The 15 German journalists and bloggers behind the Internet Manifesto have a message for mainstream media organizations: the internet is here and you had better adapt.

The Manifesto, which has now been widely-circulated and discussed by some of the very organizations it speaks to, contains 17 declarations about “how journalism works today“.

They are:

  1. The Internet is different.
  2. The Internet is a pocket-sized media empire.
  3. The Internet is our society is the Internet.
  4. The freedom of the Internet is inviolable.
  5. The Internet is the victory of information.
  6. The Internet changes improves journalism.
  7. The net requires networking.
  8. Links reward, citations adorn.
  9. The Internet is the new venue for political discourse.
  10. Today’s freedom of the press means freedom of opinion.
  11. More is more – there is no such thing as too much information.
  12. Tradition is not a business model.
  13. Copyright becomes a civic duty on the Internet.
  14. The Internet has many currencies.
  15. What’s on the net stays on the net.
  16. Quality remains the most important quality.
  17. All for all.

To be sure, traditional journalists and mainstream media organizations would do well to heed some of these declarations. The internet is different in many ways, media companies do need to understand how consumers are using new communications tools like social networks and wikis, tradition is not a business model and quality is more important than ever.

The authors of the Manifesto write of the internet:

It produces different public spheres, different terms of trade and different
cultural skills. The media must adapt their work methods to today’s
technological reality instead of ignoring or challenging it.  It is their duty
to develop the best possible form of journalism based on the available
technology. This includes new journalistic products and methods.

It’s hard to argue with this general thesis because, well, it’s spot on. Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t think there’s any disagreement on this point. It’s the specifics that everybody is debating.

And that’s where the Internet Manifesto falls short in my opinion. While it does contain some succinct pearls of wisdom, it’s not exactly the Magna Carta for 21st-century journalism.

Sentences like “All that remains is the journalistic quality through which journalism distinguishes itself from mere publication” and “Journalism needs open competition for the best refinancing solutions on the net, along with the courage to invest in the multifaceted implementation of these solutions” sound more like PowerPoint marketing-speak than true insight.

I’m not sure if words have been lost in translation (the original Manifesto is in German), but rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake does not wisdom make. On a number of key points, the Internet Manifesto falls short. Two examples:

  • It claims that “search engines and aggregators facilitate quality journalism” and that “references through links and citations — especially including those made without any consent or even remuneration of the originator — make the very culture of networked social discourse possible in the first place“. While the idea that search engines and aggregators facilitate quality journalism is questionable, putting this aside, most of the debate over aggregators has nothing to do with links per se (which nobody is complaining about) but rather how much copyrighted content some ‘parasitic aggregators take and use for their own benefit.
  • The Manifesto states “Originators’ rights to decide on the type and scope of dissemination of their contents are also valid on the net” yet then goes on to state “At the same time, copyright may not be abused as a lever to safeguard obsolete supply mechanisms and shut out new distribution models or license schemes“. These statements are contradictory. If copyright gives creators of certain works the right to decide how those works are distributed, they inherently have the right to decide not to employ certain distribution models.

Another point: one of the Manifesto’s authors, Sascha Lobo, a popular German blogger, recently came under fire for taking part in a Vodafone ad campaign that was heavily criticized. Part of the controversy over his involvement apparently stemmed from the fact that he had been critical of Vodafone’s stance vis-à-vis internet access. I only mention this because the relationships journalists maintain with advertisers, sponsors, interest groups and other commercial entities is an important one (both online and off) and it’s worth noting that the Internet Manifesto makes no real mention of journalistic ‘ethics‘. An interesting omission.

Flaws aside, the Internet Manifesto is a good read. It makes some observations that hold up if you take a 30,000 foot view.

But on the ground, finding pragmatic solutions for making journalism work today are still largely MIA. Clearly some traditional news organizations clinging to the hope that things will go back to the way they once were need to get over their delusions. At the same time, idealists who don’t have to grapple with the day-to-day worries of running a profitable business and who seem to believe that you can protect copyright while destroying the very rights it coveys need to get over theirs.

Photo credit: zarazum via Flickr.