The digital technology revolution is changing lives, businesses and so much else. No wonder people and companies, including newspapers and other media, are urgently trying to figure out where it is going.
I think it’s helpful to see it as a communications revolution, perhaps the culmination of a several-hundred-year increase in the ability of people to communicate and organize. At each step, people have created the technology to serve their new social abilities and aims.
After a few millennia of relying on the spoken word and manual writing, we developed the first form of mass communication — inexpensive printing with moveable type. That enabled the spread and study of information and ideas.
A few centuries after that, the telegraph provided speedy, high-cost personal communication over a large network. Wireless telegraphy took it further and grew into radio, another cheap mass medium for anything conveyable by sound.
Television (and movies) matched images with sound to make one-way communication almost as effective as being there.
With the internet and digital networking (including wireless broadband), the personal and mass forms of communication are wedded into one all-purpose, nearly free means of communication. It’s almost like a rudimentary nervous system for communities, societies, nations and the whole world.
Almost limitless interactive communication is very empowering. Governments, corporations and other information-intensive entities quickly used it to increase their power.
But as internet service spread through society, it also brought new power to the people — to expand awareness almost at will, search and research, associate in new ways, engage in any matter anywhere, hear the voices of limitless others and make one’s own voice heard in many new ways.
This enormous increase in low-cost communication by individuals and groups gives them a growing ability to assert their interests and work with like-minded others to advocate for shared views and interests.
In short, I think a more democratic world seems inevitable. Sure, there will be pushback from those who will have to give up some of their power to the public. The church and monarchies resisted in earlier stages of this democratic communications trend and things eventually worked out. Change will be chaotic and anxiety-inducing, as always, but I don’t think humankind would embark on this if it didn’t deeply sense where it was going and roughly how it will get there.
Journalists, newspapers and other media are still working on the business models describing their practical mutual relationships with the people. But the basic value of their services remains and seems clear.
In a world of unlimited communication and information, people need trustworthy help more than ever to focus on what’s interesting and important to them. And using the internet’s capabilities, they’ll be able to tell which journalists are best helping them.
Networking enhances the ability of people to act in concert, providing the power needed to bring government, institutions, corporations and more in line with the public interest. But it also increases the danger of the mob — that empowered groups will overreach, diminishing liberty and individuality.
Here, too, the media play a crucial role, ensuring that all voices and viewpoints get a fair hearing and that the most fundamental right of free speech is honored. Journalists can only effectively help competing groups and interests find a way forward if they’re believably seen as not favoring one over another.
National media have found quick profits in appealing to the still-very-large sides of a divided public. Regional and local media don’t have that option and must appeal to all sides, a challenge in the short run but better to develop the credibility that the public will increasingly demand.
The internet is still very new, this transitional period is only beginning and journalists today have it much tougher than just a couple of decades ago. Like most challenges, that’s exciting, more engaging and potentially more fulfilling.
Kevin Post is editorial page editor. Email him at email@example.com.