Today’s Grokster, Yesterday’s Sullivan?

A few weeks ago I posted about Yochai Benkler’s book, The
Wealth of Networks
. I’m still thinking about the book. The more it filters into
my consciousness, the more I see it as a turning point in my thinking about the
work I do.

I got excited about journalism because I liked the work and
I thought it was important. I enjoyed chasing down stories, meeting new people
and writing. I also liked the feeling that my work was constructive – that by
making people more aware of the community around them, I was helping solve

Over the last ten years I moved from the newsroom to the web
newsroom, from the editorial side to the business side, and from New Bedford, to Moscow, to New York and to Boston.
At each step, my role as a journalist changed and my underlying belief in the
importance of robust, independent news institutions grew stronger.

Benkler’s book marks a shift in my thinking.

The news organizations I grew up with controlled a critical information bottleneck. Only a handful of institutions had the power to
collect news and report it to their community, so it was critical that those
institutions be financially independent and civic-minded.

Benkler describes a new bottleneck. Today there is no
shortage of news content, but access to that content relies on a precariously
small set of pipes. There are dozens of bloggers writing about Cambridge and Somerville,
but most of them rely on Comcast to access their presses. There are thousands
of voices covering China aggressively, but many are blocked inside China.

The old news institutions needed to be strong enough to fight battles to publish their content – battles like New York Times
Co. v. Sullivan
and New York Times Co. v. United States.

Today’s Sullivan is Grokster. The question is no longer the
nature of content that’s published, but the openness of the platforms it’s
published on. It’s a battle that the aggregator or the network operator needs
to fight, not the content producers.

This is a big change for me. News is in my blood, and I’ve
been shaping a career around the importance of content-producing institutions.

I think news content is as important as ever, but I’m
not as clear about the role of the institutions that produce it. More and more,
the institutions that matter most to our society are the ones that enable
individuals to produce and consume content.