As the crisis in newspaper journalism grinds on, people watching it are trying to explain how we got here, and what we’re losing as part of the newspaper economy crashes. Some are trying to imagine a new news system. I try to follow this action, and have been sending around the best of these pieces via my Twitter feed. It’s part of my experiment in mindcasting, which you can read about here.
Lately, the pace has picked up. A trigger was the March 13 appearance of Clay Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. That essay went viral; it now has a phenomenal 741 trackbacks, making it an instant classic in the online literature about the fate of the press. As good as Shirky’s piece is (very very good, I think) “Thinking the Unthinkable” is only a piece of the puzzle, and mostly backward-pointing.
That’s why I’ve collected the following links. Together, they form a kind of flying seminar on the future of news, presented in real time. They are all from the month of March 2009. The “flying” part is simple: go ahead, steal these links. Spread the seminar. Get your people up to speed.
They are in the order I think you should read them.
1. Paul Starr, Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption) (The New Republic, March 4, 2008)
Starr is one of our top sociologists and the author of one of the best books ever on the history of the American media system. He thinks the crisis in newspapers is a crisis for American democracy because the “public goods” they manufacture will not be easy to replace. “Public goods are notoriously under-produced in the marketplace, and news is a public good—and yet, since the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers have produced news in abundance at a cheap price to readers and without need of direct subsidy. More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done. But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt.”
Starr worries there will be more corruption and malfeasance in government with fewer eyes on the people in power. That places him in good company; lots of people are worried about that. But Starr has a longer and more detailed view of what created the public service press and what we might call the politics of subsidy. We start with him because he’s coming from way back in the history of the American press with his view of what’s in peril today.
2. Yochai Benkler, A New Era of Corruption? (The New Republic, March 4, 2009) Benkler is one of the leading students of the Internet in the world, and a professor at Harvard Law School. He specializes in understanding “commons-based peer production,” an academic (and precise) term for the “open” methods that gave rise to Wikipedia and open source software. Benkler thinks Paul Starr is “too skeptical of the possibilities of the new media” in rising to the occasion if the old press falls apart.
“Like other information goods, the production model of news is shifting from an industrial model—be it the monopoly city paper, IBM in its monopoly heyday, or Microsoft, or Britannica—to a networked model that integrates a wider range of practices into the production system: market and non-market, large scale and small, for profit and nonprofit, organized and individual.” We may be losing capacity in the commercial press but gaining it on the commons, Benkler argues. You have to factor in both.
3. Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. (Blog post, March 13, 2009) Shirky studies media and technology and teaches at NYU. His post shot around the Internet in a matter of days because of the striking way he depicted the loss of reality inside newspaper companies, which saw the crisis coming long ago but were unable to think their way out of it because they never reconciled themselves to the loss of their publishing premises. We solved anew the problem the publishing business had mastered: the distribution of copies. Furthermore, there was no way to prevent it from happening to your stuff!
Between “adapt” and “give up,” the industry found a third path: go on, but minimize mental disruption. “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution,” Shirky writes. “They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.”
4. Steven Berlin Johnson, Old Growth Media and the Future of News. (Speech and blog post, March 14, 2009) Steven Johnson is also a leading student of technology and an author of several important books. He argues that if we look at technology journalism, the form that was disrupted first by the Internet, there is reason to hope that the fall of the old press will not be the civic disaster that Starr (and many others) have predicted. Technology coverage is better today. There is more of it. It is more diversified, richer.
“When ecologists go into the field to research natural ecosystems, they seek out the old-growth forests, the places where nature has had the longest amount of time to evolve and diversify and interconnect. They don’t study the Brazilian rain forest by looking at a field that was clear cut two years ago. That’s why the ecosystem of technology news is so crucial [to look at]. It is the old-growth forest of the web.” Not a desert, but a thriving ecosystem. (Bonus link: Johnson collected reactions here.)
