Law in the Internet Society

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JohnClaytonFirstEssay 1 - 09 Oct 2020 - Main.JohnClayton
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A New Journalism

-- By JohnClayton - 09 Oct 2020

It is time to free journalism. I refer not to journalism the institution, that venerable fourth estate whose wreckage lies all around us. Rather I speak of journalism as an endeavor, an iterative process of collective knowledge gathering, synthesis, and distribution.

The Net has both necessitated and facilitated this reconception of what “journalism” means. Every day, an amalgam of professionals, ordinary citizens, and activists collectively creates the news. They do so via disparate methods and platforms. The results can be powerful—as evidenced by ongoing protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder—but also dizzying, chaotic, and fractured. Journalism’s future as an instrument in service of human learning depends on our ability harness a new, networked press that is simultaneously egalitarian, prodigious, and distracted.

The first step is to identify the restraints. They exist in propertarian views of news rooted an obsolete, ad-based business model. But the ends of journalism are also thwarted, ironically, by the very tools that enable the networked press. Smartphones that document police brutality catalogue their user’s every move. News updates are fed through Facebook and Twitter, where they are either drowned out or reduced to a lure for the Parasite, dangling in news feeds only so long as they snap up human attention.

We must forge a networked press that resists the Parasite, rather than mooring us to it. But we also need to reimagine the concept of what journalism means in the age of the Net.

Moving Beyond Institutionalism

I have been part of journalism the institution. I saw the crumbling up close. The old model of for-profit journalism required ad revenue, which required eyeballs. So we chased them—we spent hours pushing stories on social media and perfecting our headline SEO. We still tried to do good work reporting the news. But the stakes were crystal clear. At one reporting job, my salary was tied directly to how many page views my stories got.

I do not mean to say that professional journalists are obsolete. There will always be a need for those trained in the art of storytelling and investigative reporting. Organizations like ProPublica? show that new models of non-profit journalism can produce superior content. We must go farther, however, to move beyond institutionalism to a more dynamic view of what journalism can be. The journalistic creation of knowledge no longer ends once the nightly news clicks off or the newspaper goes to print. Journalism is constantly becoming, and all of us on the Net can have a role in making it so.

Lessons from Free Software

Free software offers an analogue for what journalism can become. Free software produces a better product because subsequent users are empowered to tinker with and improve a program’s source code. Likewise, “free journalism”—enabled through creative commons licensing and collaborative platforms like wikis—can generate more dynamic reportage. News outlets and bloggers are empowered to borrow, organize, and add to information produced on the Net. The results can be powerful. Consider the Tunisian blogger collective Nawaat, which in 2010 curated hundreds of otherwise censored videos during that country’s uprising. Or Global Voices, whose volunteers translate citizen-sourced articles from around the world into more than 50 languages.

Free journalism invites readers into the process of news creation. Imagine new, hybrid journalism platforms that house professional investigative and accountability journalism, while also offering dynamic spaces for citizens to engage in collaborative news creation by posting their own content, or that of others on the Net. Paid or volunteer editors could help sort and verify crowdsourced content to ensure it serves journalistic goals. Most importantly, these sites can be run cheaply, potentially allowing them to be sustained through user contributions rather than through advertising or paywalls.

Blunting the Tools Surveillance Capitalism

Moving beyond the social media platforms

It is premature to advocate that the networked press immediately disassociate from the tech platforms. Facebook and Twitter remain useful newsgathering tools. We should, however, cease to treat social media platforms as a locus for journalism. The process of knowledge creation requires continuity—the ability to locate, link together, and preserve information culled from disparate sources. From a technical standpoint, Facebook and Twitter are ill-equipped for this. Nor is their attention imperative aligned with the mandate of journalism to serve the public. We must instead build new, collaborative spaces where communities can gather to engage in collaborative journalism. This can include creative commons repositories where citizens can upload media for anybody to use.

The law may also help equal the playing field between journalistic gathering spaces and the tech giants. Despite their precise curation of user news feeds, social media platforms (unlike news outlets) are not considered publishers for the purposes of tort liability. Nonetheless, any Section 230 reform should be approached carefully, since imposing liability for crowdsourced content may hinder the hybrid journalistic models described above.

Enabling secure news capture

Likewise, an immediate retreat from smartphones as a tool for newsgathering is perhaps unlikely. However, law and technology can help prevent those in power from using smartphones to surveil or incriminate newsgatherers who seek to expose corruption or abuse. Open source encryption apps like Signal already exist to enable newsgatherers to securely capture and transmit media. These apps can only do so much, however. Politically, we must continue to push for legislation that safeguards encryption technology and limits how technology firms can track, store, and use mobile data.


I propose an idealized vision for the future of journalism. I am not na´ve; this is neither the journalism we have, nor one that we can create overnight. Law and technology can create the conditions in which news content can be securely captured and widely shared. We can equip individuals from a young age with the technical skills to contribute to our networked press. But we must also undertake a more fundamental reconception of journalism as a collectively owned and pursued public good—a process of knowledge sharing that every human can both benefit from and contribute to.

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Revision 1r1 - 09 Oct 2020 - 22:11:02 - JohnClayton
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