Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowlege, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

‘What’s next for the future of news’

Ryerson University’s school of journalism brought together Internet thinker Clay Shirky and polemicist Andrew Keen together with the Globe and Mail’s Mathew Ingram for a discussion on the future of news.

If you don’t follow the above on Twitter, here are their Twitter handles and a link to their blogs:

Ingram blogged Saturday about the panel. Keen and Shirky offered no follow-up.*

* Addendum: There was no blog post by those two. Keen made a tweet containing links to some of the blog coverage (including this), but Shirky never acknowledged on Twitter that he either spoke in  Toronto or offered any follow-up on his remarks here.*
Addendum 2: Keen wrote a blog posting Sunday referencing his Toronto appearance. In it, he explained why U.S. newspapers are worse off than those in Europe and Latin America (hint: They’re too objective). Shirky left a comment on this blog.
Addendum 3: Keen had another post at the Telegraph on Oct. 8: The Internet will devour newspapers

For background, Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody, described as a “book about organizing without organizations.” Keen is author of Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, wikis, social networking and the digital world are assaulting our economy, our culture and our values. Ingram is communities editor at the G&M.

Here’s some key take-away points the speakers made. I freely admit this post is excessively comprehensive (my counterpoints and context are interspersed below), but you can work through it as you see fit:

  • we’re in a revolution: U.S. newspapers are being simultaneously hit by falling revenues, a shift from an industrial to an intellectual model and a new culture of inclusion from an audience that wants to take part
  • we’re in the early days of this revolution, which Andrew Keen says is directed against centralization. There’s no guarantee on how things will play out, but chances are that the media world of tomorrow will look radically different than the one of today
  • the media is simply the first ecosystem to be hit; others may follow
  • yes there’s too much information, but that’s been a problem for centuries. The real issue is filter failure
  • in disruptive times, experimentation beats planning
  • consumers trust process and transparency more than institutions
  • the Internet doesn’t raise revenues. It lowers costs
  • news is a public good and should be freely available
  • the accountability journalism performed by newspapers (when they are on their game) will suffer through this period of adjustment, and there’s no easy fix for that
  • brand-name journalists may hold the cards in this new world
  • the next-gen journos may face a choice of being poor and serious or financially comfortable performers

Here is the live blog link. Ryerson j-prof Joyce Smith recorded the blow-by-blow with help from Melissa Wilson. There will eventually be video posted. When that happens*, I’ll add the link and adjust any quotes in the text that follows below.

* It happened on Oct. 7:

Here are some tweets I made (Ingram cut questions off when I was third in line) after returning home:

Q I would have asked at #whatsnext: What becomes of the role of journo as honest broker when in an era of crazy?

@cshirky spoke about Wikipedia and Google w/o musing about what one could term Google-Wikipedia complex.

Shirky said the Internet is great at reducing costs. Raising revenues? Not so much.

News biz doesn’t just have a rev. problem. Shirky says. Death of industrial model, new culture of inclusion are also factors.

I would have asked this about the RMN (http://bit.ly/39BNen ). Had it done everything digitally right, would org. be alive?

@ajkeen said the cult of insisting on the humility of the j-ist is the death knell of journalism.

Another Q for #whatsnext: How disruptive will social media prove to be for the news ecosystem? Alas, Qs ended at 7 p.m.

The Twitter hash tag was #whatsnext.

I curated a number of tweets from that stream. I’ve generally reordered them from start to finish, and have added material from my notes:

Welcome to the revolution

@jsource: Mathew Ingram introduced the panelists & Shirky noted that there isn’t one central problem, it’s a full change in the landscape

@wmacphail: Shirky: If all the revenue came back 1) bundle of news is now intellectual 2) shock of inclusion, public are participants

@DaveDutton: #whatsnext. Shirky: central problem is there isn’t one but rather sea change. Revenue. Intellectual bundling challenge. Inclusion.