5. Dan Conover, 2020 vision: What’s next for news. (Blog post, March 20, 2009) Conover is a career newspaper man who, like so many others recently, took the buyout. He also has the creative imagination of a geek, and the restlessness of an entrepeneur. In this post he takes for granted the declining value of newspaper journalism and speculates on what will come next. “Journalists tend to think of the future in terms of their jobs, and from that perspective What’s next is another round of layoffs. Sorry, folks. Do the math. But take a slightly longer view and What’s Next is a decade of experimentation, opportunity and chaos.”
Conover is forward pointing. He describes and hooks you up with 35 different trends, eruptions and development paths that we can watch for. It’s a mentally organized guide to what’s going to happen… or could, according to one man, who knows it from the inside but thinks it from the outside. His post is starting to pick up traction with future-of-news people, as they realize how valuable his watch list is.
6. David Eaves, The Death of Journalism? (or journalism in the era of open) (Blog post, March 17, 2009) Eaves is a Canadian writer specializing in negotiation and public policy— not journalism. His post is the most unusual of those I have collected here. He suspects that a misfiring component in North American journalism is not just the business model for news, but the image of politics and public life that pro journalists take for granted, especially when they are in heroic mode. He points to a certain conception of how truth comes out that is heavily mythologized by our journalists: the exposure model, where things are kept hidden but the reporter acting on behalf of the community and its right to know does the hard work: digging, cultivating sources, being there when the phone rings, meeting in garages if necessary. Eaves asks a simple question about the exposure model: what if the institution involved isn’t trying to keep anything hidden? What if it is trying to be transparent—and succeeding at it—not from the goodness of its civic heart, but because that is the best way for the institution to conduct business in an age of transparency?
Pretty good question. Also true: there’s always a dark side, as Dick Cheney famously put it. Therefore we’ll always need the exposure model, and the acts of courage and persistence that go with it. But Eaves has another brain twister: What if the really big stories we need from the press aren’t gotten by exposure at all because the key facts in them are already public but very, very scattered? No one’s pieced them together; they are “known” but unwoven into any public narrative that allows us to see what was really going on in time to stop it— like with the financial meltdown we are living through. If that’s the problem (and sometimes it is) exposure journalism isn’t an answer, even though we still need people who specialize in that form.
7. Dave Winer: The reboot of journalism (Blog post, March 19, 2009) Dave Winer comes from the tech industry. He makes power tools for people who want to be heard. His frustrations with the industry press pushed him into blogging, and he in turn pushes blogging which means irritating people. Where others look upon creative destruction in the news business and wonder what’s next, Winer thinks “next” is already here. We already have an alternative news system, he says, based on a slightly different idea, which he summarizes as: the sources go direct. Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, said A. J. Liebling. Blogging means any source can own one.
“Apparently I am one of the very few who think we’re in the middle of the reboot of journalism, not at the start,” says Winer. “It’s not in the future, it’s been happening for a long time.” Anyone who knows how reporting works knows that sources drive stories as much as reporters and editors do. If today it is much easier for sources to publish themselves, that changes the equation. Winer intends to push this point as far as it will go. For him it’s a long fight. “This is what we’ve been working on in the blogging space for 15 years. I wrote about billions of websites in 1995. And before that, desktop publishing and laser printers made it possible to print newsletters in 1986, 23 years ago. All that time, every time a former source started publishing on their own, the process of new journalism took a step forward.”
8. Josh Young, What the Structure of Content Means for Context. (Blog post, March 19, 2009) At his blog, Network(ed) News, Josh Young tries to peer into the information logic underneath the visible forms of news, a valuable thing when models are crashing. Here he conjures with four kinds of news goods: broad and narrow, deep and shallow. So, for example, The Politico is perfecting the production of “narrow and shallow” news; it knows how to extract value working especially hard in that quadrant. In the “broad and deep” category is The Giant Pool of Money by This American Life and NPR (which I wrote about in National Explainer.) But such masterworks are rare.
Young explains how Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo has mostly done away with “the article” as the container of its editorial contribution. Instead, it offers a series of posts, updates, links, stories that are broad and shallow, each one adding a little bit to a big picture, which ends up revealing a lot. These dispatches aren’t meant to be comprehensive; they don’t capture “the” story. “They catch the reader up on past reporting with a few links to previous posts. Or they start off with a link or two to others’ posts or articles, promising to pick up the issue where they left off. Then they take a deep look at a small set of questions, teasing out contradictions, and end up with a set of conclusions or a new, more pointed set of questions for the next post.” And over time, this stream reveals a story, capable of winning a big prize.
