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More Ramblings on Journalism in the Digital Era

I recently read the book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky to gain some more insight on the changing media landscape in the age of digital publishing. My question was basically: What is the future of journalism and news publishing in an age when everybody can start a blog and become a publisher? (Read: Should I be looking for a new profession?)

Here comes everybody BOOk cover 

The book covers a lot more ground than just my question, but does a great job at addressing it and hinting at the future.

 In the olden days the cost of printing was the bottleneck in news reporting and writing in general. Because it was so expensive to print things there existed a whole industry around making sure only those things most valuable to publish were published- the editors and other staff at newspapers and book publishing houses and professional journalists with training.

But now the cost of printing has dropped to nearly zero, since anybody can publish anything on the internet. How does this affect newspapers/publishing houses as they are today? Alas, as Shirky says:

"Large decreases in transaction costs create activities that can't be taken on by businesses, or indeed by any institution, because no matter how cheap it becomes to perform a particular activity, there isn't enough payoff to support the cost incurred by being an institution in the first place."

I think this is the most important point in the book, as it demonstrates that the current model cannot exist in the new reality. This statement is supported by many examples in the book and unfortunately makes sense. But what is the institution? It isn't necessarily journalism nor reporting, but publishing.

Anybody can publish on the internet. Also, anybody can be a reporter- you see something and send out a tweet and you've reported. News of earthquakes break on Twitter; not in the New York Times. But the New York Times makes them official.

Are Journalists the New Scribes?

But we think (and I believe still) that journalism is a crucial profession for democracy. The NYT acts as an information filter; I think we can all recognize its value. We need truthful and accurate information; not just stuff that can be put out there by anybody who could be biased. But Shirky says that maybe we're thinking about this the wrong way.

"As the Abbot of Sponheim correctly saw, the spread of the printed word [after the invention of the printing press] meant the end of a centuries-old scribal tradition, though once he understood this, he assumed that if scribes were valuable, their loss of livelihood must therefore be bad for society as a whole."

Even if journalists are good for society, their loss won't necessarily be a bad for society, contrary to what I said above.

"Professional self-conception and self-defense, so valuable in ordinary times, become a disadvantage in revolutionary ones, because professionals are always concerned with threats to the profession.... But in some cases the change that threatens the profession benefits society, as did the spread of the printing press."

Good point. Shirky says the function of scribes "was better accomplished by ignoring tradition than by embracing it." What the printing press did to benefit society is not allowing everyone to write; it was allowing everyone to read. 

Functions That Matter

Today's model of everybody being able to publish everything does produce a ton of crap, but on the other hand it also benefits society in a lot of different ways- crowdsourced information, aggregate reviews, faster reporting, etc..

In the end, is the journalist/writer the outdated scribe in the new age of the printing press? Maybe. Reporting may not be as necessary as it was, because in the web 2.0 world everyone is a reporter. Publishing may not be necessary any more as anyone can publish on the internet. Shirky claims, "weblogs are not merely alternate sites of publishing; they are alternatives to publishing itself."

But I think there are still related skills to publishing that are still necessary, such as:

1. Filters- For all the different ways publications have added "like" and "dislike" buttons to determine the collective worth of stories, I don't think that crowd-filtering has been terribly effective. We all go to sites that filter, using staff: the NYT for "important" news, Chow.com for food, the WSJ for business news, Alcademics for thrilling experiments with ice, etc.. In the old model the filter was the editor who filtered journalists/writers from within the publishing house. Now these editors filter external information reported by others.

2. Aggregates and analysis- Beyond filtering to determine information's importance and relevance to the topic of the publication, usually human beings need to be there to identify trends and analyze what's going on. Think of Andrew Sullivan or fashion and music blogs. (Of course, these sites get much of their information for analysis from primarily old media sources...) They observe and analyze- perhaps this is the new reporting.

3. Fact checkers - Crowd sourcing is inherently pretty good at fact-checking but it's also good at spreading misinformation. Currently most fact checking comes from old media still, and that must get relocated somewhere.

These observations are my own- Shirky didn't address this in the book- and I'm sure there are plenty of other important roles/skills in the old publishing model that are needed somewhere.

Sad Ending

These three roles may still be vital even without the print model of publishing, but this still doesn't answer the question of who will pay for them. I addressed that question (with no solutions) in this post on content and social media versus traditional media. But here's the thing: the number of people required to do the above three roles is a small fraction of the number of people required for publishing and print journalism. That's why sites that don't pay for their own content production but report on other content (Gawker, Huffpo, Andrew Sullivan) can be profitable. 

After reading the book I think the fear that careers and organizations in publishing and journalism as we know them today will go away are completely valid, not just because of economic factors, but also because ultimately this may be better for society.

So I should probably be looking for a new career, but now I feel less bad about that. I'm not up and quitting the biz just yet (as it's taken me a long time to start getting good at what I do) but I think it's best to not consider this a career I'll have for a lifetime. 


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