News Leadership 3.0

March 16, 2009

Industry disruption, journalism revolution

The week offers rich perspectives on the forces changing journalism and where they may take us next, while an online-only Post-Intelligencer may give shape to one piece of the news puzzle.

Four writers step back this week and look at the state of journalism, the state of the news industry, the massive disruption in between and some optimism about a future for news. Ironically, their perspectives come on the eve of the final print edition Tuesday of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a scrappy voice in a two-newspaper town, that will morph into an online-only experiment.

Let’s get the hardest one to read out of the way first. Internet scholar Clay Shirky offers the devastating “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” Shirky notes that news organizations saw the internet coming and explored multiple scenarios to deal with it - sue copyright infringers, require micropayments or online subscription services. But he says established news organizations were blind to an unthinkable scenario, the one that has now come to pass:

“The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. (Digital rights management’s) requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And ...  suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.

Shirky argues that faith replaced realistic thinking in the news industry, as it has in other industries, and “one of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.” (Empasis added.)

Whether the industry is “going away” or will emerge diminished, its economic challenges pose formidable obstacles to its capacity to innovate. This is underscored in a just-released “State of the News Media” report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Here is an excerpt from the newspaper report, co-written by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute:

“The newspaper industry exited a harrowing 2008 and entered 2009 in something perilously close to free fall.  Perhaps some parachutes will deploy, and maybe some tree limbs will cushion the descent, but for a third consecutive year the bottom is not in sight.

“We still do not subscribe to the theory that the death of the industry is imminent. The industry over all in 2008 remained profitable.

“But the deep recession already threatens the weakest papers. Nearly all are now cutting so deeply and rapidly that simply coping with the economic downturn has become a major distraction from efforts to reinvent the economics of the business. (Emphasis added.)  And even once the downturn ends, growing or stabilized revenues are no sure thing.

“If the industry’s death isn’t imminent, the more pertinent question may be this: can newspapers beat the clock? Can they find a way to convert their growing audience online into sufficient revenue to sustain the industry before their shrinking revenues from print fall too far? And if some succeed and some don’t, what are the characteristics of a newspaper organization that survives and one that doesn’t?”

A third piece from Steven Berlin Johnson, a best-selling author who runs a local news site, surveys the chaos and offers a more hopeful vision. It is a speech, entitled “Old growth media and the future of news,” that Johnson gave last week at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. Johnson notes that journalism and information are evolving, and cites two areas that are more evolved than others:  Journalism about technology from a time in 1987 when he relied solely on a printed copy of MacWorld for information to a rich network of writers on the Web today and a vast increase of presidential campaign information in 2008 compared to previous years.

“I think the political web covering the 2008 campaign was so rich for precisely the same reasons that the technology web is so rich: because it’s old-growth media. The first wave of blogs were tech-focused, and then for whatever reason, they turned to politics next. And so Web 2.0-style political coverage has had a decade to mature into its current state.

“What’s happened with technology and politics is happening elsewhere too, just on a different timetable. Sports, business, reviews of movies, books, restaurants - all the staples of the old newspaper format are proliferating online. There are more perspectives; there is more depth and more surface now. And that’s the new growth. It’s only started maturing.

“In fact, I think in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. Local news may be the best example of this. When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage. But I suspect in ten years, when we look back at traditional local coverage, it will look much more like MacWorld circa 1987. I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life - out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house; a new deli opening; a house sale; the baseball team at my kid’s school winning a big game. The New York Times can’t cover those things in a print paper not because of some journalistic failing on their part, but rather because the economics are all wrong: there are only a few thousand people potentially interested in those news events, in a city of 8 million people. There are metro area stories that matter to everyone in a city: mayoral races, school cuts, big snowstorms. But most of what we care about in our local experience lives in the long tail. We’ve never thought of it as a failing of the newspaper that its metro section didn’t report on a deli closing, because it wasn’t even conceivable that a big centralized paper could cover an event with such a small radius of interest.

“But of course, that’s what the web can do. That’s one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. The Times itself is now launching local Brooklyn blogs, which is great. As we get better at organizing all that content - both by selecting the best of it, and by sorting it geographically - our standards about what constitutes good local coverage are going to improve. We’re going to go through the same evolution that I did from reading two-month-old news in MacWorld, to expecting an instantaneous liveblog of a keynote announcement. Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half mile of my house, and I don’t get an email alert about it within three hours, it will be a sign that something is broken.”

Johnson may be overly optimistic, but his excitement about the possibilities is refreshing and actionable. Alan Mutter also offers hope and specifics:

“If you define journalism as something produced by a traditional newspaper, magazine or broadcaster, then, yes, journalism is in trouble. But that’s a limited, if not to say anachronistic, definition of journalism in an age when cheap, easy-to-use and widely available interactive technology has democratized the creation, discovery and acquisition of information.

“If you define journalism as the activity that allows people to learn from each other what is happening in their world, then journalism is alive and well at Facebook, Twitter, Slashdot, Moms Like Me, Last.FM and thousands of other online communities.”

—-

“If you define journalism as an activity where an intermediary tells people what is happening in their world, then journalism’s vital signs are somewhere between stable and strong at Muncie Free Press, Westport Now, Minnpost, and Crosscut - to name a few of dozens of alternative local news sites that have sprung up as staff cuts and shrinking news holes have compromised the coverage of news organizations across the land.”

—-

“If you define journalism as something produced by citizens who step in where big-time journalists seldom tread, then journalism is registering at least a discernable pulse at places like Chi-Town Daily News, Patch, Bakersfield Voice and the new The Local section of the New York Times.”

(Please go to Mutter’s post for a wealth of links to these and other efforts.)

Newspapers and other mainstream media have long been the ecosystem of news, especially within their own sight lines. Now the ecosystem is evolving into something richer. It looks very chaotic and incomplete right now, and threatening to those who are losing their footing and their livelihoods. Newspapers as organizations may no longer dominate, at least not in as many geographic communities as before. But they and the journalists who populate their communities can be part of the new ecosystem—and many are joining it by establishing highly local Web sites, welcoming users into online discussions, and aggregating and linking to the best news and information they can find on topics their users care about.

The Post-Intelligencer in Seattle is at once a casualty of the turbulence and a potential pathfinder on the road ahead.

In conversation on Twitter Monday about the end of the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, journalist and online strategist Steve Yelvington asked whether the cup was half full or half empty. The emptiness of dozens of journalists losing their jobs is inescapable.

Follow instead Johnson’s lead and Mutter’s lead to the idea that the cup is half full. Read what executive producer Michelle Nicolosi says about the new site. The PI will be an experiment in a small-staff, online-only, big city news organization that mixes professional and citizen contributors. It joins hundreds of community news experiments that local journalists and citizens operate below the radar of many big J practitioners. And each of these experiments has as much chance as any of the of creating something or a piece of something we haven’t seen before, something that we’ll still recognize as journalism.

 

Comments

nice posts for about journalists commenting and what the public wants, although I think the question….

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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