In starting out, Shirky said: “The central problem is there is no central problem. So many things are changing at once.” He described it as a “whole ecosystem change.”

Currently, everyone is focusing on the business problems of newspapers, he said.

However, I don’t recall anyone mentioning that the U.S. is only now seemingly emerging from a nasty, two-year recession that sapped the revenues of businesses and consumers alike — although I acknowledge that metro newspapers in the U.S. are suffering from structural economic problems, along with some bad corporate-level moves.

Shirky said even if all the revenue were to come back to newspapers, they would still face two enormous challenges:

  • the bundling of news has shifted from an industrial to an intellectual model
  • the shock of inclusion

Shirky thinks the way newspapers organize information makes no sense in the online world (although one might consider that newspaper content is organized differently online than in the paper).

Had I got a question in, I would have asked about a metaphor I’ve played with: Newspapers as midmarket department stores. Retail has generally become more specialized, with high-end (Holt Renfrew), low-cost, low-margin (Wal-Mart) and many specialized shops clustered in portals (re: “malls”) or community neighbourhoods. But the midmarket department stores of my youth are largely gone, and I wonder if it’s part of the same dynamic that Shirky describes for newspapers.*
* Shirky left a comment on this point

The other issue is the way the audience wants “full participation in the media landscape.”

That could have been challenged. When I moderated CAJ-L, an email discussion list for journos, about 80 per cent of members were lurkers. I’ll be most online comments at news sites come from “regulars,” and a relatively small number of people compose most Wikipedia entries. While the audience can participate in a two-way, real-time convo with journalists, most still don’t, so it would be more accurate to say a small portion of the audience wants full participation.
@mattbraga: Keen: Noting the decentralization of the media and the information we gleam from it nowadays.

Keen didn’t disregard Shirky’s three main points. However, “Clay says there’s no one thing when it’s a revolution against centralization,” he said.

He referenced Shirky’s famous essay from this past March: Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable. Read it if you haven’t done so; it pulls many of Shirky’s current thoughts together.

Keen agrees we’re living through revolutionary times. “The news media is the first ecosystem to experience this revolution.”

Keen said he wrote Cult of the Amateur in 2006 in part as a response to what he saw as the “irrational exuberance” (originally a phrase put forward by former U.S. Fed chair Allan Greenspan during the dot-com bubble) of those times. Remember, Time had declared You media to be its person of the year in late 2006. A tweet:

DaveDutton: #whatsnext keene describes self as polemicist, cult of the
Amateur was grenade tossed amid the happy talk. Shirky: ‘and it worked’*
* There are some amusing inconsistencies in Keen’s positions that stem from his role as polemicist. Observe:
jsource: Keen thinks there is something troubling about a so-called revolution announced by a tiny, American-dominated elite (i.e. Twitter, Google, Facebook – BD)

jsource: Andrew Keen: I like Twitter because its pure in the sense that it allows anyone to very simply expres themselves

caitlinkealey: #whatsnext @ajkeen just admitted that Twitter allows talent to rise to the top going against cult of the amateur

However, Keen said he’s become less skeptical in the ensuing years. More tweets:

@sklive: #cshirky: There iwas a brief period where I was a digital
utopian… Then I was an optimist. Now I’m a revolutionary.#whatsnext
#wnfn #j
jsource: Clay Shirky: I’ve moved from optimism to being a revolutionary #whatsnext

Here’s the quote as I wrote it down; it’s probably close but I can’t guarantee it’s perfect. “I the early 1990s, I was utopian. Then I was a mere optimist. Now I’m a revolutionary.” That was the thrust of his essay — that what is happening is a revolution and not an upgrade, he said.

The change will be so transformative, the new businesses will be unrecognizable from the old, Shirky said.

From the live blog:

Joyce Smith:  While there was once a sense that there wasn’t much wrong with the core of the media model that would evolve along with the Web, Clay thinks that now the transformation will mean that the old and new forms will bear little resemblance to each other.

