It used to be that if you wanted to start a newspaper, say, oh, the National Post, you’d need a pre-jailterm Conrad Black and his investors to pony up millions of dollars for presses, trucks, paper and salaries. With that investment would come the expectation of commensurate profits. That’s the deal with the devil high capital ventures make. The only way they can start is to get an early and large cash injection which in turn becomes an albatross when things go pear-shaped.

Times have changed. As sites like and others have shown, it no longer takes millions of dollars to get national reach, and, if you want ad hoc global reach, just put on a lab coat and toss some breath mints in a bottle of cola. It’s not investment capital that wins the day now, it’s social capital. It’s not who you know, it’s who they tell.

It also used to be the case that when big news spread on Twitter, say, oh the Mumbai attacks, folks would immediately switch on CNN to get live coverage and quick analysis.

Times have changed. This past weekend thousands of Twitterati, flooded with live Twitter feeds from Iran, switched on CNN to see video of the police beatings and protests. Instead they got a rerun of Larry King learning about motorcycles.

What do these two things have in common? They prove that small is the new big.

One of the main reasons that CNN epically failed to deliver on the Iranian election coverage was that CNN crews were too visible on the streets. CNN, which relied heavily on its own team missed out. Meanwhile Iranians (whose web access to Twitter was blocked) managed to get tweets, photos and videos out on their cellphones. They were small, diffuse and unstoppable. The event was a watershed, I think, for breaking news. When major networks did get their act together they spent a lot of time referencing tweets.

This is going to happen more and more often. A diffuse mesh of live coverage is going to become not only the early warning vector for local events of global import, it’s also going to become a vital multimedia source. Traditional news organs are going to spend as much time curating that coverage as creating their own. And, when they do create their own, they’ll be using the same cellphones and social networks as the rest of us. One or two big network eyes will be replaced by a network of small eyes bearing witness.

The displacement of investment capital by social capital is just as game changing. The demands of the market have overburdened newsrooms (and the corporations that own them). It’s left mainstream journalism drowning in debt, a legacy of expensive equipment and, most importantly an addictive reliance on an outdated business model that was created by both.

That addiction leads to a desire by mainstream media to only imagine a world of social media insofar as it can have an old big business model wedged into it. But here’s the thing, the changed media landscape favours the small, not the large. It favours the socially connected not the financially inflated. It, really, favours — the gift economy and the contribution of fans.

What we saw in Iran were non-paid non-journalists contributing to the public good out of a sense of civic duty — global civic duty. Each tweet, each photo contributed to a large whole of coverage that everyone, including mainstream media, benefited from.

That’s an economy that doesn’t make sense to corporations for whom the second bottom line of social capital is invisible. But, it’s the new small business that has the upper hand when engaged citizens can change and cover the landscape.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...