There’s been a lot written over the past few years about the future of the news industry — how the rise of the web and social media have disrupted it, and how traditional players like the New York Times and others can recover from this disruption and repair their business models by using things like paywalls. But a new manifesto from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University says that trying to figure out how to repair or rebuild the news industry is a waste of time: the paper’s authors argue that there is no such thing as the “news industry” any more, in any realistic sense, and the sooner both new and existing players get used to that idea the better off everyone will be.
The authors of the Tow report are well known to anyone who pays attention to the future of journalism: Clay Shirky is a journalism professor and author of books like “Here Comes Everybody,” C.W. Anderson is an assistant professor at the College of Staten Island and a frequent commentator on media and cultural theory, and Emily Bell is the former head of digital at The Guardian newspaper and now director of the Tow Center. The paper — which Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab has done a nice summary of — is a combination of analysis of the current situation, philosophical statements about the nature of the problems facing the industry, and recommendations for how to adapt.
“[This paper] is not, however, about ‘the future of the news industry,’ both because much of that future is already here and because there is no such thing as the news industry any more. There used to be one, held together by the usual things that hold an industry together: similarity of methods among a relatively small and coherent group of businesses, and an inability for anyone outside that group to produce a competitive product. Those conditions no longer hold true.”
Things will probably get worse before they get better
As the paper notes, if you wanted to sum up the past decade in the news business, you might do so with a single phrase: “Everyone suddenly got a lot more freedom. The newsmakers, the advertisers, the startups, and, especially, the people formerly known as the audience have all been given new freedom to communicate, narrowly and broadly, outside the old strictures of the broadcast and publishing models.” But this has not been a panacea for journalism — in fact, as Shirky has said before, things are likely to get a lot worse before they start getting better, and there’s no guarantee of the latter:
“The effect of the current changes in the news ecosystem has already been a reduction in the quality of news in the United States. On present evidence, we are convinced that journalism in this country will get worse before it gets better, and, in some places (principally mid-size and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse.”
Instead of some magic wand for returning the industry to its glory days, the paper says it wants to help “limit the scope, depth and duration of that decay by pointing to ways to create useful journalism using tools, techniques and assumptions that weren’t even possible 10 years ago.” Among other things, the report stresses the need to embrace techniques such as crowdsourcing — since the people formerly known as the audience (to use journalism professor Jay Rosen’s phrase) are often better able to provide real-time information about certain events, such as the Arab Spring revolutions or Hurricane Sandy — as well as structured data and algorithms.
The Tow paper also discusses a number of alternative models for journalism, including the non-profit approach taken by outlets such as ProPublica, and the “artisanal” approach of startups such as Homicide Watch — the real-time, data-driven site founded by a husband-and-wife team — and former startups that have become businesses such as Talking Points Memo. And it makes a number of recommendations for what existing organizations (and journalists) can do to take advantage of the changes occurring around them, including the need to form partnerships with startups and alternative sources.
There is no way to put Humpty Dumpty together again
There are a couple of significant barriers to this happening, however, and the main ones are the inflexibility and reluctance to change that exists in both media institutions and individual journalists — something that others such as media economist Robert Picard have also mentioned:
“Traditional news organizations have tended to conserve both working methods and hierarchy, even as the old business models are collapsing, and even when new opportunities do not fit in those old patterns… Adapting to a world where the people formerly known as the audience are not readers and viewers but users and publishers will mean changing not just tactics but also self-conception. Merely bolting on a few new techniques will not be enough to adapt to the changing ecosystem.”
According to the authors, the important things for media institutions to realize are that “First, there is no way to preserve or restore the shape of journalism as it has been practiced for the past 50 years, and second, it is imperative that we collectively find new ways to do the kind of journalism needed to keep the United States from sliding into casual self-dealing and venality.” While some are hoping that paywalls and other forms of reader subscription will make up for the rapid — and continuing — decline in advertising revenue, the Tow report says that this is not likely to be the case:
There has been some good news in the form of direct reader fees for digital properties, using the ‘payment after a page-view threshold’ model. These fees are obviously welcome; however, few large publications implementing them have managed to get to even 5 percent adoption by their web users, and the page threshold virtually guarantees that most such users will never be asked to pay. As a result, though the new income serves to slow the reduction of revenue, it does not stop it, much less reverse it.
A smaller, more flexible, more networked future
So what does a future of “post-industrial journalism” look like? According to the Tow Center paper, it contains a much smaller number of traditional outlets — many of which will also have become smaller in order to contain their costs — and a growing number of non-traditional providers, some of which may work hand-in-hand with mainstream sources. Getting to this future, the authors say, will mean “rethinking every organizational aspect of news production, increased openness to partnerships, increased reliance on publicly available data and increased use of individuals, crowds and machines to produce raw material.”
In this future, the journalist “has not been replaced but displaced” — forced to move higher up the editorial food-chain to a role that filters, interprets and makes sense of the information coming from social streams, individuals, crowds and data. Unfortunately, the authors argue that “too many reporters remain locked into a mindset where a relatively limited list of sources is still relied on to gather evidence for most important stories, with the occasional rewritten press release or direct observation thrown in.” For them, the future is fairly bleak.
What is required, the authors argue, is a form of journalism that works “between the crowd and the algorithm,” and an ecosystem where the journalist serves “as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller.” Those who can develop or expand those skills will do well — and news outlets that re-orient themselves so that they can focus on that approach, in whatever sphere they decide to, will be the ones that prosper, whether they are new or traditional.
One of the problems with manifestos like the one the Tow report’s authors have written (in the interests of full disclosure, I know and admire all three of them) is that they wind up preaching to the converted and have little or no effect on those who need to hear their advice the most. Innovators like our own Om Malik or Josh Marshall or the founders of ProPublica and Homicide Watch know what the report’s authors are describing — they have lived it, and are living it. And the newspaper editors who need to hear it most will likely never read it, or ignore the most important parts.
That said, however, if anyone is looking for a handy guide to the future that we are already living in, this is as good as any. And if you work for a traditional media company, memorize its contents and then slip a copy into the pile of newspaper stories on your senior editor’s desk before you leave.