Why the future of journalism is interesting

Newspapers2

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John Naughton has an excellent post in which he reflects on some recent pieces on the future of journalism. One of these is Clay Shirky's article Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable, which if you haven't read already, I heartily recommend. Shirky has that rare ability to crystalize all the current debate and hype around a subject and get to the core of an argument (sort of the antithesis of what I do). He examines the economics of newspapers and argues this is why they are essentially rendered redundant by digital media. The point he makes is that we confuse function with form:

"Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable."

Andrew Keen, with his uncanny ability to miss the point, responds to Shirky's piece arguing that the 'let-it-happen' conclusion Shirky draws is not inevitable:

"how absolutely should we stand back and trust the free market to come
up with a solution to the crisis of the news business? We certainly
aren’t trusting this unfettered market to solve Wall Street’s financial
crisis. … So if we can agree
that the news business, like healthcare and the financial sector, is
too important to fail, then shouldn’t the government be taking a more
active gardening/watering role in ensuring that at least one or two of
today’s digital flowers fully bloom in the future?"

The difference here is that unlike some other industries that various Governments are stepping in to save, newspapers were in trouble long before the current financial crisis, and crucially, we are seeing a replacement of newspapers by natural means. There is no need to save it since it is in the process of evolving. This is not the case with the financial sector. If we are to preserve every industry that faces change because of the impact of digital technologies it will make the current intervention by Governments look like an exercise in laissez-faire economics.

John concludes:

"So here are some principles for thinking intelligently about our emerging media environment:

  1. Think ecologically
  2. Think long-term. What’s happening might be as profound as what
    happened after the emergence of print — and look how long it took for
    those effects to work their way through society.
  3. Don’t confuse existing forms with the functions that they enable.
    It’s the functions that matter. Forms may be transient, the product of
    historical or technological circumstances."

Why is everyone so interested in the future of newspapers, you may wonder. Obviously they are significant social artifacts of our age and so their rapid change is interesting in itself. But more significantly they can be seen as a case study, or a warning from the future, about the impact of the internet on well established, often highly regarded, businesses. Unlike the music industry, which pretty much tried to close its eyes and wish the internet didn't exist, newspapers have been exploring a range of models to deal with the change. As Shirky puts it:

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet
coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that
they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came
up with not just one plan but several.

Most other industries haven't even worked through the range of models that newspapers have already used up. Watching what will happen next with newspapers as businesses and journalism as a practice will provide a rich source of models for others to adopt.

So, is education like newspapers minus five years or so? It's tempting to think so, and there are some parallels, but it's the differences that are significant also. Education isn't just a content industry most importantly, and has some relation to a physical institution often. But one lesson we should be examining in detail is John's third one. We shouldn't confuse education with the university system. The latter is a convenient financial and administrative method of achieving the former, but in a digital world there is something that was crucially missing previously: alternatives. That's what really killed newspapers – having alternatives.

4 Comments

  1. Good piece, Martin. I’ve been following some of the threads of commentary around Clay Shirky’s article. Like you, I enjoyed John’s take on the issues.
    For me, the final question you ask is a very interesting one: “…is education like newspapers minus five years or so?” Not being an academic, I would never confuse education with the university system – but I do believe that, if the answer to your question proves to be ‘yes’, then it is almost certainly higher education that will be affected first. The reason for this is simple: that, like newspapers, like CDs, like so many common artefacts of the 20th century, the university is not sustained by any kind of legal compulsion, unlike the schools’ systems. When real alternatives come to the fore in education, the force of law will ensure that schools remain pretty much as they are, pretty much as they have been for the longest time.
    That will not be true of universities, of course – so…..it will be an interesting process to watch. I suspect the answer to your question really is ‘yes’ – the real question then becomes, are the universities any further forward than, say, the music industry, in seeking different business models? And, even if they are, will it matter ultimately?

  2. Good post. I find it interesting in our local media on the west coast of Canada, on the evening news they’ll often feature a story with a web site. To get the URL they’re always telling you to go to their website and click on some link.
    In these models they’re still thinking that pageviews demonstrate value. Or, many want users to create and interact on their site instead of finding ways to leverage existing platforms and generate conversation. They simply can’t get past old, or embrace emerging, or … hell … create new models.
    I’m not suggesting everyone be skittles.com but newspapers are still trapped in needing the suscription model to survive, even though they are often putting a lot of their resources into parallel web properties.
    Like anything, they’re trying to figure it out as they go. The print version of the Seattle Post Intelligencer is closing shop and they’ll have a streamlined online version. NYTimes is getting it. Go online, publish an API and build your value in new ways.
    Mind you, I still don’t know what to do about the possibility of not having newsprint to thumb through with my Saturday coffee …

  3. @John – universities occupy something of a middle ground I feel between the free markets of music/newspapers and the highly controlled ones of K12 education or healthcare. Award bearing powers, as I understand it, are awarded by Governmental agencies, so not just anyone can set themselves up as a university. Getting award bearing powers is a very long and arduous process. So in this respect universities are a bit protected from the harsh winds of economics. What will cause a change is a) if society recognises other forms of learning apart from the degree (or equivalent in that country) or b) there is some formally backed means of accrediting other learning (learning credits type of idea which various governments have explored). This would lead to a fragmentation of the higher ed market I think.
    @James – the Saturday paper in a coffee bar effect is not to be underestimated. In this sense newspapers have value as a social artefact. Trouble is it isn’t enough of a market to keep them all going. I think we’ll see maybe a concentration on the weekend papers, when this physical product is perhaps more likely to sell.

  4. Point(s) taken, Martin.
    I can see a similar dynamic happening for K12 if, and only if, the universities are able to establish their own processes for screening and selecting students, and we can get away from the ‘tail wagging the dog’ syndrome of A-Level/Higher qualifications determining a large chunk of the curriculum / pedagogy / content / assessment for schools. Freeing schools from the need to serve the narrow requirements for entry into Higher Education is, I believe, the first necessary step to free up the learning that can go on within them.
    And on your response to James, I agree with the ‘social artefact’ argument for newspapers – I wonder if we would be willing to pay much higher prices for a weekend-only newspaper? I think I would.

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