The popularisation of the internet since the 90s and the proliferation of social media platforms represented a real earthquake for the media industry. While the so-called traditional media tries to adapt to this new reality, the digital universe has brought to those who were only information consumers the unprecedented possibility of becoming content creators.

According to Jeff Jarvis, a media critic, and professor at the City University of New York's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, “the internet is allowing society to relearn how to hold a conversation with itself, no longer with the gatekeepers of big mass media.”

In an interview with Blasting News, Jarvis defends that journalism should rethink its role in society and see itself “not as a factory making a product called content,” but “as a service that helps people improve their lives and their communities.” “The internet today has been built for speaking, not listening; so what excites me about the next phase of the net is to build a listening net,” says Jarvis.

“The opportunity, I think, is for us to let people talk, because they're going to anyway, but then add value to that conversation.”

Giving the example of the 17-year-old young woman who shot the video of George Floyd being murdered and posted it online, Jarvis defends that “anyone can perform an active journalism” nowadays. He also defends that mass media should stop “repeating each other, rewriting each other on commodity information,” and instead, shift those resources to more investigative journalism, where professional journalists will always be needed.

What would you define as social journalism?

The emphasis is this. We don't start with content. We start with conversation. We don't start with content. We start with communities. Students find a community that is self-defined. A community of people who have a shared need and a shared view of the world. Then they observe, listen to, empathize with, reflect those communities and their needs, and then, and only then, can they start to figure out what journalism may be needed and welcome.

[...] I think fundamentally what the late professor James Carey at Columbia University said, which is that a democracy is a conversation; I believe that what the internet is doing is allowing society to relearn how to hold a conversation with itself, no longer with the gatekeepers of big mass media, no longer mass media treating everybody all the same; instead, being able to recognize people as individuals and members of communities.

To recognize journalism, first and foremost, not as a factory making a product called content, but instead recognize journalism as a service that helps people improve their lives and their communities.

In your blog, you defend that journalism should not be seen as “the manufacture of a commodity — content — but instead as a service”. Could you explain better what that difference would be?

I want to quote James Carey one more time. He says journalism does not inform the public conversation, it is informed by the public conversation. So the first key skill we teach, and this might sound trite and glib, but it's true, is listening.

(…) We talked a lot about impact journalism today, but that usually is: “I wrote my story.

How many people read it? How many people spent time with it? Did it change any laws?” Okay. But that's not really about the impact on people's lives. Have we improved people's lives? We have to change the metrics of our profession, to be community-based, not based on clicks, not based on time spent and attention. Those are old mass media models. Instead, we've got to ask: “Did we help you?”

Blasting News is an open platform and our mission is to give people a voice. How far do you think this is possible and what are the main challenges?

I think we've intimidated people with the idea of writing, that writing is hard, and only some people can do it. But everyone can talk. And we certainly see that on social media, on Twitter and Facebook.

As I'm fond of saying, Twitter is not the New York Times, it's Times Square. It's just a place where people are talking, it goes back to the notion of James Carey, that society is a conversation. This is why I object to the idea that Twitter and Facebook and Google are media, they're not. They’re something new. The internet is a connection machine. Connects people with each other, with information, information with information, and so on. So people are already having conversations. I think what we want to do is to try to improve those conversations.

(…) The opportunity, I think, is for us to let people talk, because they're going to anyway, but then add value to that conversation. So I'm excited about what you're doing because, not only are you enabling people to speak, but they can all speak online.

But then you want to find a way that conversation is better for them, and that means, I think, giving them information. It means answering questions. It means helping them communicate in a more respectful way. It means understanding their goals and helping them reach those goals. That's the essence of journalism. That's not some side gig. That's not just where we put up comments and forums and let it go. That, understanding how to improve the public conversation, is journalism.

Being an open platform, we can have a range of opinions that it's broader than the usual mass media; we can speak to a broader audience, and this is something that it's new...

Yeah, exactly. I think the other thing that's important is that the internet is young, it's very young; it's only 25 years since the commercial web in October 1994: I think that the internet today has been built for speaking, not listening.

If you look at what's happening in the United States right now, with our, you know, centuries standing racism coming out in full relief, what's been happening is we haven't listened to so many voices.

(…) So we talked a lot about giving voice to the people. Well, those people always had a voice. The problem is we weren't listening. And so what excites me about the next phase of the net is to build a listening net, is to understand how we can say to people: “Tell us your story. Tell us what you want to tell us.” And how people can be curious and go and say: “I want to hear your story. I want to know more about you. I want to understand better your life.” That starts to be a more productive Internet, and I'm hopeful we can get there.

But the present tools aren't built for that.

Recently, Twitter started to insert alerts in President Donald Trump’s posts warning of the presence of potentially fake content. Do you think this is effective?

(…) They can add a warning, they can add information, they can choose not to promote something, and they could kill something. So they have these tools. Should they do this with Donald Trump? I think they should. Not so much because suddenly they're going to change minds, but instead because they need to stand for something themselves. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have to stand for the principle themselves and saying that they're against the incitement of violence, especially by someone so powerful.

And by not saying anything, they end up as an accessory to that crime. That's not really about changing people's minds. That's not really about convincing them of things. It's just about deciding where you stand.

In your opinion, what differentiates a professional journalist from an amateur journalist? What ends up being the importance and role of a journalism university?

Anyone can perform active journalism. The 17-year-old young woman who bravely shot the video of George Floyd being murdered by police. That set everything we see in motion now so that we all knew what was happening. Putting that up on Facebook, that was an act of courageous journalism. Doesn't matter whether she calls herself a journalist or not; she's not, she's a citizen but that act was it: so I think we get in trouble when we try to be exclusionary in journalism and say, who is a journalist and who is irrelevant?

So journalists, in a sense, should help everyone be able to, if they want to do journalism, if they want to find information, if they want to understand things better, that's our role, not to be a closed club.

Great cases, like the systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests, published by The Boston Globe, came to light thanks to journalists who had the opportunity to dedicate themselves for months to the same subject, investigating, analyzing. To what extent does the crisis of professional journalism, the shrinking of newsrooms, and the immediacy of information on the Internet put this type of reporting at risk?

I'm looking recently a lot about towns being more transparent, with information about building permits and budgets and things like that.

That's data that you can just put up online.

(…) Then there's the information people will try to hide. And that's where investigative journalism comes in. We are always going to need that and need that desperately. Indeed, I would say that if we worry now about the journalism that we most need, it's that, and we want to support that, and that may need to be supported with contributions and charity, but it's also good business.

(…) The amount of resources we now put to investigations in this industry is tiny. So I would like to see a lot more. I think we waste a lot of energy in this industry, repeating each other, rewriting each other on commodity information. That's where the problem lies. We need to shift those resources.

What is your vision for communication in the next ten years?

We're on a very long timetable I believe. I like to look back at Gutenberg and say that, from 1450-ish, when his Bible came out, it was a century and a half, to 1605, before anyone invented the newspapers. It wasn't until 1800 that we had any major technological advance in the printing press. Until 1900 to broadcasts came along, 1950 until television came along, and I go through that timeline with students across the whiteboard. And then come to 2020. And, again, it's 25 years approximately since the introduction of the commercial web. That puts us in the year 1475, in Gutenberg time. Martin Luther isn't born yet, the Reformation hasn't started yet.

The newspaper hasn't been invented yet. New forms are being created, like essays and novels for the public. So I think we have to look with that kind of patience. And it's going to be hard. I believe that everybody thinks this change is so rapid. I think it's actually very slow.