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Journalism and technology

November 20, 2011

Stay in the game, but let go

The Internet and new technologies have proven severely disruptive for the traditional newspaper business model, leading to falling subscriptions and increased numbers of redundancies of professional news staff. The outcry for a “digital replacement model” in the midst of this distress is understandable, though unfortunately little promising, given that the Internet has eroded the underlying economic model of traditional newspapers.

Old organizational structures are built for centralized industrialized production of information. Given the traditionally high cost of publishing, print journalism used to be built on economies of scale. However, the Internet and new technologies have made publishing costs negligible. Making information available to the public is not a problem anymore – “sources have started to go direct”.

Additionally, the move from print to digital has fundamentally changed the way we consume news. Rather than consuming news in bundles, as it is the case with traditional newspapers, we use feed readers, or headline aggregators like Digg to consume stories individually – often without even knowing in what media the article is actually featured. A resulting, sharp decline in advertising revenues has further weakened the position of traditional newspapers.

Now, there are legitimate concerns about these trends and their potential impact on society that need to be raised. The quality of news is certainly one of these concerns. More content certainly doesn’t mean better content. By contrast, as Jaron Lanier points out, the opposite might happen: a loss of personality and individualism due to an increasing effort to aggregate and consolidate individual sources of information (E.g. Wikipedia, meta-blogs, etc.).

Nevertheless, it is premature to conclude that only professionally trained journalists from traditional news institutions can provide high quality content. What about professional journalists, who write their own blogs? A similar argument for professional journalism exists around providing ideas and inspiration. While this is certainly true, the argument misses the respective feedback loop of journalists getting ideas from their sources.

There is certainly a need in the future for high quality news, but the way it will be provided is still to be determined. The entire industry is still in the process of deep transformation with new and evolving technologies continuously shaking up the status quo. Hence, the outcome of the ongoing technological transition becomes impossible to predict.

So rather than trying to hold on to what worked before or trying to figure out “the next” model” for tomorrow, traditional news institutions need to embrace this transition period and all the various stakeholders that will shape its outcome. What makes this process difficult are the various losses that are implied. Journalists need to be ready to renegotiate their identities as publishers, owners of content, controllers of distribution and beneficiaries of monopolies.

So the hard work that traditional news institutions have to do, is to identify what of the “journalist DNA” needs to be persevered and what needs to be replaced in order to strive in this new environment. The Guardian represents a great example of how a major news institution embraces new opportunities that are offered through the Internet and new technologies. Rather than trying to argue why bloggers cant replace professional journalists, one needs to partner with these important stakeholders to better understand the possible characteristics of future successful business models in within the “information industry”.

As Shirky suggests, the transition we are in now will continue to be messy for a while. “Old stuff gets broken faster than new stuff emerges”. This requires existing industry players to have a stomach for uncertainty and ambiguity. Rather than ceding to internal and external pressures to come up with the “right” model tomorrow, it is more important to emphasis a healthy “trial and error” search process with flexibility and adaptability at its core. News people need to find new ways of inspiring people, rather than trying to fix the “old”. Closer relationship with their readers and other stakeholders will be an essential element in this process.

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