Reframing the conversation

There were two excellent posts published this weekend on the future of the news industry. They emphasize long-term scenario vision, and technological empowerment. The first, Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable“, I caught from a Twitter link sharing storm Friday evening. Although there were a number of money quotes, his perspective on disruptive technology as revolution stuck with me (emphasis mine):

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

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.

He describes the situation well, and I’m ready to move on from the discussion of whether the newspaper is obsolete or not. In most markets it is, in some it isn’t, and a large majority of the conversation on the web (news organizations included) is based more on opinion than actual data.

The trend in news production and distribution, handily covered in Steven B. Johnson’s “Old Growth Media and The Future of News,” is towards the web:

I think it’s much more instructive to anticipate the future of investigative journalism by looking at the past of technology journalism. When ecologists go into the field to research natural ecosystems, they seek out the old-growth forests, the places where nature has had the longest amount of time to evolve and diversify and interconnect. They don’t study the Brazilian rain forest by looking at a field that was clear cut two years ago.

That’s why the ecosystem of technology news is so crucial. It is the old-growth forest of the web. It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve. The Web doesn’t have some kind intrinsic aptitude for covering technology better than other fields. It just has an intrinsic tendency to cover technology first, because the first people that used the web were far more interested in technology than they were in, say, school board meetings or the NFL. But that has changed, and is continuing to change. The transformation from the desert of Macworld to the rich diversity of today’s tech coverage is happening in all areas of news.

One characteristic of the traction both of these posts have gathered is that they put poignant context to the entire “newspapers are dying” conversation. They take a long now view that is refreshing, to say the least.

For adaptation and survival, it is also critical newspapers reframe the conversation about their futures. This comes from the language one uses in discussion. For instance, if you talk about the “newspaper industry,” then of course newspapers are dying. They are a terribly outdated form of information distribution. If we’re talking about “news organizations,” however, it’s an entirely different conversation.

The same thing applies to journalism. News organizations need to start by asking “what is journalism?” and then identify ways in which the technology can make their work relevant again. The terminology you use can define your perspective on an issue and influence how your approach its solution. Choose them wisely.

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