Bad habits to break for a democratic future

April 20, 2007

by Mark Fonseca Rendeiro, journalist/podcaster at bicyclemark.org

“Time magazine has voted you “The Person of the Year” for “seizing the
reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital
democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own
game”. So, did you?”

They can shower all the awards and sing all kinds of praises about the work that I -a podcast journalist- have been doing for several years, it still won’t change the fact that I can barely pay my rent next month.

The mere fact that in order for people to potentially notice our work, we need TIME magazine to shine a vague spotlight on “us”, is pretty oxymoronic.

It seems to me that despite all the potential that the internet and personal publishing in all its forms brings to the world, we are still in the primordial ooze stage of what could become a long media evolution.

You see, many of us grew up with media habits. Many of them were passed down from people who raised us, or where we grew up: the evening tv news at dinner time, the local or national paper over breakfast, the brief radio news report in the car. Sure, loads of us were also internet children, but back in the 90’s, our options still revolved around a bunch of basic news corporations who were early adopters of putting news online. So whatever your media habits growing up, one thing was very likely – there were a select few places where you looked. And even if you didn’t love those sources, you were used to them, you took what you wanted and ignored it when you saw fit.

Fast forward ten years to around 2004. Blogs finally break into the mainstream after years on the fringe. Some people start to talk revolution. By 2007, they’re sounding the alarms and repeating that same lame speech about how the media landscape has changed because of blogs.

Trouble is, they’re talking about 10 blogs. 20 if you want to be generous. If you live in Germany maybe it’s 5 blogs. Regardless of the country, a handful of blogs, out of the ocean of possibilities, were recognized and referred to by the mainstream. The old players, those media channels we grew up with, the ones that managed to survive, they used their still wide reaching power to anoint a select few. You might know them as the A-List.

The A-list, in 2004, was already pulling in about 99% of the blog reading audience (I remember a PEW Survey back then). In other words, out of millions of choices, millions of voices, 10 chosen few get 99% of the attention. Not to mention they also get most of the ad revenue and syndication deals that make it possible to blog for a living.

Old habits die hard, just because you’ve got a world of choice and a wealth of information out there, doesn’t mean the audience will break with the media habits they were raised with; the reliance upon a select few sources that are labeled as the best according to certain unclear measurement standards.

So while the A-List might be writing about fluff topics like the latest mobile phone, a moviestar’s love children, or pasting the latest New York Times op-ed piece and writing one sentence about it. Somewhere, not being read by most people, there is a citizen journalist writing from the streets of São Paulo or Dili, describing to us (even though we’re not reading) how and why people are struggling to survive in extreme poverty.

Because even though it might be the year of “we the media”, we are still stuck under the boot of a media elite. And while the forest of choices is vast, the public still chooses the same 10 trees because some old lumberjack told them these were the best ones out there.

My hope and the reason I will keep doing what I do? The next generations will break free of these habits. Today’s youngest internet users will do something this current audience doesn’t, actively seek out sources and be critical of what is put in front of them.

Bicyclemark is a Portuguese-American podcast journalist based in Amsterdam. A former researcher at the Village Voice and blogger since 2001, Mark has produced a bi-weekly podcast on under-reported international news for over 3 years. He also writes news for the videoblog: The Eclectic Newsbrief.

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  1. Though I agree most of this is true, I will never enjoy the term A-list, or using it in anyway as an excuse for anything. We’re talking about the majority of people here who tap into the safe routine of the reptilian brain. These people do not think for themselves. The Matrix metaphor applies to this, where we have to build audiences by awakening them 1 at a time. Shit ain’t easy, but I think a start is to stop drawing attention to something called the A-list, to stop using that term.

  2. Mr. Nelson! I understand the point here, truely. But that doesn’t change the fact that “a small group”, 1% of all blogs, have the attention of a majority of blog readers. I was just reading blogging podcasting magazine, that new thing, and i think it was those guys from the podcast brothers podcast that were talking about how 1% of all podcasters are able to make a living out of it because there is only investment in 1% of content creators. Anyway… the worst part is that old habits die hard and Ill probably be an old man by the time the internet really opens up.

  3. Right on, Mark! Finding good blogs takes time and effort. I checked the A list link you posted, and only one or two of them do I look at from time to time. I wish there were an easier way to find those blogs that are doing great work with little notice. Of course, podcasting, which is how I found you, is another source of news we need to be searching out.

  4. Mark returns to the thorny issue of corporate mediation already addressed by David Levi Strauss, Pedro Meyer, Christian Payne, and Bill Thompson. He argues that it is on just such mediation which alternative media, such as blogs rely for the legitimation, possible advertising revenue, and syndication bestowed on a select minority in the, perhaps, condescending manner of Time magazine’s `Person of the Year’ award.

    Following on from Bill Thompson’s 13th April blog, entitled `The Meaning of “You” vs “Us”’, Mark also underlines the possible re-entrenchment, implicit in the distance between the two pronouns, between the mainstream media and alternative positions within what Time describes as `the new digital democracy’.

    Mark’s reference to his own financial difficulties as an independent journalist/podcaster (`I can barely pay my rent next month’) invites his readers to level the accusation of parasitism at media corporations, which increasingly rely on free content supplied by independent bloggers, photographers, and video-makers, the recent Virginia Tech massacre being an example still vivid in our memories.

    For Mark, corporate mediation blog content and other internet media exerts a pernicious effect by simulating a climate of representative choice while, in reality, reinforcing corporate agenda. The latter filter out the urgent stories of very real inequality and injustice reported on independently by citizen journalists around the world.

    But Marks’s conclusion is not a pessimistic one. Echoing Pedro Meyer’s faith in the democratic power of search engines (openDemocracy.net podcast, 20th April, above), he looks to the `youngest internet users’ in the belief that they are more critical in actively seeking out sources of information.

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