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Summary:

Media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff argues that many traditional media outlets like the New York Times are trapped between the flow of real-time information and the need to stand back and analyze that stream.

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has a new book out entitled “Present Shock,” which is about modern society’s obsession with what is happening now, and how that obsession is exacerbated by tools and technology such as social media. In a recent interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, he talked about what that means for media outlets such as the New York Times, and how some of these entities are stuck between catering to what he calls “the flow” of the real-time news stream and their traditional status as gatekeepers or storehouses of knowledge.

Rushkoff argues that in a world of always-on, 24/7 news coverage from hundreds or even thousands of different sources, there is even more value in having a single entity like the 6 o’clock news that can pull things together and give people an overview of what happened — as opposed to the constant news crawl of something like CNN. That’s also an argument for newspapers, the author says, but some are caught between these two modes of information delivery:

“The Wall Street Journal has held onto a lot of what the nightly newscast provides… there’s a periodicity to what they’re doing, so they stay anchored in time. The New York Times, on the other hand, it’s so hard to even comment on them, because there are so many New York Timeses happening simultaneously. It’s schizophrenic. I don’t even know how to consume it anymore… I just feel like they haven’t distinguished between that which is fit to print and that which is part of the stream.”

Trapped between the stock and the flow

In his book, Rushkoff talks about the difference between “flowing information” — such as Twitter or Facebook or other stream-based sources — and “stored information,” of the kind that newspapers and books specialize in, where it is fixed in time and remains more or less unchanged. In a nutshell, the author says that newspapers are caught between trying to serve these two very different needs. And it’s not just those companies themselves, but news consumers as well:

“You just can’t use the newspaper to keep up in society any longer. And you can’t use live blogging to make sense of anything.”

Rushkoff isn’t the only one to notice this: for me, the tension between those two modes of information delivery — the real-time stream and the fixed-in-time reservoir — was best described by Robin Sloan, author and former Twitter staffer, in an essay about what he called “stock” and “flow.” Those terms come from the world of economics, where people are used to talking about stored value (such as cash and other monetary instruments, or physical resources) and the real-time fluctuation in the value of those things: i.e., the trading of currency or the sale of goods.

Sloan said at the time that the idea of stock and flow was “the master metaphor for media today,” and I think he was right. We are all caught between the stream and the reservoir — because we want to be part of the real-time flow, but we also want to capture the value that comes from taking the time to analyze that flow. Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal wrote about this challenge in a recent piece on the life of a digital editor, but it is something we all struggle with, whether we are the New York Times or just someone trying to keep up with the news.

(Note: We’ll be talking with a bunch of smart media types about these and other challenges at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17)

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Fedorov Oleksiy

  1. To me, newspapers and other traditional media offer a “rest stop” on the information superhighway, where one can take a break from being “always on” and reflect on the miles passed.

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  2. “Stock” and “flow” originate from systems theory (http://amzn.to/YxPzUW). However, I suggest a better model for thinking about news and news generation. The weather, an example of complex systems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_system), invites multiple levels of observation or perspective, depends on initial conditions, is constantly evolving, and infinitely discussed.

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    1. Interesting suggestion changing from stock and flow to talking about the weather…Have you seen any media companies do a good job of switching their coverage to be more weather-esque?

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  3. i subscribe to the NYT home delivery. With that subscription I also get the digital edition.

    I believe the Times does long-form journalism in its print addition or ‘stock’ if you will, and maybe more flow in the digital format. I believe this is the best way to handle the benefits of “stock and flow” reporting.

    I don’t watch CNN anymore because they seem to have committed to the flow side. The tragedy of Newtown was a prime example of reporting heresy then revising it, then ‘making’ news to fill in time. On the other hand the Weather Channel is a flow media and should be, given the subject of its coverage. No one wants to hear old weather news.

    Long form journalism can also be found at Longform.org among other places on the web. So there is crossover and nothing to get concerned about … yet.

    I leave you with this quote from Carrie Fisher, “Instant gratification takes too long.” Woe be to us and the world if this becomes the predominant demand for information.

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