More on the Future of the News

I gave a little pep talk at the Public Square Project/PittPoint workshop last week (the City Paper covered the first in the series), and I came away thinking:

1. I have no idea whether this model of "citizen journalism" will work.

2. But it can't work if the game plan is to edge into the conversation as a polite "complement" to existing traditional media. Whatever its potential, citizen journalism and enterprises like PittPoint can't really test the waters without eventually seizing the failing newspaper bull by the horns and saying, we have no idea what the results of the revolution are going to be, but we're part of it.

In other words, it is increasingly clear to me that the current forms of the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review and local and regional newspapers -- daily, print newspapers -- are dying. I don't know how long the P-G has to live. If the P-G in its current form lasts more than two or three years from today, I will be surprised, and it will last longer than many other newspapers.

Read Clay Shirky, "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable":

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the
revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

...

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new
experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.
While you're at it, also read Steven Johnson's speech at SXSW, which covers much of the same ground, but less provocatively.

Comments

1 Response to "More on the Future of the News"

Jim Russell said... 3/16/2009 2:41 PM

Perhaps I'm just too ignorant of what is going on in the world of media, but I don't think the future of journalism is a mystery. The entrepreneurs in this industry are no longer media moguls, but the journalists themselves. Freelancers will fill the void of failed newspapers.

Local bloggers can make a living writing for the magazines, journals and newspapers that are large enough to make money off of content. These professionals will recognize the best of the moonlighters and help to make that information community coherent and more effective.

Information isn't at a premium. However, translating that information into knowledge is worth a subscription.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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