News in blink of an eye
The Big Read: It's always been a given that the business we journalists are in is not quite like other businesses. What it does matters too much. That's why it has sometimes rather grandly been called the fourth estate - a part of society as important as government, the courts or the church.
The privately owned press was, in general, more opinionated, partisan, politically engaged and lightly regulated, if at all. Broadcasting - whether publicly financed or commercial - usually came with the requirement that it strove for impartiality. It had an obligation to reflect all parts of the political spectrum and special duties to cover news that, left to the market alone, wouldn't be covered.
There was much to cherish in the balances and tensions inherent in this duopoly. A reader or viewer could measure the message of one medium against the other. There was the tent peg of attempted impartiality by which to measure the wild west of the printed word.
But now there's a new kid on the block. A third wing to the fourth estate, if that's not too mixed a metaphor. You could even argue that there are two new kids on the block - the original world wide web and web 2.0, the advent and rapid maturing of so-called social, or open, media.
No one owns the digital space, and it is barely regulated. It brings with it an entirely new idea of what journalism is. For some, it calls into question whether there is any such distinct thing as "journalism".
This double revolution within just over 20 years is having a dramatic effect on the accepted norms and categorisations of information. We are seeing the splintering of the fourth estate.
Digital is biting most fiercely on the press, if only because we have somehow to earn our own living and don't enjoy the sheltered protection of licence fees or government funding.
We all know that digital forces are threatening to weaken, or even destroy, the traditional basis, role and funding of the press. And we know that digital enables everyone to disrupt everyone else's business. Text publishers can get into moving pictures and the broadcasters can get into text.
It's developing so fast, we forget how new it all is. It's totally understandable that those of us with at least one leg in traditional media should be impatient to understand the business model that will enable us magically to transform ourselves into digital businesses and continue to earn the revenues we enjoyed before the invention of the web, never mind the bewildering disruption of web 2.0.
But first we have to understand what we're up against. It is constantly surprising to me how people in positions of influence in the media find it difficult to look outside the frame of their own medium and look at what this animal called social, or open, media does.
On one level there is no great mystery about web 2.0. It's about the fact that other people like doing what we journalists do. We like creating things - words, pictures, films, graphics - and publishing them. So, it turns out, does everyone else.
All this has happened in the blink of an eye. That's one problem - the rapidity of the revolution, the bends. The other is that we journalists find it difficult to look at what's happening around us and relate it to what we have historically done. Most of these digital upstarts don't look like media companies. EBay? It buys and sells stuff. Amazon? The same. TripAdvisor? It's flogging holidays. Facebook? It's where teenagers post all the stuff that will make them unemployable later in life.
If that's all we see when we look at those websites then we're missing the picture. We should understand what Tumblr or Flipboard or Twitter are all about - social media so new they're not yet even Hollywood blockbusters.
Of course, social media is not enough on its own. I'm not in any way trying to elevate it above traditional media. We should be pleased, not resentful, that Twitter is in some measure parasitical - that many of the referrals and links take people to so-called legacy-media companies, who still invest in original reporting, who still confront authority, find things out, give context and explain.
But I do believe we should be relentless in learning all we can about how people are using this post-Gutenberg ability to create and share - and import those lessons back into our own journalism and businesses. It's not about all rushing to be on Twitter.
Reporters use open media as a way of finding sources, communities and audiences. The notion of a story - with a finite starting and finishing point - is changing. Live blogging can bring audiences of millions around specific events. Linking allows you to place your journalism at the heart of issues.
We harness readers in our shoe-leather investigations, whether it's hunting down tax avoidance; or tracing people who may have digital records of police assaults; or enlisting 27000 readers to sift through 400000 records of MPs' expenses; or alerting readers to super-injunctions that stop us telling them things.
Guess what? The readers love to be involved. They, too, like being critics, commentators and photographers.
This open and collaborative future for journalism is already looking different from the journalism that went before. The more we can involve others the more they will be engaged participants in the future, rather than observers or, worse, former readers. That's not theory. It's working now.
It's our privilege, as a generation, not only to imagine the future of information, but to take the first steps on the road to re-crafting the ways in which it is created and spread.
As the great editor CP Scott wrote about the technological changes in the air when the Guardian celebrated its first 100 years in 1921: "What a change for the world! What a chance for the newspaper!"
- This is an edited transcript of the Andrew Olle lecture 2010 given by Alan Rusbridger in Sydney, Australia on November 19