Melissa Wilson:  Clay: The paradox of being a revolutionary is that the bigger deal you think something is going to be, the more you are unable to predict what its eventual effects are going to be.wmacphail: Shirky: There is no business that Twitter is upsetting. It has no analogue, analogue. #whatsnext

Melissa Wilson:  Clay: Twitter isn’t a media that has any analog. There is no business that Twitter is upsetting the way that blogs upset columnists.

You can see by the following cluster of tweets that Shirky had let loose with a money shot:

@rachelnixon: “In times of disruption, experimentation beats planning by a long chalk,” says @cshirky. Amen. #whatsnext

@MHStewart: RT @rachelnixon Profound historical shift happening and the
media is the first to experience this “edge revolution” says @ajkeen
#whatsnext

@caitlinkealey: #whatsnext shirky says anytime in a media revolution there is always a worry of freedom versus quality

DaveDutton: #whatsnext Shirky: now says revolutionary but cannot yet extrapolate full effects of change. Experimentation beats planning by long shot.

Experimentation trumps planning

“In times of disruption, experimentation beats planning by a long shot.”

Rachel Nixon, one of those giving her imprimatur to that statement, is executive director of digital media for CBC News.

This led into a discussion about this time over which was the bigger, more relevant revolution, the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century or the industrial revolution of the 18 century. Here are some of the tweets:

wmacphail: Shirky: Abundance breaks old filters

sklive: #cshirky: A newsroom is no more logical a place to putWeb server than a monastery was [to put] a printing press

sklive: #cshirky:Newspapers filter before they publish…Filter failure
has been around since 15c …Google is the better model. #whatsnext
#wnfn #j

@mdash: The Gutenberg revolution never happened according to
@dougsaunders #whatsnext http://dougsaunders.tumblr.com/post/98485554

DaveDutton: #whatsnext shirky cites reeformmation keene cites appearance of capitalist economy as more useful starting point re end of cent mass mkt

wmacphail: Keen: The way to make sense of what’s happening now is to historicize it either 15th or 19th c

@joncrowley: @ajkeen arguing that industrial rev is a better analogue for new media than the launch of printing press.

Shirky noted the Catholic Church was one of the institutions most upset about the advent of the printing press. The church feared massive disruption, and it was absolutely right, he said. But the full effects took centuries to play out. He thinks we’re at about 1470 in terms of the equivalence for the Internet’s development.

Filter failure

As with the explosion of the printed word, “abundance breaks all filters,” he said. “Intellectual overload has been a reality since the 1500s.” He sees the problem as filter failure.

Igram asked whether traditional news publishers could service as a filter. “No, because they filter before they publish,” Shirky said.

Keen jumped in by noting the birth of individualism came with the Protestant Reformation.

In terms of the current revolution, “Clay nailed it by saying it’s not clear what’s going to replace it,” he said. Referring to his time as a dot-com entrepreneur, Keen said: “I thought the physical would shift to digital. I was wrong.”

Let’s go back to some tweets:

sklive: #cshirky: Enterprise-scale*, meaning the largest scale imaginable, is now medium scale compared to the Web

* Here’s a definition from Bitpipe.com: “In the computer industry, an enterprise is an organization that uses computers. A word was needed that would encompass corporations, small businesses, non-profit institutions, government bodies, and possibly other kinds of organizations. The term enterprise seemed to do the job. In practice, the term is applied much more often to larger organizations than smaller ones.”

jsource: Shirky: centralization provides a way to do things on a larger scale. We are now at the end of that….

jsource: Shirky: we’re at the end of that b/c enterprise-scale things are mow medium-sized compared to the entirety of the web

The conversation moved to filtering.

@withoutayard: #whatsnext process is more trustworthy than institution
according to @cshirky – Wiki pgs trump newssites & blogs for major
stories’ traffic

Process vs. institutions

Shirky likes Wikipedia. He thinks it’s become the number-one reference source because “the process is trusted more trusted than the institution.”

