Our Morphing Media

I have been writing (and worrying) a lot about the transition of the media, and the effect of the current landscape on public discourse and policy.

As I told a friend, it’s one thing to disagree about something that we both see. We can both look at a photo, or a piece of art, or a draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning, or–in the case of proposed legislation–whether it is a good idea. But the current fragmented media environment and the disproportionate attention garnered by “pundits” of varying philosophies and degrees of sanity has created a situation where we are far too often not looking at the same reality. It reminds me of the time (b.c.–before cellphones) when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, both Ayres and Blocks had tearooms, and I went to Ayres while she went to Blocks. This made conversation difficult, in much the same way that our current media environment does.

Clay Shirkey recently wrote an essay that is one of the more thoughtful analyses of the morphing of media.  In it, he echoes the observation of Paul Starr that “journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it is about assembling a public to read and react to those stories.”

In other words, there is a difference between an audience and a public. As Shirkey says, journalism is about more than dissemination of news; its about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality, or eating at the same tearoom.  It’s about enabling meaningful communication.

As the information environment continues to fragment into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, what will the consequences be for public communication and discourse?