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Graham Young

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How web publishing is making the world more democratic

12, March 2002

Queensland Art Gallery Plaza

In the beginning, we are told, there was the Word, and the Word was with God and was God. But despite this high-level support, it took quite some time for the word to take shape and dwell amongst us as the printed word.  And when it has done so, it has always been in uneasy alliance with capital.  Such as in 1455 when Gutenburg’s financier repossessed his printing press just after he had published the Bible and used it to set himself up in business as a printer and publisher!
 
What I want to do tonight is to first sketch a brief history of the relationship between publishers, writers and democracy and show how the internet profoundly changes that.  Then I want to look at a couple of manifestations of online journalism and finally I want to suggest some ways forward.

Before the printing press, publishing required large sweated-labour factories called monasteries.  The discovery of moveable type changed all this.  Initially this led to a fracturing of the publishing industry.  The large monasteries were more than factories – they had monopoly access to distribution and sales networks via the Roman Catholic church.  The protestant reformation combined with the printing press cracked these distribution networks wide-open.  It also opened up the whole field of secular publishing and provided new challenges to civil authority.

Before the printing press it was hard to get an argument up against authority.  The only way to argue your case was to do so personally, and that exposed you to the risk of immediate arrest.  The printing press, by producing multiple copies of your argument which could be widely distributed in your absence, meant that you could be virtually omnipresent and invisible.  Dissent became a safer, but by no means risk-free, occupation.

But as time went on things changed.  As printing presses became cheaper, distribution networks, and then sales and marketing networks became more important.  Publishing went from being essentially a cottage industry to being the large vertically integrated conglomerates that publish much of what we read today (one of which is a key sponsor of this forum).  That meant that power shifted: the princes of the press got to determine what you could read rather than the princes of the church or the king of the realm.

The promise of the internet is that it will restore a more decentralised model, but will it?

What the internet does is to drive the cost of publishing - from production through to distribution - down to almost nothing.  In the established publishing relationship the publisher provides:

§ the capital;
§ marketing, sales and distribution;
§ credibility and quality control; and
§ indemnity against legal risk (e.g. defamation).

But Internet publishing requires little capital. With a little bit of know-how you can publish your work on the web using your existing computer and your existing word-processing software.  At the same time distribution is cheap and occurs simultaneously and seamlessly with publication. In the belief that this makes meaningful publishing easy just about every advocacy group, and even a number of motivated individuals, have set-up their own web sites.  We really do seem to be back in the cottage industry days, but with 21st Century professionalism.

So is democratic nirvana here?  Will everyone be able to have a place to stand and a lever that will move the world?

Unfortunately not, but it will be easier to be heard than in the past. It doesn’t eliminate the need for publishers and it doesn’t really make publishing a cottage industry.  It does, however, change the power balance between publisher and author because successful publishing no longer requires large wads of money.

There is a place for publishers online, but it is what I call “gate-keeping lite”.  I see the major role of online publishers as being to provide accessibility and visibility to online materials and to rate it for quality.  To give you an idea of what I mean I want to deal with some examples of web publishing, with a special emphasis on those involved in publishing opinions.

The Blog is one of the most interesting.  It is essentially a personal site, and the successful ones, like www.andrewsullivan.com and www.kausfiles.com build on an existing known personal brand (although a pre-existing high personal profile is not essential as Stephen Mayne’s Crikey! demonstrates). This is Hyde Park or the Domain, writ digitally.  Bloggers tend to advertise other bloggers, and to build up tight communities. And it can be quite effective.  While Crikey! only broadcasts to a few thousand, Andrew Sullivan has 220,000 individual regular visitors each month – that’s a lot of influence.

There is a downside to Blogging – it is time consuming and not very profitable.  For an Andrew Sullivan this is not a problem.  He leverages from his off line activities by republishing material on the site that has been written for hardcopy, paying journals.  The site also forms part of his research – he was able to keep ahead of the pack on the Florida vote in the last US election because a university professor, an expert in pregnant chads, was sending him dispatches via his site.

What if you want a place to stand, but can’t devote hours a day to it, and can’t just republish work that someone else has paid you to produce?  Perhaps one of the Indymedia (Independent Media) sites will do for you.  Or maybe a site like www.theopinion.com. These sites tend to accept just about anything, and then use some sort of user driven ratings method for sorting out what is good and what is bad.  This is really radical democracy.  It has its problem however.  Quality is often not the best, and there are few quality controls.  Writers are self-selecting and there is a predictability about points of view.  The job of an editor is to seek out interesting angles and points of view.  No-one is really in control on an Indymedia site and it shows.  However, if you have the time to wade through, there can be some nuggets to unearth.

The Internet has made many organisations publishers by default, and many of these still don’t understand that properly, such as Universities. Another group that falls into this category is political parties.  Talk to any politician and they will inevitably whinge that they can’t get a press release in the paper.  Well, the ’net changes all that.  By putting a press release on a website politicians are publishing to a very wide audience.  During the last election the ALP had 6.6 Million hits on its site, and a further 3.7 Million on the associated Political Big Brother site. During the campaign the Labor front bench posted 516 media statements and 88 policies on the sites. That’s quite a publication.

Yet there is a fear amongst politicians of what the Internet can do.  They throw money at eGovernment, which is mostly about paying bills and taxes and putting shop fronts and press releases online, but their eDemocracy efforts are laughable.  This can also be seen in the way they run their web sites.  ABC presenter Helen Razer claimed that during the last election she had sent an email to all of the political parties via their web sites offering to help.  Only the Greens responded.  I can believe her.  I signed up for regular emails from most of them, and the only ones who sent me anything were the ALP.

All of these sites are broadening the scope of what is published on the net and they are making our world more democratic by opening it up, but they are all still very much on the fringe. In the further development of democracy on the net I think publishers have three major roles to play. The first is making these sites more usable and interactive.  Those who produce material are not necessarily the best at presenting it and they need help.

The second is using the interconnectedness of the web to make these materials more readily available to users by aggregating these sites together, or selectively aggregating material from these sites in the one site, and managing services for less skilled or specialist users.  The third is marshalling the capital to produce peak sites that provide facilities and features that individual sites cannot afford or administer on their own.

One thing is for sure.  The internet is a medium that allows for greater diversity than any before.  Because it is efficient in its use of capital it should be able to support more producers of news for the same expenditure by consumers.  That will mean a more democratic society, as long as we can learn how to organise it without stifling it – that is the challenge in front of publishers.

Related Links

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