The Future of Newspapers: Seeing the Wood for the Trees in Steven Johnson's "Old-Growth"

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” said Napoleon. The Little Corporal's words might handily be adapted today with substitution of “a thousand bloggers."

At the recent SF/SX Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, Steven Johnson took the rain-forest as metaphor for his vision of a future symbiosis of news gathering and sharing, in which legions of citizen reporters and pajama-clad bloggers mine the forest detritus to fertilize the “barren desert ” of old media.

I've been following the torrent of comments prompted by two pronouncements on the imminent demise of newspapers: Steven Johnson's SF/SX speech earlier this month, Old Growth Media And The Future Of News, and Clay Shirky's Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, posted on Shirky's website.

Johnson draws a core example of the florescent new media from his own experience with Apple technology news going from a single magazine hungrily devoured by a 19-year-old to the hyper-information explosion on the web. “By almost every important standard, the state of Mac news has vastly improved since 1987... there is more volume, diversity, timeliness and depth.”

Looking beyond technology, he cites the 2008 presidential election as proof of how the blogosphere, YouTube and other viral outlets are transforming the political and news ecosystem. Sites like Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Politico are part of the new forest of news, data, opinion and satire tracked by him for political insights. (An equally vast array could be summoned from the right.)

Talking the Talk

Eight million people watched Barack Obama's Philadelphia race speech on YouTube alone.* Taking as yardstick the 1992 election which he followed avidly as a young news junkie, Johnson believes that the speech would've been reduced to a minute-long sound bite on network news; CNN, its audience then 500,000, may have aired it in full; a few serious newspapers may have reprinted it.

Politics aside, I wondered what was going on in that election year: a quick scoot over to Wikipedia suggests old media papers may, in fact, have devoted multiple columns to the words of a Barack Obama of the day: The Los Angeles Riots took place in 1992, following the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged with beating Rodney King. Coverage of the beating itself and its immediate aftermath generated fifty-five articles in the Los Angeles Times, twenty-one in the New York Times, fifteen in the Chicago Tribune.

Johnson's future model for the news of the world – “all the news that's fit to link” – proposes a four-level ecosystem. The “Aggregator,” one of three key distribution elements, is in line with founded by Johnson and his associates that tracks hyper-local news and information, theoretically what happened within half a mile of your house an hour or so ago.

“I think we have every reason to believe that it will be an improvement on the paradigm we have been living with for the past century.” An old industrial, top-down model of mass media, he suggests, that was a desert disguised as a rain forest.

A Walk in the White Forest

It's this rain-forest/desert metaphor that got me thinking about Johnson's words. As a former reporter and editor, I follow the newspaper industry's battle for survival. As a novelist, I've had the chance to spend time in the Amazon rain forest, beneath the old-growth canopy and on fire-razed tracts where the green fortress has been demolished.

I've also traveled through the caatinga, “the white forest,” in the vast backlands of Brazil, of which I have written:

There is no forgiveness in the caatinga. When the rains fail and the earth cracks in the riverbeds, the parched northeaster roars between thickets of scrub, cactus, and leafless misshapen trees. The wind blasts eroded hills, howls between rocky outcrops, swirls through dust-filled depressions. The northeaster passes, and there is a profound silence.

The green forest to the west is fecund, alive, its canopied plants seeking light. The white forest clings to the earth, its strangulated growth shrinking from the sun, a blistered wound across the northeast bulge of the continent.

There is a metamorphosis when it rains. Turbulent rushes of water feed the clotted earth; the tangle of gnarled, stunted trees is transformed into a low, flowered forest; succulent grasses thrive magically in the thin soil. But always the great droughts return; the rains fail and the rivers disappear. The rigid trees and cacti – chaotic and impenetrable in places – and the dwarfed plant cover remain, an ugly mesh of foliage for mile after mile. This gray monotony of tinder-dry vegetation is deceptive, for it hides the true nature of the caatinga: a creeping desert.”

I will not, for one moment, accept that we've been living in a news “desert” for the past century.

I have worked on national newspapers and local rags. I've stepped up to my news editor's desk every morning to check my day's assignment as crime reporter, court reporter, general reporter. I've never known a news editor turn a blind eye to any story, national or local, worth reporting, even though it would run a few lines at best. At other times, as a feature writer, I was on assignment not for a day or night but a week, even months on occasion digging in depth for the facts.

Roots of Democracy

Generations of professional editors and their staffs from the earliest “courants” onward have worked to nurture and protect a true “old-growth” canopy: the free press that shields the roots of our democracies. I think of editors I worked with in apartheid South Africa. I remain in awe of their courage and conviction in times of great challenge, when their presses could've been stopped almost as swiftly as it will take to throw the switch on a web news distributor.

I agree with Clay Shirky who sees newspapers in the middle of a transition as wrenching as that following Gutenberg's invention, a revolution demanding that all print media adapt. On newspapers, in particular, Shirky says that there is one possible answer to the question, 'If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?' -- “The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.”

I keep no deathwatch on newspapers, though whenever I see a report of a paper going out of business I regret its passing, as would anyone who has known the camaraderie and dedication in a newsroom. There's no question that many papers, big and small, will vanish from newsstands. Will all newspapers disappear? I think not. One possibility is that we will see the emergence of six or seven national papers, with strong regional underpinnings, similar to what exists in the United Kingdom.

What I do know is that once destroyed, the real “old-growth” giants of the Amazon are at best replaced by inferior secondary growth. At worst, the caatinga advances, chaotic and impenetrable, with thickets of cactus, shrub and misshapen trees, a gray monotony where silence is profound.

It is this vision that troubles me when I think of Steven Johnson's grassroots newsroom, where everyman and everywoman pound the beat in all directions, clamoring for their story to be told - or aggregated - this instant. A media of mass fragmentation incoherent in all its coherencies.

In ancient times, when our ancestors sat by their fires in the shadow of the great forest, it was the elders and the shamans who shared and interpreted what they knew. The people of the tribe sat close together and listened.

[Images: News diagram, (c) Steven Berlin Johnson; Brazilian rain forest and caatingas from Brazil: The Making of a Novel. Note * Steven Johnson's figure for YouTube viewings of President Obama's speech, probably cumulative of various postings.]


Michael Becker said...

Errol, thanks for commenting on my post about Johnson's speech and for sending me to the link to yours.

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.

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

A fascinating article Errol. What lies ahead? It will be interesting to see where this great cleansing takes us. I think many of us are sick of reading as news what is too often junk supplied by corporate and government PR people. We want great reporting and ground breaking stories by a media that will not be intimidated by power -- This is a difficult challenge when the largest newsprint media and book publishers belong to conglomerates with bottom line and/or political agendas.

I'm linking this article to my facebook page.