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Journalism: Dying by a thousand cuts, or being reinvented?

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There are plenty of warning signs about the ongoing disruption in the media industry, and everyone is looking for someone to blame. But when it comes to their journalistic competition, many traditional outlets still seem to look primarily at other media players such as the Huffington Post (s aol), Buzzfeed or Politico. As information architect and web developer Stijn Debrouwere notes in a smart post about the evolution of media, however, the reality is that much of what we find competing with journalism in the digital world are things we barely even recognize as journalism. How the industry adapts to that change will be the real challenge.

Debrouwere says that when he thinks about the changes in journalism, he’s not thinking about “digital first or about blogging or about data journalism or the mobile web or the curation craze,” or any of the other aspects of democratized distribution and the social web, such as citizen journalism — all of which he notes have had a huge impact. Instead, he says we should be looking at the things that are actually replacing traditional sources of journalism in our day-to-day consumption habits.

Sites like Wikipedia and Reddit are replacing some aspects of journalism

In this category, Debrouwere mentions services such as Netflix and Amazon, as well as Spotify and Rdio — all of which feature recommendation engines, and in many cases social aspects that to some extent replace reading record reviews or concert reviews in a newspaper. Not only is there less clutter, he says, but you can listen to or watch the content right away. Other sites offer topic-specific content that is much deeper and richer than any general-interest newspaper could hope to be on a subject. And then there are sites like Reddit and Quora and Wikipedia:

Reddit’s I Am A board, with threads like “I am an astronaut, ask me anything” and “I am an Australian nightclub bouncer, ask me anything,” looks like any other internet forum, but it is also what interviews and profiles can look like in the 21st century. Wikipedia has, for pretty much everyone, replaced news organizations as the place where you go to get in-depth information about anything that didn’t happen today.

Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism.

Is what Reddit does journalism? Is what Wikipedia does or Quora does journalism? These might be the kinds of questions that journalists like to get wrapped up in, but people looking for information probably aren’t as interested in splitting semantic hairs. All they know is whether it’s useful or not (EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty had an excellent response several years ago when someone asked him “Is data journalism?”).

Readers aren’t interested in debates about the nature of journalism

You can see this phenomenon in action whenever something new comes along that impinges on media consumption in some way, including Twitter. In just the past couple of years, the service has transformed itself from a harmless tool for wasting time into a real-time global newswire, but it wasn’t that long ago that critics were asking whether posting things to Twitter qualified as journalism. Before that, it was the question of “bloggers vs. journalists,” an issue that got debated endlessly. But I think Debrouwere is right when he says that this misses the point:

[Neither] YouTube nor Facebook or any of these other companies aim to be an alternative to journalism and much of what they facilitate or do doesn’t look like journalism at all. A good chunk of it contains written or spoken words, but sometimes not even that. It’s not journalism. But you’d be naive if you thought their services aren’t often consumed instead of news.

Debrouwere’s post is entitled “Fungible,” a term economists use to refer to commodities that are effectively interchangeable. Most journalists would probably rather not think of what they produce as being “fungible.” They would prefer to think of it as being unique, but that is rarely the case. As economists love to point out, your competition isn’t the product that is better, it’s the one that is good enough. And as media-studies professor Nikki Usher noted in a recent post at the Nieman Journalism Lab, newspapers may be convinced that everyone still wants and needs them — but they could be mistaken.

So what can traditional media entities do in this environment? Debrouwere has some suggestions, including focusing more on storytelling and personality “because those things are irreplaceable,” as well as “writing to peoples’ passion” and trying to be more entertaining in the same way that sites such as The Awl and Gawker are. But for many traditional journalists, that is going to sound pretty hollow — just as the recent suggestions by Washington Post president Steve Hills about having more slideshows seemed to strike a sour note for many writers there and elsewhere.

In the end, Debrouwere has a harsh question, but it bears thinking about:

Are we trying to get better at something that doesn’t matter anymore? Perhaps we should take the best traditions of journalism and do something entirely new with it. Whatever we are doing now is not working.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Denise Chan and See-ming Lee

We’ll be discussing these media issues and much more at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads on May 23 in NYC. Register today.

17 Responses to “Journalism: Dying by a thousand cuts, or being reinvented?”

  1. Flumes News

    A thought provoking piece. I am not a journalist, but I run a World News site . How so? For us at it’s about providing a digital solution for dealing with the wealth of data that it is out there, and presenting in an open and democratic way by featuring what is being talked about right now, all over the world.