He didn’t mention when the Wiki bios of George Bush and John Kerry had to be locked down because of vandalism in 2004, or the unfortunate outcome of the L.A. Times wiki-torial experiment of 2005. One of my other thoughts is that Wikipedia is tailor-made for Google’s algorithm, because it’s built on links.

Ingram mused about the success of Google News and Wikipedia.

sklive: #cshirky:Trad media work on phone model: Call, get info. Wikipedia, Google work on database model. Do 1m things @once.

Shirky talked of filtering, claiming there’s a “better sense of transparency” with Wikipedia than with the Globe and Mail.

joncrowley: @mathewi arguing that wikipedia less transparent, same
roles as trad, less known identity. But audience has direct, clear input
@mattbraga: I get the idea @cshirkey ‘s model of filtering is difficult
on a massive scale — relevancy of results differs between people

sklive: #ajkeen: I find it interesting that we have become obsessed with transparency

@isocny: Clay Shirky on Internet Issues Facing Newspapers http://is.gd/3T4WH @BerkmanCenter @cshirky #whatsnext

DaveDutton: reporting model: cultural difficulty in media institutions using wiki model to gather news.

rachelnixon: @cshirky says aggregated content from many individuals is more powerful than traditional journalism approach

wmacphail: Shirky: Cultural problem for newsrooms to engage in the online world at a cultural level

jsource: Keen goes on to say that he would take Wikipedia more
seriously if contributors were named and paid and it had ads on the
site.

mattbraga: @ajkeen ‘s desire to identify Wikipedia’s authors is
admirable, but has already been done. It’s called Veripedia. And it
sucks.

sklive: #cshirky: You can’t just take social systems and make them better by adding money to them. It changes the system.

Shirky admitted there are downsides to anonymity on the Web, but one solution put forward by Ingram was “persistent identity” — i.e., I may not know your exact identity, but I will be able to track your behaviour across the online world. Shirky said this will become workable in the next three to five years.

Going viral

He swung the topic to the ability of the online world to make a good article go viral. Some tweets:

DaveDutton: #whatsnext shirky discussion moves into identity and financial model re wiki and social media

joncrowley: In a single example, @cshirky praises the ability for
everyone to publish, and condemns scale destroying intelligent discourse

mattbraga: The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck: http://bit.ly/GA1zM

joncrowley: The Internet breaks the concept of targeting a pre-determined group based on anything but relevance of info.

mattbraga: @ajkeen ‘s example of using mediums for hate definitely
happening — Iran’s disinformation via Twitter is a great example.

DaveDutton: #whatsnext Keene doesn’t buy idea mass centralization
squeezed truth out of occassion. Says mass media has done good job.

To make sense of those, Shirky talked of a blog he likes to follow called Tigerbeat Down. In particular, he referred to a post at Shakespeare’s Sister called The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck. Posted in mid-August, it went viral.

In a world of closed systems, that wouldn’t have happened, he said — which is true, I suppose, but we don’t have those any more.

Shirky also thought the MSM squeezed out radical thought.

A point Keen disputed, but I’m with Shirky on this one. An eternal problem of the MSM is a centrist bias for both readers and advertisers.

Shirky also argued the story of an archbishop allegedly being caught with child porn on his computer isn’t just a Canadian story, it’s of importance to the global Catholic community. And its important to them whether they read the G&M or not, he said.

Well again, that’s true, and forwarding helps. But does he really think the wires wouldn’t have moved this story prior to 1995? One thing that is true is much more decentralized flow of information.

Free advice from Shirky

So, what to do, what to do? Ingram rather plaintively asked Shirky how newsrooms could cope with disruption. Something I thought would be a money-shot tweet, but wasn’t, is this:

sklive: #cshirky: Get a good editor and 3 reporters, pay them and give them $50,000 for expenses and tell them to start a blog.

