These digital visionaries tell people like me that we just don’t understand them. They talk about the wonders of the interconnected world, about the democratization of journalism. The news, they say, is viral now — that we should be grateful. Well, I think all of us need to beware of geeks bearing gifts. Here we are in 2009 — more viral, less profitable. Because news costs. Because quality costs. Because free sets the price too low. Because free isn’t sustainable. Because free is too expensive.
—Les Hinton, then CEO of Dow Jones, speaking to the
World Newspaper Congress in Hyderabad, India, Dec. 1, 2009
I am grateful for geeks’ gifts to news. Technology provides no end of opportunities for improving, expanding, reimagining, and sustaining news. Yes, technology has also disrupted the news industry — its relationships, forms, and business models. But in this essay, I will try not to dwell on the fleeting past. In their white paper, The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism, Bill Grueskin and his coauthors at Columbia’s School of Journalism examined how our industry arrived at where we are today. Also from Columbia’s Tow Center, Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present by Emily Bell, Clay Shirky, and Chris Anderson proposed ways for news organizations to exploit the opportunities that technology presents today to update, expand, and improve the craft. I now want to look to the future. Or rather, I want to examine many possible futures. I don’t want to predict where journalism will go. But I do want to imagine where it can go next and what is possible in the future.
After the invention of that great disruptive technology, the printing press, it took half a century for the book to take its own form. At the start, printers still mimicked scribes’ work, using fonts designed to duplicate their handwriting. Printing was initially promoted as “automated writing.” We still define the future in the terms of the past. Cars were “horseless carriages” propelled by “horsepower.” Radio was named what it wasn’t: “the wireless.” Today, we still “dial” and “hang up” phones, though those words have long since lost their literal meanings. For that matter, how soon will it be before it seems absurd to call smartphones “phones” when less and less we use them to talk and more and more we use them as — what? — computers, connectors, assistants, brains….
On the internet today, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and TV are each still substantially recognizable as their own forebears. Many have moved past the first phase of adaptation — shovelware, or simply pouring old wine into new skins — to take advantage of online’s added functionality. There was much oohing and aahing over a New York Times story about an avalanche with slideshows, video, photographic aerial maps, and graphics embedded in the tale. It’s lovely. But it still does what journalists do: It tells a story. It was still possible for The Times to print the narrative in the newspaper with little lost. We have arrived at what some may consider a destination but I hope is merely a way station: the fulfillment of multimedia storytelling. I’d like for us to look past the story; now the article is but one tool available to us to do the work of journalism. We must continue the search for what is possible today that was not possible before, to find new ways to serve the public, and to find new models to sustain that work. In this essay, I will try to rethink media and its opportunities, putting my own stake in the ground to imagine various futures and to respond to the challenge I hear often: “So, smartass, now that your damned beloved internet has ruined news, what next?”
The Columbia Journalism Review has accused me, along with New York University’s Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky and Columbia’s Emily Bell, of conspiring in a Future of News (FON) cabal. “At its heart, the FON consensus is anti-institutional. It believes that old institutions must wither to make way for the networked future,” CJR said. “The establishment has no plan. The FON consensus says no plan is the plan. The establishment drones on about rules and standards; the FON thinkers talk about freedom and informality.” When I met the author of that characterization, Dean Starkman, at a Baruch College event in 2012, I readily confessed that I have no damned idea what the future of news will be. No one does.
If I had a plan, I’d be eliminating possibilities. I’d be predicting the future and prescribing it. But I’m not trying to do that. If we define the future today, we’ll do so in the terms of our past. Horseless carriages. We still have more imagining to do. That’s what this essay is: an exercise in personal brainstorming — one I’d like to see undertaken by journalism students, journalism teachers, journalists, publishers, media companies, technologists, investors, activists, and anyone who cares about news and society. If we don’t imagine many futures, we can’t build any. We must start by questioning three key industrial assumptions about news, or we’ll never get past trying to preserve them.
- First, that the natural role of the public in relation to journalism is as the mass, as an audience — or as my friend Rosen calls them now, the people formerly known as the audience. Who are they today? What roles can they play? How does this shift in roles affect the value of the journalist in this new relationship? In the first part of this essay, I will propose different perspectives for conceiving of the role of journalism in society: as a service, a builder of platforms, an organizer, an advocate, a teacher, an incubator. I will argue that journalism must learn how to get into the relationship business; that, I believe, can be a foundation for a new business strategy for the news industry.
