From the Skoll World Forum – Keith Hammond Reports

The following is a guest post from Keith H. Hammonds who has been attending the Skoll World Forum this week: A gathering of  “figures from the social, academic, finance, corporate and policy sectors engaging with each other to accelerate, innovate and scale solutions to some of the world’s most pressing social issues.” Try saying that three times fast.

I was flattered Keith and Ashoka wanted to host this guest post on my blog – and was even more excited to go through the post. In full disclosure – I suspect Ashoka first came across my site after winning the Knight News Challenge. I hope they stayed for the content 😉

Keith H. Hammonds

So, we just attempted to crowdsource the future of news.

With a few hundred social entrepreneurs.

In an hour and a half.

It was the right moment. As Sasa Vucinic, founder of the Media Development Loan Fund, observed, “Someone has hit the reboot button on journalism.” We are, he said, caught in the metaphorical “five minutes” between the point when an existing, well-understood system dies and the moment when a new system becomes concrete and comprehensible. The public conversation is very much focused on journalism’s failing institutions — and that conversation pales next to the relentless examination within the media world of its own impending demise.

And it was definitely the right crowd: the sixth annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England, an oddly glam gathering of 700-plus of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, the people who fund their work, and various academics, media, and other hangers-on (many of them exercizing very robust Twitter accounts) who think that work is important.

Which it is. Social entrepreneurs attack big social problems with solutions rooted in business strategy. Health care, poverty, climate change, water, literacy, human rights—social entrepreneurs abhor vacuums.

The future of news: Big vacuum in need of solutions.

Ashoka, which supports and productively connects over 2000 social entrepreneurs around the world, understands that what comes next for news is hardly incidental. Ensuring flows of reliable, relevant, valuable information that engages people as effective citizens is foundational to democratic society. It also is central to solving most other big social problems. That’s why we’ve partnered with the John S. and James K. Knight Foundation on a program to identify, fund, and otherwise advance the work of social entrepreneurs in news and knowledge. We’ve already elected our first cohort of Fellows, a bunch that includes a guy doing mobile news texting in Sri Lanka and another creating an independent online news agency in Senegal.

Which is how we scored a big theater and 200 or so of these social entrepreneurs at Oxford’s Said Business School.

Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s founder and CEO, and Paula Ellis, Knight’s vice-president for strategic initiatives (and a former newspaper editor and exec), described the challenge, which should be familiar. Rapidly changing technology and the escalating needs of information users have together forged three new dynamics: the dramatic decentralization of information; an explosion of innovation in storytelling; and the emergence in media of a powerful participative culture.

That confluence also has raised questions around the values that will underlie new media strategies and institutions. Like:

  • How do we equip people with the tools and skills to be effective, responsible information participants — and what are the delivery mechanisms for those skills?
  • The web has eroded human connection, devaluing our historical skills for trusting. How will we adapt those skills or learn new ones? What will it mean for information to be trustworthy, and how will we know when it is?
  • Having left behind the monopoly press, how do we prevent the rise of a new set of bigger media monopolies (like, say, Google)? How do we ensure competition?
  • Information drives systems, which is why people perpetually want to control those flows. How do we guarantee that information flows freely?
  • What will the new public discourse look like, and how do we ensure that it advances society?

All of which amounted to asking something like: How do we reinvent the world? Or rather, how do we help shape a set of foundational values that ensure this reinvented world better informs, engages, and connects its citizens? (We steered clear of the pesky corollary question, How do we pay for it?  Another time.)

For our crowd, the challenge around trust was critical — a key to all the rest. “With the exponential growth in online media,” asked one participant, “how do we address the blurring of the traditional distinction between facts and opinion? It’s fact rather than opinion which in the long-run changes people’s behavior.”

Is it? Paula Ellis observed that information per se is far less important than one’s relationship to that information. We rely on trusted sources to tell us which information is worthwhile and relevant to us. Historically, information that comes from The Economist has meant something different to each of us, better or worse, than information from Rush Limbaugh.

Only now, we’re appointing new agents of trust – professional colleagues, friends, friends of friends, whomever we’ve decided to follow on Twitter: these self-constructed social networks act as our editors, essentially determining by committee not just what’s truthful, but what’s most urgent and most valuable to us at any given moment.

Which may be at once compellingly democratic and flat-out dangerous. Democratic, because we enable as information participants a ton of people who weren’t in the game before. Dangerous because many of them don’t know what they’re doing: the risk, we agreed, is that a largely news-illiterate crowd will accept and distribute information that’s “just true enough.”

That’s troubling because of the increasingly tight linkages between information and action. More and more, Paula noted, news will assume and inform action, becoming more of a continuum; information will, in fact, activate communities.

That phenomenon, of course, could go either way. We could see historically passive audience members transformed into active, effective citizens, joining in networks whose use of truthful, trustworthy information strengthens and advances democratic society. Or we could devolve into an era of self-interested hype, sensationalism, and propaganda.

Which forced us to confront yet one more question: “Is the ‘theory of change’ behind traditional journalism out of date?” asked David Bornstein, a journalist and chronicler of the social entrepreneurship phenomenon. His challenge betrayed the distinctive social entrepreneur ethos: What’s important isn’t what journalists do or how they do it, but rather the systemic linkages by which they effect impact on society. “Do the new understandings into human behavior — i.e. that people are not ‘rational actors,’ that aspirational stories are more influential in stimulating action than critical ones — require that journalism rethink how free presses help societies improve?”

Well, yes, absolutely. Which is where this crowd closed for the day —left with a bunch of ambitious questions, and with about as much satisfaction, for now, as anyone else.