Monday, April 5, 2010

Whither the Future of Journalism?

One of the subjects that come up frequently in discussions about the role of blogs is, “Are bloggers journalists?” Clay Shirky,author of "Here Comes Everybody" explains it through some insightful observations which I’m paraphrasing here (really, you gotta read this book!)…

A profession exists to solve a hard problem, one that requires some sort of specialization. They exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management. The scarcity of the resource itself creates the need for a professional class. “The old dictum that freedom of the press exists only for those who own a press points to the significance of the change. To speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly.” And THAT explains why the Chinese government is so paranoid about Google.

For journalists, the resource (access to the means of distributing information, news, opinion) is no longer scarce, so we’re seeing the mass amateurization of the profession. And to make matters worse, when the resource was limited, an editor’s role was necessary to determine “Why publish this?” Now, the question isn’t why, it has become “Why not?” So where previously, scarcity of the means of distribution meant journalism’s function was to filter information BEFORE publication. Now filtering comes AFTER publication (think Search, Google Alerts, RSS feeds).

Another way Professor Shirky phrases it is, “If everyone can do something, it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital.” And that’s the conundrum journalism…and many other professions created from the old constraints face.

Translate this to marketing and you can see the difficulty many command and control organizations face: “in the open source world, trying something is often cheaper than making a formal decision about WHETHER to try it.” Yowza! The result, lots of 25 year old entrepreneurs eschewing the plodding slope of corporate advancement for the philosophy of “Just Do It.” Sphere: Related Content


camper said...

Then maybe a solution for journalists is to think of another profession where the shift happened that anyone could do the work so we can see how it turned out and what those people did.... I can't think of any offhand though. You?

Steve Raye said...

A logical thought. Problem is, I can't think of a referential solution either. The internet is relatively new as a career-killer and I'm not aware of any Lazarus-like professions out there...yet.

camper said...

I wonder what all those scribes did after the printing press...

But seriously, I wonder if 'unskilled labor' is an analogy that works. I mean, construction workers who dig ditches make more than writers.

aaron said...

While there is no longer scarcity in overall content, there is a scarcity of reliably true content.

Just because you read it on the internet doesn't make it true. A problem with social media is the unfettered unverifiable nature of so many things.

If enclopedia retailers and researches thought that Wikipedia was the end of organized, authoritative research, they should take note of it only being the beginning of the end. Wikipedia at least has the benefit of other people going back through and updating or removing questionable content.

Take a medium like Twitter, for example, and it's just one person's unfiltered vomit in cyberspace, 160 characters at a time. The most recent example? Someone tweeted that the second Icelandic volcano was erupting, only to correct the tweet a while later saying that the research camera had been pointed the wrong direction.

Of course, I heard that from someone else who read someone else's tweet. Is it true? Maybe, maybe not.

I think there will, at least for the foreseable future, be a need for paid journalism that people can depend on for verified information. What that price is, however, is another question.

Jason Debly said...

I think the observation in your post that journalism has a struggle. The struggle is to be relevant and to provide a specialist service not available to everyone.

I think some examples of journalism successes do exist like the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post where people will pay for online subscriptions because the articles are superior to what is to be found for free on other sites including blogs.

As for blogs, they are like anything else. Some are great and some are not. In my case I post reviews of scotch whisky on a blog. The posts comprise solely my opinion. Part of the reason I started the blog was because I was frustrated with the inability to find genuine product reviews of whiskies of the world. Instead, every search for a tasting note ended up with the tasting note supplied by the distiller or distributor touting a spirit as the very best. I found it odd that I would encounter horrible whiskies but there were no negative reviews.

What was happening is that the small, niche press devoted to whisky essentially parroted the corporate advertising speaking notes of the distiller.

I am not saying my site is great or even others, but I find it offers an alternative to mainstream corporate speak that is often nothing more than advertising cloaked by a journalist's words.

any how, interesting topic.


Steve Raye said...

Jason: Thank you for your comment. While most reviews tend to be positive, there are folks who are also posting the other just one example, see Lance Mayhew's guest post Colleen Graham's cocktails page:

Sure most spirits writing is positive. Perhaps it's common courtesy (if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all), but almost all the editorial you'll see in the mainstream press and the trades for that matter tends to be positive too.

I've had this conversation with a number of publishers who are forthright it saying they don't publish negative reviews...when they review a product that doesn't measure up, the tendency is not to publish the review at all. Sure, part of the motivation is not wanting to antagonize prospective advertisers, but a part is also the publisher's POV that readers are interested in reccos on what TO drink, vs. what NOT to drink.

But back to the larger question on journalism, I agree there should be a fourth estate whose job is to be the information police. The issue is not what should or shouldn't be, but whether society values the role sufficiently to make it a paying profession. Right now we're in an environment of tremendous disruption of the status quo. "Institutions" in all areas are being undermined. The whole notion of user generated content, wiki's, lack of legitimate peer review and editorial oversight are all important questions. For those on the sharp point of journalism the key question is, can they weather the storm and still make a living.

Oh, and one last point on information from distillers...I can't speak for others, but as far as our company is concerned, we take great pains to make sure that what we write and disseminate is not just promotional puff, but rather researched and written with editorial integrity and oversight.