  2. Stephen

    I have to point out that if you asked a room full of people today if they read newspapers, few would raise their hands. Data on historical newspaper circulation show that if you asked a room of people the same question thirty years ago…few people would raise their hands. Newspapers have always been a minority product, read by no more than about 20% of the population. The NYT has never had a circulation greater than 10% of its home market, and about half of its circulation is nation wide. Why do you care if you don’t read newspapers now? You probably wouldn’t have even thirty years ago. The dynamic was the same form back then… newspapers discover and report the stories, which were then broadcast on TV and Radio…and now internet. The economics are harsher now, but the paywalls should make newspapers viable again. Before you criticize, remember, only about 1 in 5 people have been, historically, “newspaper people”. Newspapers will shrink again behind their paid websites and attract that modest size of readers who actually want their in-depth news and will spend a long time reading it. The other 80-90% of us will just read the ripped copy on Gawker or whatever.

  3. Yes, new content creation and presentation in the digital world are serving to replace traditional journalism consumption. What is lost, in my opinion, is the ethical approach a journalist brings to the party. If that’s out the window and people don’t care, it is at the very least a threat to the health of our democracy. Call me a dinosaur. I still care as a participant and as a consumer of news.

  4. “Newspapers may be convinced that everyone still wants and needs them.”

    I don’t read newspapers or magazines at all anymore. Everything’s online.

  5. Greg Satell

    Technology both creates and destroys, so we’re gaining something and losing something. We usually end up better off.
    There’s a lot of truth to all this, but I think it misses the point.

    Journalism isn’t like any other product or service. It has an important role in a democratic society. So while technology can replace and even improve some facets, there are others that we’re losing (e.g. coverage of state houses and city halls, investigative reporting) that are very, very important.

    So while readers may not be interested in whether a newspaper survives, we should all be very interested in the corruption of Democracy that a weakened fourth estate results in.

    • Anna Tarkov

      Absolutely. So why are newspapers still doing movie reviews, overpaying comlumnists, etc if their unique specialty is covering governments, etc? As people have written here and elsewhere, they should focus like lasers on the things they do best and stop doing the rest or outsource it.

    • Nicole Solis

      The blue links are part of our template, but I’ve noticed that the contrast between the links and the white background varies widely on different monitors depending on my brightness/contrast settings. Try turning your brightness down and your contrast up (usually just a few clicks will do the trick), and see if that helps.

  6. Hunter Walk

    If I were running a traditional newspaper…

    I’d pick a handful of beats on which to focus my in-house original content creation. Then I’d supplement my coverage with coverage from other sources. Plus I’d take my original content and make it available to any other publisher via API with a minimal charge per article used + embedded advertising.

    Then I’d rearrange my site to be subject, not story based, so someone who is interested in a particular topic can reliably go to a page w new info and archives. This page would also likely rank pretty highly in SEO (and of course individual articles have deep links).

    Then… heck, Mathew let’s continue this conversation over drinks….

  7. ranjanxroy

    Glad to see others who are getting it. While news companies are endlessly debating html5 vs. apps or paywalls and frictionless sharing I can even tell you what the weather is like in NYC via Facebook before I even go outside. I do believe there will always be investigative journalism and don’t fear for the fourth estate, but the days of hundreds of papers providing movie listings, sports scores and restaurant recommendations are long, long gone.

    • Syed Karim

      “the days of hundreds of papers providing movie listings, sports scores and restaurant recommendations are long, long gone.”

      But it was the non-investigative content that subsidized the investigative work. So how does a publisher pay for a long-term investigation when the internet-only companies are doing a better job of providing those other types of information?

  8. I took a similar run at this topic last week on my blog, going a bit beyond journalism — to the whole of a love of reading and a hope for sustenance of the writing profession. I do believe journalism is noble and necessary, both career and citizen journalism. Great media brands like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and CBS News, while imperfect, value the editorial function of investigation and fact-checking, a chain of command meant to drive quality reporting rather than suppress creativity.

    If we think about the business model of journalism as simply overcoming constraints on distribution, we miss the more balancing expertise as qualifying standards of excellence. Polished copy that is “backed up” is something for which many of us will always be willing to pay good money, giving reason for the profession to still attract talent, offering a standard of living that denotes fair compensation for those who can consistently deliver.

    Here is the post I wrote following the recent L.A. Times Festival of Books:

  9. Stijn’s piece truly was excellent, wasn’t it? Fortunately for GigaOm, its business model is diversified enough — through F2F events and PaidContent — that Om and Paul have some degree of insulation from what Stijn has spotted.