9. Mark Morford, Die, newspaper, die? (SFGate.com, March 20, 2009) Morford is a SFGate.com columnist. That’s the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, which is under duress for all the reasons this seminar has spelled out. Morord’s been taking the class. “Shirky, Winer, Johnson et al, a smart, motley crew of big-name, big-brained tech seers and programmers and futurists have weighed in” on the newspaper’s future. “These big guns have all stepped away from their normal discussions of deep tech arcania and turned their attention to a 500-year-old technology undergoing its first epic, bloody revolution.”
And when the smoke clears what should the newspaper do? The “geek gurus” don’t have any idea! Just theories that Morford says he can’t buy. “I hotly disagree with [Shirky’s] unchecked worship of social networking as the imminent platform for — and solution to — well, just about everything that’s wrong with news media today.” He also doubts that Dave Winer’s self-published sources will improve anything. Who’s in charge in such a system? “Everyone. Anyone. You. That guy over there. The judge at the trial, and the jury. The cop. The patrons at the restaurant. The chef. Shirky. Winer himself. You know, citizen journalism. Everyone’s a reporter!” Can you tell he’s a skeptic? Morford delivers on that tone, but he has also a begrudging respect for the “gurus” as analysts of the newspaper’s living demise.
10. Tom Watson, Ink-Stained Retching (Blog post, March 15, 2009) “I come from a newspaper family, and worked as a reporter and editor for more than a dozen years, before peeling off for the allure of my own digital printing press in the 90s,” writes Tom Watson, a blogger and book author. “I love newspapers, and I’ve always believed that they’re central to the American version of representative democracy – a stalwart check on the power of government.” The theme of Ink Stained Retching is loss, which shades into bitterness but… it’s under control. Watson knows what he’s doing, and denial is not his thing.
“The Internet has been a destructive force for many business models, but none threatens the basis of the republic as much as the digital knife busily sawing at the fraying Achilles tendon of American newspapers,” he writes. Shirky’s Unthinkable essay was “a grim and all-too-accurate assessment.” But look at the loss: the newsroom itself, an engine of public good. “The models just don’t work – nothing online sustains a newsroom of 100 reporters and editors working in a beat system. Cut and paste works online. Endless commentary works online (but only pays the aggregators, in most cases). Endless links work. Newsrooms do not.” To him there is nothing good about this situation.
11. Allan Mutter, Why media must charge for web content (March 1, 2009, two parts.) Mutter is a former newspaper journalist who went to Silicon Valley and started companies. He blogs at the intersection of his “twin passions, journalism and technology.” Mutter believes that to save modern journalism news sites will have to begin charging for their content. (Others think so too.) “Free is not a business model that will support journalism produced by professional news organizations,” he writes. And it should never have happened! “When the Internet emerged, most publishers committed the Original Sin of thoughtlessly giving away their content for free in the hopes of attracting millions of page views where they could sell the sort of high-priced ads that had built the value of their print franchises.”
This was not an historic inevitability but a “monumental strategic blunder” that threatens the survival of those franchises. Page-view advertising is not going to sustain them on the Internet. They have to charge. But it won’t be easy. “Given the open and unfettered nature of the web, it is unreasonable to believe generic news can be effectively sequestered behind a pay firewall,” Mutter writes. “A publisher attempting to do this simply would divert readers from his site to some else’s, throttling the traffic that is the lifeblood of any media business.” It has to be journalism “sufficiently unique, authoritative and valuable to motivate consumers to pay for it.” You can’t charge on your own say so. You have to hike the added value, then try to get people to pay for it.
12. Amanda Michel, Get Off the Bus: The future of pro-am journalism (Columbia Journalism Review, March 5, 2009) Amanda Michel was the executive director of a project I co-founded with Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post, OffTheBus.Net. It was intended to test whether a “pro-am” model was possible in political coverage during the 2008 campaign. The pro-am approach looks for the hybrid forms that combine substantial openness with some controls. With OffTheBus, anyone could sign up, but there was an old fashioned gate before publication in the vertical of the Huffington Post the project controlled.
