Left to right: Nic Newman, Courtney Radsch, Joshua Tucker, Maria Ressa, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Lydia Cacho Ribeiro
Left to right: Nic Newman, Courtney Radsch, Joshua Tucker, Maria Ressa, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Lydia Cacho Ribeiro
As a veteran journalist in Maine and elsewhere for big and small newspapers, I had two specific questions when I went to this year’s — 33rd annual — Camden Conference on “The Media Revolution: Changing the World.”

First, how can the remnants of local journalism and investigative journalism (my specialty) be saved?

Second, given that over the past 15 years, according to one conference speaker, there’s been a 58-percent decline in newspaper jobs, is there any way journalism generally can bounce back from its thrashing by the Internet?

The media revolution is “the right issue for right now,” said the moderator, “Marketplace Morning Report” radio host David Brancaccio, who grew up in Waterville. But in three days of listening to stimulating and occasionally wild discussions (one speaker informed us that his penis wasn’t working well), I realized that the conference also was tackling a more profound issue: the survival of democracy.

Has the Internet destroyed any possibility of “truth” being shared by large numbers of people? Or as an audience member, Victoria Doudera, the Democratic state representative from Camden, asked: Can we still have a “baseline” for our beliefs?

The keynote speaker, Nicco Mele, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wasn’t reassuring that this will be possible. “It Will Get Crazier,” he warned in his talk’s title. The implications of the changing ways that information (not just news) gets produced and consumed are so deep that they’re hard to see.

Nic Newman, a British Internet researcher, recited stunning statistics on how digital media are crushing all other kinds throughout the world. Already in China, a still-developing country, 60 percent of the population uses the Internet. Around the world, smartphone news is quickly overtaking news presented through all other channels.

And journalism as a principal interpreter of what’s happening in the world — as the explainer and intermediary — is simply being replaced.

What’s replacing it? News sources — for example, officials — “go direct now,” Mele said. But we all know that: We have a president who seems to spend much of his time tweeting to his 73 million followers.

Sources are not just officials; they can be anybody, especially anybody with an axe to grind. If your source is Facebook, Mele said, “it’s likely to be junk.”

We’ve all heard of “fake news,” though some conference speakers preferred “junk news” or “imposter news” to differentiate made-up news from news you don’t like. In any case, much of what passes for news on the Internet is not even close to meeting any fair or semi-objective standard. No wonder there has been a huge decline in trust of the news media.

In addition to individual and institutional sources that go direct — shoving aside those pesky professional journalists — the intermediaries are increasingly algorithms. This development is exceedingly scary. Algorithms are rules written to instruct computers on how to use the flow of information through them — and through the Internet to you.

Have you noticed that Google and Facebook and other Internet platforms as well as many news websites tend to feed you information related to what you’ve already looked at, just like with their advertising? With this essentially commercial approach to information, it’s hard to be exposed to a diversity of views.

These changes are collectively so overwhelming, Mele suggested, that, “We’re at the beginning of the collapse of our institutions.” They’re being “rotted out.”

Speakers sympathetic to this grim view didn’t go into detail. But if there’s no consensus on what’s happening in the world — or what should happen — such institutions as democracy, the economic system, and various social systems could splinter. And when large institutions collapse, they often do so violently.

On the other hand, perhaps there will be a large consensus, one enforced by government control of the Internet, which is already occurring in countries with authoritarian regimes (for instance, China).

Or a consensus will be created by corporate guidance — say, Google’s and Facebook’s. We don’t know what this consensus might be since these companies tend to hide what they do. But you can bet it’ll be commercially oriented.

Social-media platforms — especially Facebook — came in for heavy criticism. “Let’s call [them] a behavioral-modification system,” said Maria Ressa, a Filipina journalist. She blamed social media for the rise of authoritarian leaders. “A lie told a million times becomes a fact,” she said.

Behind all these developments is the reality that humans are vulnerable creatures. Joshua Tucker, a data-science scholar, presented the results of a new study showing how bad people are in identifying false news — only 30 percent can. “Partisanship is very important” in creating these results, he said.

Possible solutions

What paths are there out of this bleak landscape? The conference speakers were less proficient in answering this question than in recognizing the problems.

