The Future of Newspapers (2): "All the News that's Fit to Print or Fit to Link?"

What started out as a reply to Michael Becker's penetrating comments on my thoughts about Steven Johnson's "Old-Growth" media morphed into a full post.

Here are Michael's comments:

"To my view, Johnson saying that the journalism world of 1987 was a desert compared to the rain-forest of the modern media is more a relative measure.

He does not mean to say that the earth of that late 1980s media world was cracked and dry and without life. Johnson was merely trying to establish a relative scale: There was very little vegetation (media activity) back then compared to the volume we see today in our growing rain forest.

Late in your post, you use the metaphor that tells us that old-growth is replaced by inferior new growth. I don't dispute that ecologically, but Johnson isn't telling us that these new media outlets (bloggers and the like) will replace the old-growth media. In fact, he tells us that journalism will continue to thrive because it has that old-growth backbone to rely upon.

It's easy to react defensively when someone suggests that the old, tested models of journalism are fading away, but we must keep an open mind to new models and new ways of doing things. As Shirky points out in the article that you mention: 'You'll miss us when we're gone' has never been an effective business model.

And we must remember that just because journalism -- in the century-old forms we know -- has been vital to democracy, that doesn't mean that new-media journalism won't be just as or more vital."

I picked up on Johnson's relative scale of “info-vegetation,” especially when applied to technology. A new "old-growth" forest seeded with terabytes of tech information is a natural.

With politics, too, there's no question media activity has mushroomed astoundingly, both the proliferation of articles and reader involvement. I saw articles on Huffington Post and Daily Kos garner thousands of comments, with similar activity on the right at Free Republic and other sites. An ultimate democratic free-for-all, though with so many drums beating to quarters, one wonders how much is heard above the noise?

Taking my walk through the forest and the caatingas, I wasn't looking back in nostalgia. Sure, I've great memories of newsrooms and the corridors of Reader's Digest in its heyday, but the future beckons...No question newspapers are an endangered species. Many will drown in a sea of red ink. The survivors will dynamically link traditional and web-based operations, as is already happening with the vanguard; like the old-growth forest, they can be preserved.

When I see inferior secondary growth, I'm not thinking of “very savvy information navigators” or professional editors and journalists working on the web but the end-product and the end-user of the news tsunami. I use the word "news" with some misgiving on lines of the old "dog bites man"/"man bites dog" angle given the micro-beat of the blogger on the block with a yapping dog at every heel.

Johnson's four-tiered diagram of a future “newsroom” is good and suggests a strong winnowing process. It needs to be studied against Clay Shirky's keywords of “transition” and “chaos.”

In critiquing Johnson's assertion of a “barren desert” of past coverage, I have that older slogan in mind: “all the news that's fit to print” versus, as I call it, a media of mass fragmentation incoherent in all its coherencies. – [Michael Becker's blog post on Dave Winer's vision of Twitter as “News System of the World” (“it scares the bejesus out of me,”says Winer) is exactly how I feel about the potential jungle and its impenetrable thickets.]

Among comments on a recent New York Times Opiniator blog (Why Newspapers Can't Be Saved, but the News Can) was one from college lecturer “Lizwill:”

“The very thing that Norm says he likes about online news – his ability to select and read only what he is interested in – is exactly what I dislike about online news. The most interesting and informative reading I do comes from my stumbling upon an article as I leaf through the pages of the print newspaper.

“I believe that the fractured, disconnected world view that this form of reading encourages is a big part of our problem as a larger society. This is what I see with the college students I teach. I hear people say that the digitally proficient young people are just learning about the world in different, non-print ways. I have to scream NO THEY ARE NOT! (Lizwell's emphasis.)

“Even the most intelligent and interested of my students are woefully, woefully ignorant of the very basic nature of the world of which they are part – their government (local as well as national), the economy (local as well as national and global) – the list goes on.

“The responsibility for this state of affairs rests with many, including educators like myself, but I strongly believe the decline in newspaper reading (and the decline in the quality of newspapers) is a major factor in the decline of knowledge. – And it is not true that young people have always been this ignorant – studies from the 1940s to the present have shown otherwise.

“Every day I can see that despite my students' nearly total immersion in the technology, they are not using it to get any meaningful news.”

1 comment:

Anthony Howard said...

I am reminded of a rather bumptious, if fairly likeable, hack I used to encounter quite a lot. His main asset, so far as I could tell, was a mellifluous voice accompanied by a thick skin, meaning he usually didn't get it when his leg was pulled for inaccuracy or droning on far too long. He once boasted to me that while handling the graveyard announcer's slot at LBC (London Broadcasting), he was first (in the world?) to rush out an announcement of the death of the Pope - within 30 seconds of a snap coming over from the PA (Press Association). "Did you check it before broadcasting the story?" I asked mischievously. He looked blank. "No. Why ever should I?" was his slightly petulant reply. "Because it might have been in error, and you could have upset an awful lot of Catholics quite unnecessarily." I doubt if he understands what I was talking about to this day.

Nor do so many who revel in the hyper free-for-all for which the web is now the conduit. One of the great benefits of good old fashioned steam newspapers, so many now in jeopardy as their proprietors and editors endeavour to find a viable balance between paid-for printed copies and free-to-internet on-line editions, is that they filter torrents of news - assess its veracity, edit it down into digestible, readable lengths, and spike much of it. The reader can take his pick: whether he wants it biased to left, centre or right, and served up hot and short or long, dry and more considered.

A problem with much of the amateurish drivel that nowadays floods across the net is that there is nobody really there to arbitrate its accuracy or the quality of the writing. (And why indeed should there be in this brave new age of world-wide democracy of communication? If you have nothing better to do all day, why not sit there and have your grey matter turned to mush?) Maybe the only exceptions are unseen powers-that-be attempting to thwart an unhealthy interest in children or terroristic tendencies. However, what is considered to be an undesirable interest by one culture is simply an ancient African custom that we are told we must not question, just as one man's terrorist threatening to bring down civilisation is another man's freedom fighter in the liberation struggle.

Another problem is that much of the content out there is in the grip of web "developers", members of the graphic design "community" who have been taught at design "university" that they are the masters now. Most have little idea about words and care less, as many journalists know to their cost. Nowadays we see the difficulty manifest in so many web sites, where the content is projected in a succession of small gloops linked to another small gloop linked to another small gloop...because the prevailing wisdom is in hoc to the assumption of minimal attention spans. This becomes a self-fulfilling philosophy because the whole process of trying to absorb all but fragments information coherently has been made so tedious and time-consuming. As you read gloop 1, you have no idea whether it is worth taking the trouble to reach gloop 2 , and invariably of course it isn't - you'd be far better served by the continuity and scanability of a newspaper or magazine.