It was a memo from the future, an astonishing look at the dawn of the public digital landscape, from senior newspaper management. In 1992, Robert Kaiser, the managing editor of the Washington Post, attended a meeting in Japan populated by visionary technology leaders who introduced him to the future of ‘multimedia’ and to the idea of personal computers and digital networks as alternate methods of delivery for media businesses.
Kaiser then wrote a 2,700-word memo for Post Co. CEO Don Graham and the newspaper’s senior management that opened with the (inaccurate but evocative) metaphor of the frog in boiling water:
Alan Kay, sometimes described as the intellectual forefather of the personal computer, offered a cautionary analogy that seemed to apply to us. It involves the common frog. You can put a frog in a pot of water and slowly raise the temperature under the pot until it boils, but the frog will never jump. Its nervous system cannot detect slight changes in temperature.
The Post is not in a pot of water, and we’re smarter than the average frog. But we do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured–or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism. Our goal, obviously, is to avoid getting boiled as the electronic revolution continues.
Kaiser goes on to describe what he learned at that meeting, about a world where electronic distribution and consumption reshape the media landscape. Kaiser not only warns his fellow executives about the risks of being devoured or, worse, ignored, but he also goes on to propose that the Post immediately undertake two R&D projects: ’1) Design the electronic classifieds now’ and ’2) Design the world’s first electronic newspaper.’
When the full copy of Kaiser’s memo circulated among the news cognoscenti in the summer of 2012, it kicked off a flurry of public discussion about how prescient Kaiser had been, and how unfortunate it was that this incredible preview of what was coming–written before the public launch of the web–didn’t get acted on.
Much of that conversation about what might have been, however, missed a second, critical aspect of the memo: Even if the Post had executed swiftly on everything Kaiser had proposed, it wouldn’t have worked. Despite Kaiser’s brilliance in laying out the great forces then only barely visible, his memo also contains hints of the difficulties adapting to a world where the internet was normal.
Kaiser assures his fellow executives that since people will need filters for all the new information, they will therefore need professional editors:
Confronted by the information glut of the modern world, I suspect even the computer-comfortable citizens of the 21st Century will still be eager to take advantage of reporters and editors who offer to sort through the glut intelligently and seek to make sense of it for them. Interestingly, when I asked a number of people at the conference what they’d like to be able to do in the electronic future, many spoke of finding all the extant journalism on subjects of interest to them. (CompuServe now offers a rather primitive grazing tool to permit this sort of thing.)
Kaiser looked right at the ‘rather primitive’ capability–search–that would eventually float first Yahoo and then Google and assumed that it would remain marginal, because he assumed the business he was in–editorial judgment–couldn’t be displaced. Likewise, his pair of proposed R&D efforts contained the very thinking that would sidetrack a thousand attempts at innovation; Kaiser said, of his electronic classifieds, that the Post should also
… reserve the right to postpone implementation until a moment when we’re confident we’ll make more money (or deter a competitor) by launching the electronic product.
Even someone who had seen far into the future still missed the crucial lesson, one that Alan Kay and his cohort had clearly tried to impart: No one could reserve the right to postpone implementation of the future. The big but hidden mistake was the assumption that the Post, or indeed any institution, could opt out of the coming changes. This mistake was made more punishing because Kaiser’s assumptions didn’t allow for the possibility that new distribution channels for news and advertising might generate less money per user, rather than more.
This was the real issue, impossible to recognize then, but obvious in hindsight: The problem legacy news organizations faced over the two decades since Kaiser’s trip wasn’t competition but revolution. They assumed that new technology would raise rather than lower ad revenue, or that it would deliver more control to the publisher rather than to the reader. This was consonant with everything that had happened up to 1992, but it wasn’t what was about to happen as the internet started giving everyone a lot more freedom.
In the 1990s, those of us thinking about the relationship between the internet and news organizations wrongly assumed that the core problem those organizations faced was understanding the future. This turned out to be a merely ancillary problem. The core problem was adapting to that future.
The story of journalism in 2012 is still often told as the story of the breakdown of the old world, the end of the period when ‘the news’ was whatever an enumerable collection of institutionally stable actors chose to publish. This assumption ran so deep that even someone who had seen decades into the future could still believe that the digital turn in the newspaper business would favor traditional virtues of editorial choice over the new ones of user empowerment and that the business case for electronic media was around revenue generation rather than cost reduction.
That ‘End of an Era’ story, though, is itself ending. We are living in the least diverse, least inclusive media environment we will inhabit for the foreseeable future, which is to say that the ecosystem forming around us will include more actors and actions than even today’s environment does.
It’s easy to equate this increase in public speech with an increase in chaos, but chaos is a wasting asset–what seems hopelessly confusing today will be tomorrow’s new normal. The old order won’t be restored, but people will get used to the new one that’s emerging.
