to report news events via YouTube. Could this replace the local newspaper? Or maybe even the local evening news?
Americans are so used to freedom of speech that it’s easy to forget what the concept launched in the USA. 200 years ago anybody who could access a printing press, of any size, could produce a newspaper. That as revolutionary. Citizen journalism was the norm, and there were literally thousands of newspapers. That situation remained very true well into the 1900s. Eventually acquisitions led to consolidation and a dramatic reduction in the number of newspapers.
The decline in the number of newspapers was aided by consumer journalism preferences shifting, in part, to radio and television. As radio and television journalism was born the limitation was “bandwidth” and therefore access. Thus, from the beginning there was government control over the number of stations. That scenario very different from the founding of newspapers, as there were limited channels from the beginning. But that didn’t mean that the desire for video journalism was lower.
What will journalism be in 2020? We know that most major city newspapers are on the brink of failure, with bankruptcies (such as Tribune Corporation, owner of The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times as well as others) not uncommon. As newspaper pages have shrunk, the internet has allowed the return of “citizen journalism” as bloggers and reporters have emerged able to tell a story, and with very low cost access to potential readers. Having internet access is possibly cheaper, and certainly easier, than operating a printing press in the era of Benjamin Franklin, or even a local newspaper of 1900. By numbers there is no doubt many more “citizen journalists” than “professional journalists” working at American newspapers today.
So why couldn’t YouTube take advantage of a preference for video, and link together the armies of independent “journalists?”
I can’t help but recall the television program Max Headroom from 20 years ago – where it was perceived that real-time information on practically all topics would be reported on millions of televisions everywhere – televisions which could not be turned off by law. Wasn’t Max simply an avatar, running around what we could now consider the web, popping up on computer – rather than television – screens? Today I can create my own Max Headroom avatar to search the web for real-time content – mostly text. Why couldn’t YouTube give me a tool to do the same thing with video?
Many people are bemoaning the decline of traditional journalism. But is this a bad thing? Given all the screaming about today’s “media bias” it would seem that citizen journalism could become a great equalizer. If YouTube and Google can help give me the tools to search for what’s interesting to me that would seem to be a very good thing. And if in the process they sell some ads so that the content can grow, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing either.
In the movie Network, made some 30 years ago, the thesis was put forward that news would become entertainment – and less “news”. With the growth of Fox News, MSNBC News and the number of broadcast minutes given to television news magazines like Nightline, one could reasonably claim that the movie was surprisingly foretelling. Today, getting up to the minute news is even hard on a channel like CNN. It’s not at all unclear that providing a platform for citizen journalists, via YouTube and Google searches of the web, is a bad thing at all.
Are you prepared? Are you learning how to use these new tools? Are you prepared to change your learning behavior? Your advertising programs? Could you be a citizen journalist? It certainly looks clearer every year that journalism in 2020 will look substantially different than it does in 2010.
Adam Hartung, author of “Create Marketplace Disruption“, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for “Forbes” and the “Journal for Innovation Science.”