Sunday, March 22, 2009

The post-news world

Two brilliant and provocative reads on the future of news (and the collapse of the newspaper business) burned through blogs and RSS readers this week. Both writers sit far enough outside of the industry to offer a clear perspective and to be ignored by anyone inside the industry with the power to change it. (Although you can be sure journalists themselves were emailing each other about both pieces all week.) Both pieces attempt to confront the paradox of ever-falling revenue and ever-increasing readership.

Clay Shirky presents the more harsh vision of the future, which he telegraphs in his title, "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable."

He compares our current, electronic shift in information distribution to the invention of the printing press and italic type, and the massive cultural shifts those helped make possible. (Copernicus, anyone? The Protestant Reformation?)
And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.
Shirky doesn't claim to know what journalism will look like once the revolution is completed. He does believe that the future lies not in the hands of the newspaper publishers, but in the hands of the dozens (even hundreds, or thousands) of experimenters who are attempting wholly new ways of connecting people to information (and to each other).

Steven Johnson shortens the lens to look at his own past as a media consumer in a speech he delivered at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin entitled "Old Growth Media and the Future of News".

He describes days he spent in his youth checking the bookstore repeatedly for the arrival of each new issue of Macworld, a magazine he relied on for news that was weeks (if not months) out-of-date by the time he read it. He contrasts that time (just 20 years ago) with the overabundance of news and information he now has at his fingertips via the world wide web.

Johnson, the author of Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, is far more of an optimist than Shirky. He articulates a vision for the future of professional journalists and news organizations, and asserts that on the other side of the demise of the local paper will be an even greater awareness of the news in one's neighborhood.
I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life – out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house; a new deli opening; a house sale; the baseball team at my kid’s school winning a big game. The New York Times can’t cover those things in a print paper not because of some journalistic failing on their part, but rather because the economics are all wrong: there are only a few thousand people potentially interested in those news events...

As we get better at organizing all that content – both by selecting the best of it, and by sorting it geographically – our standards about what constitutes good local coverage are going to improve. We’re going to go through the same evolution that I did from reading two-month-old news in MacWorld, to expecting an instantaneous liveblog of a keynote announcement. Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half mile of my house, and I don’t get an email alert about it within three hours, it will be a sign that something is broken.
Both posts are worth your time.

Shirky's essay is here. Johnson's is here.

And, for a bit of additional fun, here's a feature that ran on KRON-TV in San Francisco in 1981(!) about the future of "electronic newspapers", delivered via modem to your home "computer".

YouTube link

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