Is journalism as we know it becoming obsolete?

old newspapers

There have been plenty of obituaries written for the newspaper business, most of which have a kernel of truth to them — but is journalism as we know it at risk as well? Dave Winer, a programming guru and visiting scholar at the New York University school of journalism, says it is. In a blog post on Friday, Winer argued that “journalism itself is becoming obsolete” because now anyone can do it. Is he right? In some ways, yes. One thing is for sure: Journalism is being transformed by the web and by real-time publishing networks and what Om calls the “democracy of distribution.” Whether that’s good or bad depends on your point of view.

Winer’s post was actually about the recent kerfuffle over TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington’s launch of a venture-capital fund, a topic that has received more than enough coverage already elsewhere. But in the process of talking about that issue — and how Arrington has never made any claims to be a journalist — Winer said that as far as he is concerned, journalism as we know it is becoming obsolete, in part because non-journalists can do it just as easily as journalists can. The bottom line, he says, is that journalism itself was “a response to publishing being expensive.”

It cost a lot of money to push bits around the net before there was a net. They had to have huge capital-intensive printing plants, fleets of trucks and delivery boys with paper routes. Now we can hear directly from the sources and build our own news networks. It’s still early days for this… but in a generation or two we won’t be employing people to gather news for us. It’ll work differently.

If it’s important, the news will find me

Winer is certainly right about the fact that the way we consume “news,” and even where that news comes from, has changed dramatically in just the last few years. For many people, as we’ve described before at GigaOM, news now comes from their social graph via Facebook, or through a Twitter stream — possibly read in a news-curation app like Flipboard or Zite, or through an aggregator like Techmeme or Memeorandum, which collects news hits published on blogs by people who may or may not even see themselves as journalists.

But is it right to say that journalism was a response to the fact that publishing was expensive? Not really. Newspapers and their whole business model, which involved becoming a mass medium in order to aggregate eyeballs and then sell them to advertisers, was a response to publishing being expensive. And many of the things that are most criticized about the newspaper approach to journalism — including what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” and the omniscient tone that many journalists take — are definitely an outgrowth of that model.

But none of those things are really journalism, which is why media theorist Clay Shirky says that rather than focus on saving newspapers, he would prefer to focus on saving journalism. And what is journalism? Everyone has their own definition, but I think it’s fundamentally about a spirit of inquiry, of curiosity, of wanting to make sense of things. It’s something like the spirit of scientific inquiry, as Matt Thompson noted recently in a post at the Poynter Institute. It has very little to do with specific tools or specific methods of publishing.

Random acts of journalism

Winer is right about journalism changing because anyone can do it, however, as we’ve also described a number of times. That trend, which has turned sources of news into publishers (allowing them to “go direct” as Winer likes to say) began with blogs and has continued with Twitter and Facebook and other tools. Andy Carvin, who has become a one-man newswire by curating news about the Arab Spring on Twitter, says he prefers to think of journalism as an act rather than a profession. So people like Sohaib Athar, a Pakistan resident who live-tweeted the raid on Osama bin Laden as it was happening, engaged in what Carvin calls a “random act of journalism.”

Instead of saying journalism is obsolete, I would rather say it as evolving and expanding — and I happen to believe that’s a good thing. What does it consist of now? Most of the things it used to, as well as some new ones: building connections with your reader community is a journalistic skill, and curation of the type Carvin does (and the NYT is experimenting with via its @NYTlive Twitter account) certainly is. And we still need people to confirm facts and ferret out misinformation when news is breaking, which is what makes Snopes one of my favorite non-journalistic journalism sites.

We need people who can interview other people and make sense of what they say — which is why Reddit has some aspects of journalism to it, and Quora does too (Winer recently asked why a newspaper like the New York Times hasn’t adopted an approach like Quora). All these skills and more are required — and the ability to aggregate things in a smart way, and the ability to understand and make sense of large amounts of data.

Will journalism as a whole suffer because some people engage in conflicts of interest or abuse anonymous sources or break any of the other so-called rules of journalism? Not really. Most of the popular newspapers and media outlets of the last 50 years have done all that and worse (yes, even worse than News Corp.’s phone hacking). Newspapers may come and go and bloggers may rise and fall, but journalism continues — not so much as an institution, but as a state of mind and a series of beliefs, and a way of behaving. There are just more ways to do it now, rightly or wrongly.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users ShironekoEuro and Zarko Drincic

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