This would be outside the newsroom in a separate space where they can follow their noses. “Otherwise, you’ve got to get permission,” he said.

jsource: Andrew Keen suggests that journalists now hold all the cards and questions what value the traditional outlets now have
I’m skeptical of the blog idea, but I freely admit I don’t have a better one. :) And if the blog team does create a hit, why should they stay with the newspaper — if as Keen suggests, journalists now hold all the cards? And would columnists at the Globe and Mail or Toronto Star really be able to generate more wealth for themselves if they weren’t associated with the brand?

There was this admonishment by Shirky that I found very true, but no one else mentioned in a tweet: The Internet doesn’t raise revenues, it lowers costs.

In one essay, Shirky argued that advertising might finally be priced at its real value for the first time in history, primarily because there’s no artificial scarcity.

Again, no mention of the recession, but in the longer term, he might be right.

Payin’ the bills, doin’ the right thing

Some related tweets:

@wmacphail: Shirky: micropayments like Google AdWords won’t pay a salary

sklive: #ajkeen: If you want to be a journalist, you’re better off rejecting the civic function b/c you can’t put food on table

caitlinkealey: @ajkeen says creative producers must be shameless in self-promotion must embrace new age bc of crumbling institutions.

@elainethebrain: Keen: old institutions did all the sales and mkting, now ppl have to be shameless about self-promotion and personal branding.

Shirky cares about the civic function of journalism, and he thinks one way to save it is through the non-profit sector. On Oct. 2, he posted an essay called Rescuing The Reporters, an argument founded in a content analysis of his hometown paper. It has only six news reporters. I blogged about his post. A few tweets from the talk:

jsource: Clay Shirky: Newspapers are dying the least in places where people are dying the most*
* Media economist Robert G. Picard has noted that small and mid-market U.S. newspapers have fared reasonably well in recent years.
sklive: #cshirky: There were 11 people in my hometown paper covering sports and 6 covering news…. The real loss is to news

wmacphail: Shirky: No social risk to the disapperance to sports or antique coverage, but there is for news

sklive: #cshirky: The instilling of a civic function is more important

elainethebrain: Prediction from Andrew Keen that news media will go
nonprofit – run by ppl who think they are going to make the world better

jsource: Andrew: Ghettoization of non-profit media in America They
think they’re improving the world, but that’s not the purpose of media.

DaveDutton: #whatsnext says shirky in context of non profits vs for
profit media. Keene wonders if local media will become irrelevant.

wmacphail: Shirky: Once you leave the world of business where you have
to hand money to shareholders all sorts of things are possible

mattbraga: Places like New York and Toronto will be fine – it’s the
small towns that will be affected. Yet, how do you explain LA, Colorado?

Mr. Braga and others should know that many newspaper companies went on a buying spree in the middle of this decade in an attempt to bulk up. Then they got hit by a downturn in the economy, and found it exceedingly difficult to both service debt and maintain profit margins in the way the stock market demanded.

In larger markets, the effects of Craigslist on classified ad revenue, which usually account for about one-third of a metro daily’s receipts, has been pronounced. One study I saw a few years ago suggested Craigslist had deprived San Franciso Bay-area newspapers of about US$57 million in revenues (I’ll try and find a reference).

You lose revenue (in part because of the disruptions Shirky and company have noted), you get crippled by a bad balance sheet, you slash costs to pump up margins, you lose readers as a result — it becomes a vicious circle.

In Canada, there’s certainly been pain, but I don’t think the situation is as bad as it is in the U.S. I’m not entirely sure why, but I must say that when I’ve travelled in the U.S. in the past, many newspapers failed to impress.

Even if all newspapers die, Shirky is among those who doesn’t think that would be a bad thing. Read this speech he gave at Harvard late last month. The Neiman Lab blog’s post title is Clay Shirky: Let a thousand flowers bloom to replace newspapers; don’t build a paywall around a public good.

Direct revenue from news consumers is tough to pull off, but I don’t think it should be rejected on principle.

