I've known Steven Johnson's work since reading Mind Wide Open. I missed his talk at SxSW, but thanks to the connection with the topic and idea, I am now reading it on his blog. [hat tip Bruno Giussani]
In our conversation last week we talked about we media and the question of what would happen to the democratic process if journalists didn't have work anymore. In the past, we also discussed whether we would pay for news in a form different than newspapers.
We could have some form of freemium, as suggested first by Chris Anderson - perhaps free general information, then a cost for a deeper dive. This was also the finding of an AP-sponsored report on the news consumption of young-adult readers. These are the two issues at play:
- what happens if newspapers disappear as businesses?
- is the crucial information we need going to disappear with them?
In fact, the main question Johnson asked in his talk (and post) is what is the future of news itself? He then goes back to the future by examining the evolution of tech news - the first to be online, given that the systems and code were written by people interested in technology.
The other example Johnson shares is that of political news. If you're looking for an essay that explains why the decline of newspapers does not spell the end of democracy, Yonchai Benkler of The New Republic offers some thoughts. According to Benkler, the primary elements of the networked public sphere will be:
- Surviving elements of the old system, changed.
- Small-scale commercial media.
- New, volunteer-driven party presses.
- Newly effective nonprofits.
- Individuals in networks.
I will do a deep dive on each one of these areas as part of my series on new media, which could easily become the news in media. We already see that there is more content than in the past. There is also more granularity. And today there are tools that will allow you to aggregate that content so it is meaningful to you - location-based, or with tags, for example.
I'm online many hours a week, and yet I cannot say I find all the news I need just through my own resources and navigation. As Johnson observes and as we discussed here, we do need guides. As of January, print circulation had declined from 62 million to 49 million while online audience has grown from zero to 75 million over that period.
Which means that the implied motto of every paper in the country should be: all the news that’s fit to link. A word on linking - why is it newspapers and news media sources have such a hard time linking to worthwhile content that is not their own in the body of the articles? Have you noticed that, too?
I agree with him on the one variable that is creating confusion and impeding progress towards a new model online - time. All of these changes in the news business are happening fast. Whenever something happens that fast, the reaction is to cling onto what worked in the past, thus missing the opportunity to work on what could be.
There are plenty of questions open about the future of the news ecosystem. Who's going to pay journalists? One idea I floated here is writing for PaidContent, which may give them employment and us more reliable online publications, but doesn't answer the main question on investigative reporting and international journalism.
The perception of bloggers is still that of folks writing from home in their pajamas. Perhaps we're writing from home, mostly because many of us do our writing as a second shift over a day job, but that doesn't mean we're not professionals with skills and training and knowledge we can bring to bear.
This is a charged conversation - that of free vs paid for news content. You can tell from some of the comments on Johnson's post. But what I observed before, what I've seen at the online properties of newspapers and new organizations, has been quite instructive. If we bemoan the loss of intelligent and conscientious news reporting about the people, it's certainly not apparent in reading those comments.
In fact, they resemble more offensive and non nonsensical ramblings than comments offered by interested citizens. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that we have not had civic involvement even in the news consumption for quite a while. Is there a way to disagree respectfully? Or to offer something in its stead?
I propose that the future of the news ecosystem is filled with possibilities not just for tech or politics - for many, even for all, topics. Wikipedia anyone? And it's up to readers like you to elevate the many conversations we're having to the rank of worthwhile in the ecosystem by resisting the urge to make it an echo chamber.
Seek out and promote those (sources and topics) who are writing and researching and putting attention on news items that while they may not be sexy or fashionable, contribute to the fabric of an intelligent and informed society. In the end, what the ecosystem means is that we get what we pay attention to and when we demand transparency we should hold ourselves to that very same standard.
[image by Steven Johnson]