Saturday, October 10, 2009

Seminal readings in the new age of journalism

At a great panel discussion at the Columbia Social Media Club this week, I suggested four seminal readings that, if you read and understand them, you will be able to filter out so much that is white noise these days.

As I think about it, there really are six, and I keep coming back to them because I think they stand the test of time:

The Next Great American Newspaper (2003), David Gelernter
He was trying to promote his own way to organize the Web, but in the process Gelernter hits on what I think is the essential point of the Web -- "story" becomes a slice in time, not a silo of text. We still don't get this particularly well. If we did, it might well upend the entire way we do journalism. I've built a Newsplex simulation around this called the "Acme Widget strike." It takes participants through various phases of the story, starting with the initial word at 11 p.m. (story's probably quick text, some file photos, etc. .... going to the first plant to walk out in Ireland overnight (story - wire service text) ... to having a video crew at the plant gates in the morning (the story is the video stream, later broken up into clips - why do we need much text if we just display those clips on the front page or on a microsite devoted to the strike? But the real game-changer is that midday your best reporter gets a database that lists everyone on strike. So what is your "story" now? The old way would be to go out and interview a bunch of people and write a "story."

But in the new world the best "story" might be a map - mouse over each neighborhood and get a summary of how many are affected, maybe links to video interviews or short stories, etc. Think about things like Halloween decoration stories, etc. A map is your best "story." Do you have enough kahunas next July Fourth to front a mouseover map of the local celebrations on your site (barring nothing blowing up, of course), instead of the usual rivers of text from the wire service and warmed-over features you've done. After all, isn't that why most people are likely to be coming to your site for those few hours?

The News Diamond (2007), Paul Bradshaw
Bradshaw has proposed a model that will really help you conceive of how journalism might function in the social media age. Of all the suggestions I've read and considered, Bradshaw's has the most clarity and potential of all. Still, you'll probably have to read it a couple of times to get its full import.

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable (2009), Clay Shirky
A lot of ink has been spilled over this already, and as with many of Shirky's writings, you'll want to read it two or three times and let what he's suggesting roll around in the recesses of your brain. The takeaway for me, however, is his discussion of what Dan Conover refers to as the interregnum. Shirky is the first one I've seen to really crystallize the idea that much of our "problem" or confusion right now is that we are in the middle of this unknowable period, where technology is advancing and unfolding at a pace really too rapid for us to absorb and understand it.

While this is often portrayed as a time of great business opportunity, and it is, reality is that it is also deadly for long-term business survival - you know, the kind of thing most people, including journalists, count on to get them at least part way to their retirement. Shirky points out that we don't know a lot about what happened during the last great communications interregnum either, the years after Gutenberg perfected his press until the modern form of the book was invented. It was a 50- to 70-year period of upheaval, not unlike that we are going through today (one wonders if the monks issued warnings as dire as some journalists have).

But the approximately 150-year period of stability (and ossification) we have had in the communications industry was unnatural. I suspect the meteoric change we have now will, at some point, level off a bit and we'll coalesce around some technologies, at least for a few years. It will never - at least in the foreseeable future - be as it was, but I suspect we'll advance in a series of stair steps, or plateaus, maybe lasting 20-30 years, where businesses will be built around a dominant technology but with the knowledge disruption is always possible.

Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News (2009), John Temple
Temple certainly is not without a hand in the collapse of the "Rocky" and some of the overall boneheaded decisions and assumptions made in journalism. But not only does he come clean here and not try to make himself look like a hero or martyr, he provides a valuable look at the decisions and assumptions, why they were made and why they didn't work. A must-read for journalism management classes, but really for everyone to understand how things can go horribly wrong. The money quote: The following quote explains the dilemma newspapers found themselves in. “We were not used to the market telling us how things should be. We were used to telling people what we thought they needed and how they needed it,” is how a Scripps marketing exec put it. That has to change.

The Future of Journalism in a Distributed Communication Archtecture (1996), John Newhagen and Mark Levy
Newhagen and Levy were among the first to "get it" -- to understand where this all was going. The fashionable thing these days is to talk about editors, such as they are, really being curators, leading people to the best material available and putting it in context, etc. Here's what they wrote - in 1996!

Controlling the amount and content of news on the Information Superhighway (a.k.a. data compression) is a current hot button for journalists, and the function to which editors cling with the most tenacity. Journalists increasingly reassure themselves that even cyber-journalism on the Net will still need editors to tell "audiences" what is important. ...

However, information compression is not particularly well- suited as a data reduction technique in a distributed architecture such as the Net. Computer science and engineering are focusing on more efficient forms of filtering than compression for this architecture. That implies complex and potentially egalitarian power relationships between information managers and end users. This might be manifest in the role of a pathfinder rather than agenda setter, with this later function falling back to the user, whether editors like it or not. Editors derive their power from being able to say, "because of my position in the architecture you have to pass through me to find out what's important." On the Net the pathfinder might tell the user, "tell me what you need and I will guide you through this complex environment."

Editor as "pathfinder." Sounds amazingly like "curator" to me. Again, remember this was a decade before the true implosion and at least five years before newsrooms really felt the first heat (and them mistakenly reassured themselves after the tech collapse of 2001 that this wasn't a real threat).

You should go back and reread this article once every year or so because Newhagen and Levy pretty much said in a couple thousand words what everyone else blathers on about. The article was included in The Electronic Grapevine, one of those books I'd recommend be in your library.

(In fact, I'd recommend you check out much of Newhagen's work at the University of Maryland's Advanced Media Technology laboratory. I don't think it's gotten the recognition it deserves.)

The Meanings and Implications of Convergence (2003), Rich Gordon
We throw "convergence" around a lot, but Gordon sat down and dissected it, said what does it really mean? Using a two-point framework, convergence in technology and in organizations, he came up with eight key frames. Under technology fall convergence in content creation, distribution and consumption. Under organizations are convergence in ownership, tactics, structure, information gathering and presentation. Considered that way, it's a Rubik's Cube of possibilities. No wonder we have such a hard time getting all the sides aligned. This is another article you should read periodically, first to stay grounded but second to let all the possibilities and implications roll through your mind.

Gordon's work appeared in Digital Journalism: Emerging Media and the Changing Horizons of Journalism, another book that really should be in your library because the articles in it have legs.

Plus ...

Add to your library Hamlet on the Holodeck: the future of narrative in cyberspace (1997). Janet Murray got it before most what the new ability to link would really mean for storytelling. This book is too often overlooked and lost in all the lather that has followed. At times a bit dense, this book still is a road map for what followed.

And I'd recommend you bookmark Conover's 2020 Vision: What's Next for News. I think he gets it much more right than wrong, and I have a feeling not too long down the road this will be on my seminal writings list. We are headed to an era where the narrative bias of journalism will be severely modified, if not blown up. And if you'd scoff, remember, Epic 2015 (originally 2014) bought a lot of snickering when it came out, too. Who's laughing now?

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At 10/25/09, 8:04 AM, Blogger cpetersia said...

Doug -

Thanks for this review, and for including Dan Conover, one of our more inventive thinkers.

For deep economic and social analysis, I strongly recommend Yochai Benkler and his book Wealth of Networks. For our purposes, his analysis of newspapers and economics in Chapter 6 is most helpful

We are trying to implement a new plan for a Complete Community Connection, and note progress at

At 10/25/09, 9:23 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Yes. Have been watching your progress there with interest. Keep us posted.

I agree that Benkler's work is a good one, too.


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