Journalism students and journalism schools are for good reasons obsessed with the question of journalism’s uncertain future. Over the past several years since I left CNN and plunged into the experimental world of citizen media, I’ve been to numerous conferences about the future of journalism. The focus of many of the discussions ultimately ends up revolving around how major big-brand newspaper and broadcast companies can adapt their business models to the digital world.

Business models are important to sustain and support the sorts of journalism that are unlikely to be conducted by unpaid hobbyists or concerned citizens with other day-jobs. But in an age where all kinds of journalists—and all news organizations—depend on digital platforms, networks, and devices in order to do their work and reach their audiences, a tension is emerging between the interests of those who work within large, well-resourced media organizations mainly in the West—and most other categories of journalists.

This second group includes freelancers; scrappy experimental startups; independent photographers and filmmakers; specialized news nonprofits; ethnic and minority media; opposition, dissident or exiled media trying to reach audiences in authoritarian countries; and of course citizen journalists.

It is vital to the global public interest—and the future of accountable governance and even democracy around the world—that this second group of journalists not only survive, but have the chance to thrive.

Their work is most vulnerable to attack by powerful government and established economic interests. But independent, freelance, alternative, startup, and citizen journalism depends not simply on the Internet, but on a certain kind of Internet.
In order to succeed and compete—and stand a chance of displacing the old legacy media brands with new innovative news startups—they need an Internet that is open, interconnected, and neutral. Censorship and discrimination—be it by government or by corporations that run the platforms, services, and devices they depend on—is poison to them. In order to evade arrest and even death in some parts of the world, this category of journalists are most in need of an Internet on which investigative journalists and citizen bloggers can stand a chance of evading surveillance, and even mask their identities or work under pseudonyms when necessary.

The largest and most powerful media organizations have tremendous power to shape the future of the Internet through their relationships not only with lawmakers and regulators in the world’s largest media, Internet and telecommunications markets. They also have growing influence over the way in which social media platforms interact with news media and with audiences, and how the world’s most popular mobile devices shape people’s understanding of—and conversations about—world events.

However this power is being used in some troubling ways: In pursuit of commercial self-interest, many news organizations have been supporting business practices, technologies, policies, and legislation that will diminish the Internet’s openness and freedom. While this might be good for business in the short term, it is not good for the future of journalism worldwide. And it is not in the broader public interest. The Internet is evolving. Not long ago, when one accessed news content through the Internet, the only way to do it was on the World Wide Web—the part made up of Web pages and links.

To do this one uses a Web browser, clicking through links and pages. Many of us who have yet to join the Cult of the iPad still read much of our non-paper, non-broadcast news that way. But a growing segment of the news-consuming public is quickly leaving the World Wide Web behind because their needs are largely met by self-contained applications or “apps” downloaded onto iPads, tablet computers, and smartphones.

In a recent interview, media critic David Carr commented on his own news reading habits: “What I don’t look at is the web. The web has kind of gone away for me.” Apps are a big part of the reason.

In the Fall of 2010 the Internet gurus Chris Anderson and David Wolf published a cover story titled “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” They were widely criticized at the time, but they were at least partly right.

Rebecca MacKinnon is a journalist, co-founder of Global Voices Online, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She is author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.