Today's topic: A decade from now, how and where will the average consumer get his or her news?
Find a way to save traditional media companies Point: Alan D. Mutter
The news ecosystem in the future will be more ubiquitous, open, global, mobile and frenetic than ever, posing a great danger that consumers will be overloaded with useless, erroneous and even overtly deceptive information.
News, information and entertainment will be consumed on gadgets that make today's iPhone look like an Etch-a-Sketch. Based on your expressed preferences and past behavior, next-generation computers and smart databases will send you the information you want and need -- before you know you want it or need it.
Any number of individual bloggers, tweeters, podcasters, YouTubers and niche interactive publishing ventures will challenge the control of the public agenda long dominated by the print and broadcast media traditionally owned by large corporations.
That's fine. But I want the new voices to supplement the media, not replace them.
The profusion of interactive technologies in the last two decades has created the most information-overloaded society in history. Unfortunately, it also has undermined the economics, and therefore the effectiveness, of the print and broadcast media that traditionally have covered public affairs according to well-understood and widely embraced professional standards.
The newspaper industry is suffering most acutely from deepening declines in relevance, readership, advertising and profits. Many magazines, particularly the news weeklies, are in similar distress. Commercial broadcasting, though somewhat healthier than print at the moment, is not far behind. Television and radio audiences, ad dollars and profits are being depleted by technologies as diverse as TiVo, YouTube and iPods.
At the same time the traditional media have lost their vitality, there has been an explosion in the generation of news by ordinary individuals. Enabled by inexpensive and easy-to-use tools, consumers themselves increasingly are shaping the news through instant-blogging sites like Twitter, citizen-journalism projects like NowPublic.com and community-edited aggregation platforms like Digg.com.
Consumers are encouraged by opportunities for self-expression and social interaction at sites like Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia, which each offer exhilarating levels of personal engagement beyond anything possible with the traditional legacy media. Significantly, many young consumers are so fond of audience-participation media that they have more confidence in peer-generated content than professionally produced information.
Although the unfettered democratization of the news may be a welcome development at many levels, I fear the abundance of information actually may detract from, rather than enhance, the enlightenment of society. Here's why:
The tsunami of instantaneous information has blurred dangerously the line between information and entertainment. Various researchers have determined that modern consumers, particularly those in the youngest cohorts, favor information that entertains rather than informs. In some cases, this has not been entirely bad. The Pew Center found that fans of the comedy news show starring Jon Stewart were among the best-informed voters in the 2006 midterm elections.
On the other hand, modern consumers seem to have little patience for reading long and complex stories. That's not healthy.
The decentralization of the media through blogs, YouTube, partisan cable television channels and other venues in the 2008 presidential election demonstrated how the discourse traditionally mediated by the press has been supplanted to a large degree by ideological slant and personal opinion.
Instead of actively acquiring broad and diverse perspectives on public affairs, a growing number of individuals have retreated into self-created echo chambers where they consume only media that reinforce their prejudices.
In a parallel development, the highly effective online and mobile networks built by Barack Obama have shown political leaders of the future how they largely can bypass the media altogether.
So, in addition to bloggers, tweeters, podcasters and YouTubers, I think we will need professional journalists in the future to make sense of it all.
But blogging won't pay professional journalists a living wage. We need to find a way to save the media companies, which have served as the fourth branch of our government since the founding of the republic. We will miss them sorely if we let them go away.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor turned businessman turned independent media analyst. He lives in San Francisco and writes about the impact of technology on the media at his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur.
Don't waste time trying to preserve the past Counterpoint: Jeff Jarvis
Like you, Alan, I've been using the word "ecosystem" a lot to describe what I think will be the shape of news in the future. It will no longer by controlled by one company owning news in a community. It will be a collaborative, complementary network of people -- many paid and professional, some not -- working for their own reasons and using disparate business models to gather and share news and inform that community.
At the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, we ran a conference in new business models for news in October -- and we're embarking on a project to fill out various business models. Let me outline one: how a metro area may be covered.
A news organization's first job will be to do just that: organize news. You worry, Alan, about the plethora of news and information on the Internet. Well, where you see a problem, I see an opportunity. Journalists can add value to the ecosystem by aggregating (that is, collecting) and curating (that is, selecting) the best news and people. Instead of editing only a staff's content, they can edit the world around them.
When contributors to this sphere do something badly, as you also worry, then the journalists' response should be to help them do it better, to educate them. That is a new skill -- and generosity -- for journalists, but I see it happening already as newspapers hold training sessions for their communities.
The key value professionals will add will still be reporting: the blogging beat reporter staying on top of city hall, in the classic example. At our conference, the group imagining the new newsroom a year (not even a decade) hence proposed a smaller group of employees with these jobs: reporter, curator, organizer, educator.
Another key value news organizations can bring (of if they don't, Google will) is financial support: creating an advertising -- yes, advertising -- network that serves today's marketers and (here's the key to growth) an entirely new population of small businesses that never could afford papers that were too big, too expensive and too inefficient. We need to redefine advertising with them, including even helping the local business succeed in Google search. I believe that advertising sales, like content creation, will be collaborative, with many selling into this network.
As I said, there will be many players and many business models at play. There will still be one or more news organizations with professionals adding these services and paying for them with advertising. They will be much smaller and more efficient. There will also be, as there are today, laid-off journalists starting their own local businesses covering towns or beats, like sports, next to newcomers doing the same thing. There will be people who volunteer, podcasting their school board meetings just because they care. Investigative reporting may be supported by the public, NPR-style: a local Pro Publica (a foundation-backed reporting organization) or individual reporters paid for through Spot.US (a California start-up that enables individuals to pledge support for specific reporting).
I believe the sooner that papers cast off their paper and begin to invent and experiment with this future -- or another version of it -- the better off both journalism and our communities will be. Preserving the past will get us nowhere. We must build the future of journalism, and there is no longer any time to waste.
Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?," teaches journalism at the City University of New York and writes about news and media on his blog, Buzzmachine.com, and as a columnist for the Guardian.