Michel writes in the first person from her experience in organizing over 12,000 contributors to provide a “ground level” view of the campaign, part of which involved going where the on-the-bus press couldn’t go. Distributed reporting projects were another part of it. The nurse with vast practical knowledge writing about the candidates’ health care plans as an informed amateur— that was part of it. “Our experience with OffTheBus demonstrates that what Clay Shirky calls the ‘mass amateurization’ of journalism can provide real breakthroughs—not only in the democratization of news and information but also in bolstering the role of the media as a pillar of democracy. What we did won’t replace what traditional newsrooms do, but if taken seriously and used properly, this pro-am model has the potential to radically extend the reach and effectiveness of professional journalism.” We should not be looking merely to preserve but also to extend and enlarge newsgathering capacity. Pro-am has promise, but there is a long way to go.
A concluding word: I don’t know what will replace the newspaper journalism we have relied on. It’s a terrible loss for the public when people who bought the public service dream lose their jobs providing that service, and realizing that dream. I do not look forward to explaining to my students the contractions in the job market and why they’re likely to continue for the near term. It feels grim to have to say: “There is no business model in news right now. We’re between systems.”
I honestly don’t know what’s next. But I’m a professor of it. So I’m supposed to know where journalism is headed. Instead of that, I have this: my flying seminar from the last month of trying to figure it out. You’re supposed to take the course and feel caught up. I’ve given you a lot of looks at it because the only solution I have to offer is pluralism itself: many funders, many paths, many players, and many news systems with different ideas about how to practice journalism for public good (and how to pay for it, along with who participates) alive at once.
The future of news is open, more entrepreneurial. Open can also mean broken, repair date unknown. If you know how the old one fell apart, it’s easier to put something new together. That’s the faith that makes a seminar like this fly.
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In New York if you buy a dozen bagels they give you the 13th for free. In that spirit my bonus link is Doc Searls: After the Advertising Bubble Bursts. He’s been way out in front on that transformation.
News on the future-of-news beat.
I will be senior adviser to a new venture: The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, launched with $1.75 million in initial funding. It will be a new non-profit, producing all kinds of journalism that will be distributed free on the Net. The new operation will be editorially distinct from the Huffington Post itself. See my post about it: Introducing the new Huffington Post Investigative Fund (And My Own Role in It). (March 30, 2009)
Dave Winer and I discuss “the sources go direct” in this 55 minute podcast (mp3 over skype) about rebooting the news. See also this account in the LA Times, which refers to our ‘casts. In the March 29 podcast with Winer, I explain how this post was born on Twitter and tested there, among other topics we explore.
Yes, I am quite aware of the gender imbalance in my post. I am not explaining it, or avoiding it. If you have comparable essays from women writers from the March 2009 explosion, do put them in the comments or email me.
Dan Gillmor in Boing Boing, March 19: Paying for News: A Mega-Merger Thought Experiment. “What would happen if some top English language journalism organizations simply merged and started charging for their breaking news and commentary…?”
If charging for news is your thing and you don’t understand why there’s even a debate about it (“if you’re losing money, you need to charge, right…?”) Tim Burden did a nice round-up of the arguments in February. See Paywall Madness.
Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild (the major union in the business) sent me this link, representing—he said—the Guild’s best thinking. It’s a reply to Shirky and it’s called Brilliant Drivel. Read it for the Guild’s perspective on these things. I asked Lunzer where in Shirky’s post he found the “proclamation that we don’t need newspapers” because I’ve read it four times and I still can’t locate where Clay says anything dismissive like that. And he certainly says we need the public goods newspapers once provided: “The work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers.”
Well, Lunzer did reply.
I was probably over-reacting to Shirky when he says, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” It’s really semantic, because after I wrote this blog and went back to look at both pieces – I would have to acknowledge that we are both trying to preserve the same thing. I’m just frustrated, more by the Jeff Jarvis types who think the web will quickly replace what newspapers have represented. So – I was likely guilty of overblown rhetoric – probably should acknowledge that with a coda.
