MOOCs, journalism and digital disruption

I just listened to an audio interview conducted by Jonathan Worth for his photography course #phonar, back in 2013. The interviewee is Fred Ritchin, a journalist, professor and author. Originally I was attracted to the interview because of a question asked by Ritchin during a #ccourses hangout about trust. He essentially asked how an entire profession (journalism) could rebuild trust with its audience once it was lost. It felt as if he was hoping educators could help give an answer that is eluding his profession.

I have talked before on this blog of the parallels I see in Worth's approach in #phonar and mine with MOOC teaching. It looks like Ritchin can help explore these parallels.

The older paradigm for photojournalists was to simply record events, with the hope—and frequently the expectation—that people and their governments would be moved to respond to the injustices pictured, as witnessed by the impact of certain images during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Given evolving media and political climates, however, including the billions of images now available online from all kinds of sources, the purpose and effectiveness of media, in particular of visual journalism, has been called into question. Bending the Frame, by author and critic Fred Ritchin, addresses the new and emerging potentials for visual media to impact society. Also encompassing online efforts, uses of video, and a diverse range of books and exhibitions, this volume aims for as wide-ranging and far-reaching a discussion as possible, asking the critical question: how can images promote new thinking and make a difference in the world?

About Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, Fred Ritchin.

In other words, digital photography and the web have led to a complete rethink of the role of professional photographers in society, and a struggle now to find their relevance in the wider world. The interview is at times a litany of missed opportunities for the New York Times. Ritchin recalls experiments conducted by the editorial side of the New York Times, playing with new multimedia options. This was in 1994, and was instigated by the business side of the journal, actually, full of hope that this could lead to new revenues. Immediately of course this was squashed when all newspapers started making their content freely available on the web.

Ritchin's response then was to use this new media to show a new kind of story: instead of showing war, he would show peace. His test case was Bosnia, where he tried to construct a nonlinear narrative around the experience of a photojournalist arriving there, and convey some of the disorientation and confusion of the fallout of an ethnic war. In constructing this narrative, he had to put the photographer back in the center, because of the need for multiple links between elements in different photographs. This was completely new territory for anyone: even the idea of clicking on an image had to be explained to the readers.

It opened up the idea of instead of the New York Times and the photographer telling you what is going on, you as a reader have to become a collaborator with them to figure out what is going on, because in fact the photographer does not really know what is going on. The New York Times does not really know what is going on. We are all piecing it together. We all have our own experiences and we could apply our own experiences to the situation.

This work was submitted at the time for a Pulitzer price in public service, but immediately rejected because it wasn't on paper. He says it took many years "for institutions to investigate the new possibilities of digital, of telling stories differently, of understanding the world differently." He recalls his own thinking back then, that deviated sharply from this insitutional chokehold.

If this is a revolution in media, we have to think in revolutionary ways, we can't just do what we were doing before. And photography is very good at being reactive. It reacts well to situations. There is a war, we photograph it. Spectacular imagery. But I prefer a pro-active photography, one that says "We don't want a war to happen". How can we make images prevent war? Or minimize it. How can we minimize global warming? How can we do things before the bad stuff happens?

Eventually, the institutions lost: there was a "collapse of the mainstream, which puts the marginal in the centre, as a new practice or rather an old pratice, but one we didn't want to acknowledge before." Finally, the old institutions have had to acknowledge that all those experimental ideas were going in the right direction. But in the twenty years interval, they have suffered drastically from the intrusion of many new players on their turf, leading to his original question about trust. How do bona fide journalist now regain the trust of the general public, in a new landscape where their credentials are often ignored? Ritchin himelf introduces some clues: through a reversal of roles, between the amateur embedded in a community, and the professional outsider coming to report about the community. In 2013, he sees the "integration of both as the greatest challenge in journalism right now".

This is fascinating to me, and I can see many parallels with MOOCs and the institutional meddling at the frontline of online education. Photojournalism itself was born on the frontlines, with its founding fathers in the Magnum agency, a cooperative of photojournalists.

They didn't discuss photography in the founding years. They discussed the world. They were happy to have survived World War II. [..] They were very political. They were interested in the future of people. It wasn't the future of photography. They were interested in the future of people. And I appreciated that, because I think the point of photography is not to celebrate itself but the point of photography is to be useful in the world, to try to get us to a better place. And that's the way they were working. To me that's what the original spirit of Magnum was.

Maybe we need a cooperative of MOOC educators?

(Notes to self: Ritchin also talks about horseless carriages, and the technological determinism that prevents us to see unintended consequences of inventions such as digital photography. And Magnum has built its own social machine to crowdsource the metadata tagging of its archive, which has led to the find of a hidden treasure.)