Nevertheless, there were some solutions proposed to both the philosophical dilemma presented by the digital revolution, as well as to some of its practical manifestations, such as the ones I particularly wanted to see addressed: the downfall of local news and investigative reporting.

On the philosophical level, some speakers suggested that people become better able to tell truth from lies through education — for example, the promotion of media literacy in schools. Maybe giving media lessons to older people, however, should take precedence. At the conference, they were cited as the group most apt to retransmit what they know to be fake news, though that’s not an issue of literacy but of ill will.

Another solution is to fight the “opacity of platforms,” in Mele’s words: Make Facebook, Google, et al., reveal what they do (especially their algorithms). Tucker noted that Facebook had shut down the data set that he had used for his new study. Courtney Radsch, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, urged that “norms” be created to regulate use of the Internet.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communication professor, suggested that better journalistic norms in 2016 could have prevented the negative effect on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign of the Russian-hacked, Wikileaks-channeled theft of the Democratic National Committee emails.

The context of hacked information needs to be explained fully, she argued. The speed of the transmission of news in the Internet Age, however, works against providing context.

Another suggestion: Use the antitrust laws to break up the big Internet corporations. Strangely, this idea didn’t go far in the conference conversation. Maybe because these companies are so powerful and rich that confronting them seems daunting. Maybe it’s the “libertarian” bent of journalists that Nicholas Lemann writes about in “Can Journalism Be Saved?” in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books.

Teach people how to use the Internet to help others, suggested Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, a Mexican investigative reporter who became well known for hacking into and exposing child sexual-exploitation websites.

As for the problem of (a.k.a. the vanishing of) local news, solutions seemed hard to come by. “There’s something special about journalism,” said Radsch. “It’s not just ‘content.’ ” But that specialness hasn’t prevented it from disappearing in many places. “The collapse of local news doesn’t have a straightforward solution,” Nicco Mele observed sadly.

Still, money would help a lot. “Subsidies are going to be necessary somehow,” Brancaccio, the moderator, told me in an interview.

Here’s one way it could be done: New Jersey has allocated state funds for projects supporting local journalism. The money is being funneled through the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, and the first $1 million of $2 million has just been released. For a long time, of course, governments have partially funded public radio and TV.

Foundations and private donors are also funders of public broadcasting. To my knowledge, they are solely financing only one Maine news organization, Pine Tree Watch, operated by the nonprofit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting (which I have written for). From a bureau in Augusta, it has produced and given away stories since 2009 to many of the state’s news media. Sometimes it has had investigative scoops. But it’s small and struggling.

There are a few other regional outfits like it throughout the country. The investigation-oriented ProPublica, based in New York, is an example of the same kind of private, nonprofit, public-interest journalism on the national scale. But a new set of public priorities would have to become widespread for such organizations to flourish.

The contradiction

Several speakers suggested that rebuilding our sense of municipal and regional community was a broad solution to both the big epistemological problem (How do I know what is true on the Internet? Well, let’s figure it out together) as well as to practical problems like the shriveling of local and investigative news coverage.

But if, as many critics believe, the Internet has been relentlessly destroying our sense of community — atomizing us into isolated consuming units — how can we expect citizens to leap out of the sea they’re swimming in and reestablish community? And before the Internet, television, mass advertising, and many other corporate institutions — think: big-box stores ruining local downtowns — had already heavily damaged the sense of community.

To me, saying let’s rebuild community without recognizing all the forces tearing it down was a major contradiction in the conference conversation. It’s a major, often unacknowledged contradiction in most conversations about these subjects. Yet, somehow, the sense of community must be revived.

The woman who happened to be sitting next to me at the last session, on Sunday, seemed to think it could be done. Judith Jones — appropriately, from the town of Hope — who is board chair of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, was at the conference, she said, to try to learn ideas that could help students in alternative school settings. Technology can “reduce barriers to understanding other groups,” such as in learning a foreign language.

She agreed with many of the speakers that human fear and competitiveness can be “amplified by technology,” but she nevertheless felt that people can use technology to “figure out how to work together to help each other.”

I wondered if her optimism came from being around kids a lot. Well, maybe the kids will figure it out. Let’s hope so. Adults don’t seem able to, even at the high-powered Camden Conference.