- Second, that the article is the atomic unit and necessary product of news and that journalists are storytellers. Articles, I am sure, will remain a key tool journalists will use to add value to a flow of information — with narrative, organization, context, summary, example, and discussion. But in the second part of this essay, I will try to move past the article or story to examine other forms news may take: as data (our current darling) and also as functionality, as platforms, as sets of information assets with many paths through them, as curation, as conversations.
- The final assumption: That old business models can be recreated in a new reality, that newsrooms will (or won’t) be preserved, that print won’t (or will) survive, that people will or should (or won’t) pay for news, that advertising must (or can’t) support news, that media companies will control news (or die). I don’t believe that news is in jeopardy. We see increased access to news, interest in it, need for it, means of sharing it, and discussion about it online. I don’t think demand is the problem. Business models most certainly are a problem (though to say that business models are the only problem is to fool ourselves into thinking that the rest of journalism needn’t change). So I will concentrate in the third part of this essay on possible new models, including some we have been studying at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which I direct at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. The goal is to find sustainable — that is, profitable — support for news. But that is not merely a discussion of replacing lost revenue; we also must examine new efficiencies in what will surely be smaller, post-monopoly news enterprises. Mostly, we must concentrate on where and how journalism adds value to a community’s knowledge and only then consider how it can extract value for its sustenance. So perhaps the news industry must think past the idea that it is in the content, advertising, and distribution businesses. Perhaps we should ask whether — like Google and Facebook — news instead should be a service that helps people accomplish their goals. Here I return to the relationship strategy for news and explore the opportunity to build new business models around value over volume.
I ask us to question nearly every assumption about news but by no means to reject them all. In the face of disruption, we need to reaffirm and preserve established values. At CUNY, our founding dean, Steve Shepard, emphasizes that we must teach the eternal verities of journalism, including accuracy, fairness, and completeness. Here I will argue that the key question journalists must ask today is how they add value to the flow of information in a community, a flow that can now occur without mediators — that is, without media. Journalists will continue to do that by trying to answer the questions that aren’t being asked, adding reporting and often using narrative to provide the sense and context that is all the more needed today. As journalists concentrate on where they can bring real value instead of their old production ethos — manufacturing newspapers, magazines, and TV shows — they can rise above the commodification and devaluation of their trade.
I start this exercise using a broad (some may say too broad) definition of journalism, which is: helping a community better organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself. Journalism has always endeavored to do that. But we in the field came to define ourselves less by our value and mission and more by our media and tools — ink on pulp or slick paper, sound or images over airwaves. Now we have new tools to exploit. Those tools require new skills and create new value. But at the core, we serve citizens and communities. As this essay progresses, I will expand and contract that definition of journalism like an accordion. I will narrow it drastically when I seek to identify the essence of journalism, its greatest value and service, that which we must preserve in this time of economic turmoil in the industry. I will broaden the definition when I describe inclusive news ecosystems that can serve many communities, many interests, and many needs and that can band together in networks that can share content, audience, technology, support, and, I hope, advertising sales.
We have much to emulate from the inventors of the net: Vint Cerf’s and his colleagues’ creation of standards and protocols that enforce the principle of enabling anyone to speak with anyone; Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s implementation of the simple link to connect people and information; Google’s quest to organize and make accessible the world’s information (not to mention reinvent advertising); Wikipedia’s similar goal (without the advertising); Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of a platform to connect people; the creation of platforms by Blogger, WordPress, and Movable Type that enable anyone to create and share what they have to say; Twitter surprising itself to become a tool for instantly updating the world — with news; Tumblr’s and Pinterest’s insight in making interest the engine of distribution; YouTube for making content embeddable everywhere; Reddit for attempting to channel the energy that fuels comments into collaboration; Kickstarter, Indiegogo and now Beacon Readers for harnessing the generosity of crowds; Amazon for building platforms and learning from the signals we generate to serve us with greater relevance. We also can learn much from these innovators’ instinct to experiment and shift direction (pivot, as they say) and their willingness, even eagerness, to learn and fail. These are geeks’ gifts.
We need to look for the opportunities that technology and its disruption bring. I hope that every reader of this essay outdoes me, finding more and better routes to explore — and exploring them. I hope to hear the discussion about news shift from its lost past to its future — its many possible futures.