Commentary: Report shines little new light on journalism woes

In the winter of 2009, Seattle was the center of a global maelstrom that has yet to bottom out: the collapse of the advertiser-supported business model that funded mainstream journalism. The Seattle P-I published its last printed edition that March after a flurry of town halls and salons where journalists, academics and news junkies tried to make sense of digital disruption.

This week, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School published the third in a series of reports on the future of journalism. The title? Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.

The first half of the title acknowledges that today’s news business is wedded to a process, an era, dependent upon atoms. In a post-industrial society, wealth comes not from goods but from ideas. In a post-industrial economy, manufacturing gives way to services and information. Producing a printed newspaper — and to a lesser extent producing a television newscast — is a case study in industrial production, where raw goods (news stories) are transformed into a finished good on a large scale.

And the second half of the title? It speaks quietly to those who know there’s a problem but seem unable or unwilling to change.

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 midsize and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse. [p 2]

The authors — all part of the New York City academic journalism elite — do not focus on how to increase revenue, although they document its decline:

News has to become cheaper to produce, and cost reduction must be accompanied by a restructuring of organizational models and processes…

Though the most precipitate revenue collapse is over, we are nevertheless writing this in the 23rd consecutive quarter of year-on-year revenue decline. [p 11, emphasis added]

However, the essay, which the authors call part survey, part manifesto, lays out clearly and succinctly how American journalism “has always been subsidized,” both directly and indirectly. What I did not know, and I bet most of you don’t know either, is this: General Motors, unlike Apple or Dell, is legally prohibited from selling direct from the factory and is thus stuck with “brand advertising” as its means to persuade.

General Motors and Diageo spend significant sums annually on 30-second spots or full-page ads because they are legally stuck with brand advertising. GM might want to sell directly from the factory, as Dell does, and Diageo might be happy to offer a click-to-buy button, as Ghirardelli does, but state law forbids them to use direct marketing. Brand advertising for cars and trucks and beer and booze is propped up by government-mandated subsidy that prevents the affected businesses from investing in the alternatives. [p 6]

As manifestos go, there is nothing in this one that approaches the insights of the 1999 work Cluetrain Manifesto, also a multi-author work. In fact, one of those authors, Doc Searls, is credited with first using the phrase post-industrial journalism in 2001. Nevertheless, in what can only be construed as global irony, the day before the report was released The Columbia Journalism Review was arguing that the Washington Post should immediately erect a paywall, a portmanteau straight from an atoms-based world.

What struck me as a I skimmed the report on Tuesday and examined it more carefully on Wednesday was this: it’s full of new anecdotes for old arguments. News quality? See the SCOTUSblog v CNN on the legality of the individual mandate in ObamaCare (p 19). Citizen journalism? Japan’s tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (p 24). Journalists? Be willing to change, experiment like Andy Carvin (p 41). Successful non-journalist journalists? Nate Silver (p 42).

Food for thought, not for talk

Unless my search skills have suddenly rusted, the report has generated very little chatter. Less than 1,700 tweets with the phrase “post industrial journalism” since Tuesday. Less than a handful of analyses. Josh Benton (one of the individuals credited with helping develop an outline of the work) published a CliffNotes version of the report on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog. Jeff Sonderman summarized the report for Poynter. And Mathew Ingram, the insightful media analyst for Gigaom, concluded his summary thusly:

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.

One of the most get-right-to-the-point posts I read was on Google+. It’s by the online marketing manager for the New Zealand Post:

One of my seven year old’s favourite places in Auckland is MOTAT – The Museum Of Transport And Technology. He loves to look at the steam trains… and on Sundays, the print shop with the Gutenberg printing press… those in the industry that need to read [this report] will ignore it.

There’s a place for work like this, even though most claims lack citations (academic) or sources (journalistic). One of those places is in academia. Here’s PSU Daily Collegian editor Casey McDermot and NYU’s Jay Rosen:

Certainly, for anyone who is new to the industry, this is a must-read essay that is comprehensive, contextual and well-written. The examples of success, while anecdotal, are important. But I find it hard to believe that anyone who has skin in this game — reporter, editor, producer, photographer, advertising manager — is unaware of the overarching issues outlined here. Willfully uninformed, perhaps. But not unaware.

Prescience isn’t enough

P-I newspaper boxes. Photo Kurt Schlosser

In an age of disruption like the one we’re in, how much pain can be foregone by simply being able to look far enough into the future?

Clayton Christensen argues that legacy organizations have rational, profit-maximizing reasons for ignoring disruptive technologies that, almost universally, initially perform poorly and cost more than whatever the current product might be. And that early adopter audience? It’s unlikely to be in the legacy org’s pocket because of unscratched itches.

I’ve often used a YouTube clip from KRON-TV dated 1981 to show students that news organizations knew disruptive change was coming. So one of the highlights of the report for me was learning that Robert Kaiser, then managing editor of the Washington Post, wrote a 2,700-word memo about “the idea of personal computers and digital networks as alternate methods of delivery for media businesses” after visiting Japan in 1992.

But CW Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argue that knowledge alone is not enough:

When the full copy of Kaiser’s memo circulated among the news cognoscenti in the summer of 2012, it kicked off a flurry of public discussion about how prescient Kaiser had been, and how unfortunate it was that this incredible preview of what was coming—written before the public launch of the web—didn’t get acted on.

