New Media is not what you think it is

Posted by Ryan Jerz on Monday December 22, 2008.

As just about all of the people who read this will know, I fashion myself somewhat knowledgeable on the idea of New Media. Whether that’s something you agree with or not is beside the point. The point is that I think it’s true, so I spend time thinking about it, discussing it, working in it, and trying to figure out what the answer to the grand question of it is.

The interest in this stuff was both enhanced and refined during my time in graduate school. The program I was in fashioned itself as a new media think tank, where we would attempt to come up with ideas that shifted the thinking in general on “the media” and build tools that helped shape news coverage in a new way and redefine what it meant to be a journalist (or, at least, refocus the efforts of journalists back on what was perceived as mattering).

At the same time, social networking sites were absolutely blowing up. I remember registering for classes and waiting impatiently for my email address to be activated so I could sign up for Facebook. At the time, it was still limited to .edu email addresses, so in order to get in, you had to have one. Twitter hadn’t been launched publicly yet, and was still a year away from the SxSW blowup. Both of those sites/tools are now embedded in the minds of the people I talk with daily as two incredibly important things in “new media.” And the thing is, they’re probably right. Both of those examples qualify as new media, and they are playing important roles in the facilitation of all kinds of new things.

Then you look at the topics we covered in grad school. We talked about new media as in new journalism. The program was even billed as Journalism 2.0 due to its goal of bringing journalism together with Web 2.0 technology, which, coincidentally or not, is still a tough thing to define. The person I believe is responsible for calling what we set out to do Journalism 2.0 was Ed Lenert. Ed was always in tune with some of the coolest technology that was being developed, and was interested in how it could be used in what we were doing. He was always a really interesting guy to talk to about emerging online technology and he pushed groups of us to develop our own technologies that could be used in the new journalism we hoped would emerge. One example of this is a project I helped develop in the early stages called Promise Tahoe. It was a derivative of Pledgebank but geared toward enabling residents of Lake Tahoe and visitors to the area to promise they’d accomplish something environmental in nature. My project was a social network analysis of business and community organizations in the Tahoe area (and before you assume anything, no, it was not about Twitter—it was a social network analysis based on the principles of social capital laid out in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone). The social network analysis was a tool that could be used by journalists to find new and unique connections among the players in a social and political system, and through those connections new stories might emerge surrounding the civic governance of a community.

The group of people I spent the year of that program with were mostly media professionals—reporters, television news producers, freelancers, etc. The program was sponsored by the likes of the Reno Gazette-Journal, Sunbelt Communications, and Swift Communicatons. I, and a couple others, were pretty new to the business of journalism. But those pros were people who knew they were “the media” and when the term “new media” was tossed around, they took it to mean new forms of doing journalism. Without a doubt, that was also the intention of the school itself. We were there to figure out new ways for the media to work.

That definition of new media is quite different to the internet, it seems. Since I took my multimedia skills to marketing the state of Nevada, I have found that just about everyone in this business takes “new media” to mean new forms of media. Have a podcast? You’re all about new media. Shoot video for your blog? New media. It’s really different. Even some of the people that were brought in to speak to us during school—a Pulitzer Prize winner, specifically—didn’t get the distinction. He touted multimedia as “new,” mostly, I think, because it was new to him.

I have attended the New Media Expo, which was essentially a conference about making and monetizing a killer podcast. No mention at all of “the media.” It’s almost as if the thought never occurred to anyone in this realm that there is an entire industry that is using the same terminology to describe something completely different.

What I get out of this is that anytime someone comes selling “new media” to me, my company, or anyone else, a clear definition of what they consider new media better be really emphasized. Being the guy in charge of new media at work more or less makes me be the one who has to define it, so I tend to stick with what qualifies as new media in the marketing realm. It’s podcasting, video, social—anything that was once called multimedia. But I hold a serious and soft spot in my heart for the new forms of journalism. Heck, it changed dramatically the way I run this site and how I think of the web itself. If I didn’t hold that spot, I’d be betraying what I once stood for so strongly.

Now, the landscape is changing once again. Locally, a new organization, the unfortunately-named (for reasons not-quite-related to this post) Nevada New Media Association, has popped up hoping to capture everyone interested in this stuff. The organization was started by Ed Lenert and Tracy Viselli. One of the first tasks of the group, thankfully, is to define what they’re talking about when they say new media. The group can take any number of turns in shaping the definition. The board consists of another of my graduate school professors, Donica Mensing; the managing editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal, Beryl Love; a technology lawyer, Tim Casey; and a marketing guy, Dave Archer. Along with Viselli, who has insisted in the past (here and here) that she is not a journalist, it seems pretty split down the middle.

I’m obviously running on assumptions of how people will want to define things here. Hopefully my assumptions are wrong and this group will come together on a definition that works for everyone. It appears they already have tried to shape the definition (who “I” in that post is I have no idea, considering there are no authors listed). There can certainly be a convergence of new journalism and new forms of media. I think that much should be assumed. The technology that’s available, for free, to everyone is so cool and easy to use in these new ways of doing journalism that you should be using them if you have any ideas of changing how these things work.

Aside from that group, we have the New Media Crusaders. It’s basically a bunch of marketing people who want to bounce ideas off of one another in a think tank sort of way (I’m one of the group’s admins). When that began a few months back, the question at the heart of this post came to me. So I asked it. Several of us in that group had just attended the New Media Expo, and I could see that the term was pretty convoluted. The definition that was more or less agreed upon there is a kind of mashup of technology and journalism, so that’s good.

I think what it comes down to is that there are some serious differences in how people define New Media. Any group putting that in their name is placing an importance on their definition of it, and that definition is going to be the crucial point from which that group operates. in the few weeks that the Nevada New Media Association has been around, I have seen people taking issue with what they’re presenting as the point of their summit. It’s starting to feel a little bit like a discussion on religion to me. One side believes that it’s always one way, and the other side doesn’t think that one way even exists. It’s not quite that hard core, but I hope you see what I mean.

I hope the Nevada New Media Association can figure out their definition through a serious discussion that covers it all and discounts nothing. From the looks of the people on their advisory board, they should be able to pull that off.

Ryan JerzRyan Jerz is an all-around good guy who wants people to eventually refer to him as "that dude who climbs mountains."

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