At SXSW ‘09, Steven Johnson sees thriving ‘news ecosystem’

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Steven Johnson and the growth of the news ecosystem. Credit: David Sarno / Los Angeles Times

When the going gets tough, get out the metaphors. That strategy was demonstrated nicely Friday at the South by Southwest conference by media and technology scholar Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson). In addressing the paradigm shift that’s clear-cutting old, tree-based media such as newspapers and magazines, and fertilizing the many digital news biomes, Johnson developed the picture of the news as a thriving, jungle-like ecosystem:

Today’s media is in fact much closer to a real-world ecosystem in the way it circulates information than it is like the old industrial, top-down models of mass media. It’s a much more diverse and interconnected world, a system of flows and feeds – completely different from an assembly line. That complexity is what makes it so interesting, of course, but also what makes it so hard to predict what it’s going to look like in five or ten years.

Johnson began his talk by observing that when he was a college student and Macintosh computer fanatic in 1987, he had only one regular outlet for news -- the monthly issue of MacWorld magazine: in essence, one static source containing stuff that had happened a month earlier. As time went on, more current Mac and Apple news became available, first through dial-up networking services like CompuServe, then on the incipient World Wide Web. Technology news sources, both Apple-related and otherwise, continued to proliferate and diversify as the Web grew:


We all know where this is headed, but let me spell it out just for the record. If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology – the iPhones and MacBook Airs – but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make it to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt.

Because Tech news planted its online roots more than a decade ago, Johnson says, you can think of it as the news ecosystem’s ‘old-growth forest,’ compared with ...

... other areas that have emerged only in the last few years. Johnson pointed to Web coverage of politics: Media-wise, the 2008 election was a world away from the pre-Web 1992 election, when news choices for consumers were shockingly limited from today’s perspective: You had your daily newspaper, a few TV news shows and whatever magazines you had delivered. It was a news ‘desert’ rather than a rain forest.

The rain forest model, as Johnson noted, is by no means an instant panacea for the ailing newspaper industry, whose decline has been accelerated by the depressed economy. As vibrant as the Web culture may be, producers still haven’t found a way to make it into a viable business and can’t yet support the more expensive types of news gathering that are often cited as the most worrying casualties of the current contraction of the news business.

But that’s where Johnson extends his old-growth metaphor to the many kinds of niches that have begun to come alive online:

What’s happened with technology and politics is happening elsewhere too, just on a different timetable. Sports, business, reviews of movies, books, restaurants – all the staples of the old newspaper format are proliferating online. There are more perspectives; there is more depth and more surface now. And that’s the new growth. It’s only started maturing...

As the ecology of news grows and reticulates, he continues, professional news gathering organizations may see their missions become more focused, and their products even more valuable. Pessimists see public-interest journalism getting crowded out by the little guys. But, Johnson says:

I think it’s just as possible that all this innovation elsewhere will free up the traditional media to focus on things like war reporting because they won’t need to pay for all the other content they’ve historically had to produce. This is Jeff Jarvis’ motto: do what you do best, and link to the rest. My guess is that the venerable tradition of the muckraking journalist will be alive and well ten years from [now]: partially supported by newspapers and magazines, partially by non-profit foundations, and partially by enterprising bloggers who make a name for themselves by breaking important stories.

-- David Sarno