Yeah, especially since Lunzer himself says the Guild is not trying to preserve the newspaper form. “It’s always been about the journalism,” he wrote. That means he agrees with Shirky: we need the journalism, not the newspaper combine. I wouldn’t call that a semantic quibble, mister union president; I would call that: “I didn’t read the essay very carefully, I just lashed out.”
Oh, and Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine does not say it will be easy to replace what newspapers represented. He says the world is changing faster on you than you think. That’s how I hear it.
One of my readers is clamoring for me to include in my best-of David Simon’s piece from March 1st, In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police. He’s the former Baltimore Sun cops reporter who went on to create The Wire for HBO, a fantastic achievement. It’s an excellent piece about what you lose when you lose reporters. One part that is (in my opinion) demagogic:
There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers.
I’m sure he’s right about the not tripping. But did anyone ever say bloggers would step in for police reporters if the professional police reporters went away? I don’t think so. It’s a dumb idea. Lame-ass linkless jeering at propositions no one’s actually making is standard practice on the newspaper death watch. Tom Watson condemns the “digital triumphalists” but he does not feel strongly enough about their sins to link to any.
Tom does talk to my June, 2008 post Migration Point for the Press Tribe. “The land that newsroom people have been living on—also called their business model—no long supports their best work. So they have come to a reluctant point of realization: that to continue on, to keep the professional press going, the news tribe will have to migrate across the digital divide and re-settle itself on terra nova, new ground. Or as we sometimes call it, a new platform.”
Migration Point plus “Where’s the Business Model for News, People?” (part of a forum at Britannica asking if newspapers were doomed, with Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky) plus this post today represent the best of my “newspaper in crisis” writing. What I was saying in 2004: The Migration.
The Newspaper Association of America: Don’t Stop the Presses! Ten experts share their ideas for reinventing the print newspaper.
This speech on the newspaper crisis by the Boston Globe’s editor, Marty Barron, is notable because it accepts the Shirky verdict. (April 2, 2009)
I have seen a few hypotheses for how a major metropolitan newsroom could become online-only. I can honestly say that I have seen none that allows for anything close to the breadth and depth of coverage that metropolitan newspapers offer today. It is not enough to say that something will be sacrificed. In fact, a great deal will be sacrificed.And yet — and here I’ll quote the Internet scholar Clay Shirky — “’‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model.”
Dan Kennedy in the Guardian makes an argument about the future of newspapers—that it depends on the future of civic involvement—that I began making in 1989. See chapter one of What Are Journalists For? (1999, Yale University Press)
Hey, cool. The head of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation made reference this post in a big speech he gave about the future of journalism. Thanks.
Out of Print: The death and life of the American newspaper by Eric Alterman ran in The New Yorker in a year before these pieces. It covers similar ground but from its own perspective.
Disclosures: Some of these authors I know well, some a little.
I don’t know Paul Starr. But I’ve followed his writings and consider his book, The Creation of the Media, an important work.
I’ve met Yochai Benkler a couple times and I’ve been at conferences with him. He is certainly one of my intellectual heroes.
Clay Shirky is a colleague of mine at NYU, we are on the same side of many Internet issues, I am a fan of his work and he’s friendly to what I do. On Twitter he’s @cshirky.
Steven Johnson is someone I know as a writer in New York and from when he taught at NYU. I am friendly with him and a big admirer of his books. (Big fan base on Twitter.)
Dan Conover (Xarker on Twitter) is a friend of mine and a loyal reader of my blog, PressThink. We sometimes scheme together. To me he’s one of the more creative people in journalism.
David Eaves I did not know prior to being linked to his essay. But he’s on Twitter.
Josh Young is someone I have not met but I plan to soon. He is jny2 on Twitter.
Mark Morford I do not know. But he follows me on Twitter.
Tom Watson is a blogger whose work I have followed. Here he is on Twitter.
Allan Mutter I recently met after following his blog, Newsosaur for some time.
Amanda Michel I hired to work for me on NewAssignment.Net, then as project director and prime mover in OffTheBus. She now works for ProPublica.