We certainly got a glimpse of the ability of the Internet to facilitate and integrate news sources, and maybe of a new news ecosystem, during the Arab Spring and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami this year. Whether it was NPR’s own head of social media strategy, Andy Carvin, ceaselessly tweeting links of disparate sources and coverage of the Middle East for months on end, or MIT’s nuclear science and engineering students blogging the post-earthquake problems with the Fukushima power plant (mitnse.com), we could begin to see how such an ecosystem might work. Investment in professional journalists—to follow sources and subjects even when they are not in the public eye, to investigate and stand up to governmental and corporate pressure, to help sort the fake from the real—will still be needed, but the money currently spent on maintaining bureaus and infrastructure is almost certain to shrink—at least in America.

This need was made clear in the recent FCC report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” published in June. But meanwhile, the increased and rapid investments by many other governments into centralized media will continue to be a challenge to the US. The “soft power” struggle in the world has begun a new and more political phase, and globalized news has increasing relevance to domestic markets. People and money move ever more fluidly across borders, so information about an earthquake in Japan, an explosion in Russia, or a riot in Tehran becomes directly relevant to a viewer in the US or a listener in Europe.

In this new world, the US is undoubtedly a leader at least in one way. The US has a more powerful media platform than any of its rivals, through technology companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

It is somewhat ironic then, that the journalism distributed via these networks will be increasingly generated by non-US sources. To many, this might seem like a blessed liberation from the pervasive Americanization of culture through the likes of MTV and CNN in the heady days of cable expansion. But one can see why Hillary Clinton talks about other countries “winning” the information war, and why this might be of concern to the US.

News journalism will come through these free, commercial, private platforms as much as through any other means, including the broadcast channels of old. In this respect the future of public media is already here. It is networked and highly dispersed.

But in another way, it still feeds on the ability of individuals and organizations to present reports and perspectives, to motivate debate and action. And in that realm, it is unclear what the US national news identity might be, or how it might be funded.

It may be that the notion of the cross-national news brand, such as the BBC, is outmoded, but this seems a premature and quite possibly wrong conclusion. Signal is needed above noise, and professional journalists at their best should be about signal.

What is clear is that in a world where the rapid deployment of news has widespread impact but limited economic value, to stick rigidly to the idea that the market will provide for it is a high-risk strategy.

 

Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a member of CJR's Board of Overseers.