Oh, about that accountability journalism

While he defends having free news because it’s a public good, Shirky does admit that unfortunately, accountability journalism in the U.S. will suffer in this new economic order. Smaller cities will get less attention paid to corruption.

No one tweeted that.

There has been much talk of the rise of citizen journalism and crowdsourcing and whatnot. There’s less talk about what well-trained, talented journalists bring to the table.

I was the only person to tweet the following quote from Keen: “This culture that insists on the humility of the journalist is the death knell of the journalist.” What does the journalist offer if they have no expertise, he asked.

True, but the entire model of journalism education is to pump out generalists.

And I come back to Keen’s advice: If you want to make money, be a performer, not a serious journalist. Here’s a final tweet from a j-student:

@thomson_kristy: Left #whatsnext with ideas about the future of journalism worth pondering, like the importance of marketing yourself and what you can do.

So, Kristy, what’ll it be for you: Serious and seriously poor journalist, or amusing and comfortable performer?

The choices disruption foists upon us, eh?

Sat, October 3 2009 » Main Page, Media

8 Responses

  1. Anonymous October 4 2009 @ 1:09 am

    thanks for collecting these–i have read everything i could, as was not able to be there. i would be grateful if you do get a chance to “fill in” with any quotes, etc. am prepping for a panel in ottawa wed oct 7
    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=133588254484
    were you at the panel before, with CAD journalists? and how was wordstock today?:) megan.boler@gmail.com

  2. Anonymous October 3 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    thanks for collecting these–i have read everything i could, as was not able to be there. i would be grateful if you do get a chance to “fill in” with any quotes, etc. am prepping for a panel in ottawa wed oct 7
    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=133588254484
    were you at the panel before, with CAD journalists? and how was wordstock today?:) megan.boler@gmail.com

  3. Anonymous October 4 2009 @ 6:30 pm

    Hi:
    Yes I was at the earlier panel. Will try and add some thoughts on that too.
    And I did go to Wordstock, and will try to blog on that.
    Right now, recovering from Nuit Blanche. :)

  4. Anonymous October 4 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    Hi:
    Yes I was at the earlier panel. Will try and add some thoughts on that too.
    And I did go to Wordstock, and will try to blog on that.
    Right now, recovering from Nuit Blanche. :)

  5. Anonymous October 5 2009 @ 2:23 am

    I think the 'mid-market' analogy is just about right — the old mix of 'just enough stock, just near enough the buyer' can get pushed from either big box stores, which push mid-market to niche, or from niche stores, which push mid-market to mallification.
    If both happen at the same time, though, there's nowhere to hide, and that's the spot metro dailies are in now. The proliferation of both narrow and deep sources of expertise and of huge stores of material of interest to the general public mean the middle ground is being eroded past the point of economic viability.

  6. Anonymous October 5 2009 @ 2:43 am

    That indeed answers my question. Thanks very much!
    I had a few others in the tweets near the top, if you ever get time.
    And please let me know if I've misquoted or misinterpret you in what I freely admit is a sprawling monster of a post.
    And thanks for your contribution to Friday night's session. It was an interesting and educational event.

  7. Anonymous October 4 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    I think the 'mid-market' analogy is just about right — the old mix of 'just enough stock, just near enough the buyer' can get pushed from either big box stores, which push mid-market to niche, or from niche stores, which push mid-market to mallification.
    If both happen at the same time, though, there's nowhere to hide, and that's the spot metro dailies are in now. The proliferation of both narrow and deep sources of expertise and of huge stores of material of interest to the general public mean the middle ground is being eroded past the point of economic viability.

  8. Anonymous October 4 2009 @ 10:43 pm

    That indeed answers my question. Thanks very much!
    I had a few others in the tweets near the top, if you ever get time.
    And please let me know if I've misquoted or misinterpret you in what I freely admit is a sprawling monster of a post.
    And thanks for your contribution to Friday night's session. It was an interesting and educational event.