Much of that conversation about what might have been, however, missed a second, critical aspect of the memo: Even if the Post had executed swiftly on everything Kaiser had proposed, it wouldn’t have worked. Despite Kaiser’s brilliance in laying out the great forces then only barely visible, his memo also contains hints of the difficulties adapting to a world where the internet was normal. [p 104]

In fact, Kaiser’s memo reinforces Christensen’s theories on disruptive innovation. Regarding a proposal that the Post invest in R&D for electronic classified ads, Kaiser also said the Post should:

… reserve the right to postpone implementation until a moment when we’re confident we’ll make more money (or deter a competitor) by launching the electronic product. [p 104]

The news world of 2020

Perhaps with a nod at EPIC 2014 (a future history of the media which was produced in 2004), the report closes with a crystal ball view of 2020.

The news ecosystem of 2020 will be a study in expansion, with heightened contrasts between extremes. More people will consume more news from more sources. More of these sources will have a clear sense of their audience, their particular beats or their core capabilities. Fewer of these sources will be “general interest;” even when an organization aims to produce an omnibus collection of news of the day, the readers, viewers and listeners will disassemble it and distribute the parts that interest them to their various networks. An increasing amount of news will arrive via these ad hoc networks than via audiences loyal to any particular publication. [p 107]

Perhaps the most salient change in the next seven years will be the continued weakening of the very idea of what constitutes news, and thus what constitutes a news organization. This change, long since begun by Jon Stewart and MTV election coverage, is still at work today; to the question “Is Facebook a news organization?” neither “yes” nor “no” is a satisfactory answer. (A better reply is “Mu,” programmer-speak for “The question as asked has no sensible answer.”)  [p 116]

What’s a journalist to do? A news organization? A news consumer?

Learn to adapt. Not once. Not twice. Maybe even more than three times.

Change is still coming; “the end is not even in sight.”

Do more than hang on.

Adapt or die.

Kathy Gill was one of the academics working the worry circuit in 2009. She has almost 20 years experience in digital media—both development and instruction. Since 2003, she has taught at the University of Washington and currently manages the website for King County Elections. A political junkie, her consulting work includes four years writing about U.S. politics for about.com, one of the top 10 visited Web content sites on the Internet, and she has worked with Boeing, AT&T Wireless, SAFECO, and Microsoft on intranet projects.

  • Paul_Owen

    Kathy, it’s not the reporter, editor, producer et al who matter. It’s the consumer. Consumers will either get fed up with poor quality or will get presented with a premium service of such high value that they decide to pay for something that they think they get for free now. Great post. Thank you.

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Hi, Paul – ah, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Thinking long-term, that sort of discrimination has to be learned, nurtured … early. You know, in K-12. And at home. I’m not particularly concerned about “breaking news” or “sports” or “fashion” or even niches like this one. I am concerned about long-form (written, audio or video) stories that serve a watchdog role on business, organizations and government. Speak truth to power stories.

  • Doug

    I
    found this fascinating, and I particularly liked your link to the KRON
    piece. I remember attending a National Newspaper Association meeting in
    the early 1980s in Chicago where the buzz was all about the electronic
    newspaper. But I also remember that I
    ordered a bottle of wine from a shop in Miami to be delivered to
    Georgia. Jeff Bezos was about 18 years old at the time. Most newspaper
    folks said this will never happen and the biggest concern I remember was
    how will the reader ever print the paper in their home. This was pre-
    home fax machine days much less laser or even injet printer. While I
    agree with you that some fabulous non-journalism journalism has been
    done (I would add WikiLeaks), the question I think we ought to pose is
    how can the end consumer separate this excellent material from the
    oceans of bile that is also being done.

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Thanks, Doug! Another anecdote that illustrates one of the points of my article and the Columbia essay: seeing what comes next (apologies to Christensen) isn’t enough. Which begs the question: what are we “seeing” today that we aren’t yet acting on? For example, we all talk about “mobile” and we talk about the need for a filter for the firehouse, but what might those things *mean* in 5-8-12 years?

    • http://WiredPen.com/ kegill

      Also, there’s a media literacy component to your post, just like there is in Paul’s. Maybe it’s time to re-read old Gibson and Stephenson?

  • http://www.facebook.com/paulrschmidt Paul Schmidt

    Hi Kathy, I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention that the majority of the media have abandoned about half their potential audience- by appealing only to those on the same side of the political aisle as their “journalists”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001807202152 Pauline Cornelius

    The first Television programming provider (Dish, Direct TV, cable) that figures out how to provide and charge for only those channels requested by the consumer, will make a fortune! Targeted advertisering is always more valuable to advertisers than a shotgun approach…. and it would be cheaper to watch TV for those wanting only a few programs instead of the extra 100 they never watch. A true win-win-win situation.

  • pinilipe

    here’s a link to an industry magazine that put’s your commentary in perspective… http://www.newsandtech.com/columnists/from_the_editors_desk/article_01e3a4b2-37ee-11e2-9e7d-0019bb2963f4.html

  • LetsJustVoidTheBillOfRights

    What a self-serving pile-o-pigs… You socialist fools are finally beginning to reap what you’ve sewn. It’s such poignant irony you butt-wipes (GOD, but I do love that phrase when appropriately applied) cannot figger out what we readers learned ages ago. Why buy a paper, or other “news” publication – or advertise in one – when No News IS Better Than Obfuscation, Ommission and Outright Lies for Political Gain? Well, you steaming, stinking, traitorous turds are finally catching it between the eyes. The TRUTH is, your so-called education was a LIE, your so-called “journalism” degrees will shortly be utterly worthless and the vast majority of your careers – like so many of ours, thanks to YOU – are going-going-gone. Forever. Welcome to the real world… Oh, and don’t forget to thank the unions you’ve covered up so long for, as the door smacks your collective ass on the way OUT.