Though we have generally concentrated on the question ‘What does the production of news like today?’ in this section we will ask a related question: Given the forces already at work, what will the production of news look like in 2020, seven years from now? This is as far from today as today is from 2006, when YouTube, Twitter and Facebook were all in their infancy.
As with any exercise in prediction, we will get this at least partly wrong, overestimating some changes, underestimating others, and, most significantly, failing to predict new forces that will appear in the next seven years. Our goal here is for accuracy in direction, not endpoint; we believe that many of the forces that will shape the news environment in 2020 are already visible today, in the same way that social networking and user-distributed video were visible seven years ago.
In 2020, there will be considerable surface continuity with the news environment of the 20th century. There will still be a Los Angeles Times and a CNN. Yet this continuity of institutions will be accompanied by a reconfiguration of almost every bit of the media world in which they operate. As George W.S. Trow put it in ‘Within the Context of No Context,’ his wonderful and strange musing on the changed social landscape in the United States:
Everyone knows, or ought to know, that there has happened under us a Tectonic Plate Shift [...] the political parties still have the same names; we still have a CBS, an NBC, and a New York Times; but we are not the same nation that had those things before.
Trow was discussing the loss of any obvious core of civic culture in the aftermath of the late 1960s, but the figure of a tectonic shift can also serve as a metaphor for the media environment today. The label ‘CBS News’ still describes the journalistic arm of a U.S. broadcaster, but it no longer stands for ‘Tiffany’ standards in news, and it no longer occupies a position of unquestioned centrality in the news environment. This is partly because CBS itself approaches news differently, but mostly because the competitive and consumptive landscape of news has shifted so dramatically that even if CBS News’ sole goal in the last two decades had been to preserve its former position, it would have failed.
The news ecosystem of 2020 will be a study in expansion, with heightened contrasts between extremes. More people will consume more news from more sources. More of these sources will have a clear sense of their audience, their particular beats or their core capabilities. Fewer of these sources will be ‘general interest’; even when an organization aims to produce an omnibus collection of news of the day, the readers, viewers and listeners will disassemble it and distribute the parts that interest them to their various networks. An increasing amount of news will arrive via these ad hoc networks than via audiences loyal to any particular publication.
Almost every aspect of the news environment will be more variable than it is today. We’re not shifting from big news organizations to small ones, or from slow reporting to fast. The dynamic range of journalism is increasing along several axes at once. The internet has unleashed demand for more narrative and more data-driven news, for a wider range of real-time sources and wider distribution of long-form pieces.
A few organizations will have larger newsrooms than today, mostly subsidized by media services sold to professionals (as with Thomson supporting Reuters, or Bloomberg’s purchase of Business Week.). Most news outlets, though, will have smaller newsrooms, measured by full-time headcount. At the same time, there will be many more niche players than today, with smaller and more narrowly tailored operations (the Outer Banks Voice; Hechinger Report).
There will be more nonprofit news organizations, driven by several kinds of donation–direct cash subsidy by philanthropies and other donor organizations (Ford Foundation funding Los Angeles Times reporters; William Penn Foundation funding PennPraxis), user donations of cash (NPR; TPM), and in-kind donations of the time and talents of a particular community (as with the creation of Wikipedia disaster articles, or Twitter hashtag streams).
The obvious benefit of increased subsidy for news is its increased availability. The equally obvious downside is that it risks further blurring the boundary between public relations and journalism. The growing number of news outlets, and their varying motivations and funding sources, increases the need for self-policing, as independent news outlets learn to better identify, label and publicly rebuke ‘churnalism.’ (As David Weinberger has noted, transparency is the new objectivity.)
The decay of the traditional agenda-setting function of the press will continue, and with it the idea of ‘the public’ as a large, interconnected mass of news-consuming citizens. Choice in available media outlets will continue to expand, leading not so much to echo chambers as to a world of many overlapping publics of varying sizes. Seen in this light, the long-term collapse of trust in the press is less a function of changing attitudes toward mainstream media outlets than a side effect of the continuing fragmentation of the American media landscape. (It is probably time to retire the idea that there is something called ‘the press’ that enjoys a reputation among some group called ‘the public.’)
The shift in control of distribution will also continue. The old model, where most users visited a home page or used a mobile application tied to a single organization, will continue to lose ground to superdistribution, users forwarding relevant materials to one another. We already live in a world where the most widely circulated stories acquire audiences that dwarf the median headcount. Adapting to this increasingly unequal distribution will require that most organizations get better at working with their users to filter and pass on relevant material.
This superdistribution won’t just be about the spread of new material; one of the great surprises of Twitter, a medium built around ‘short’ and ‘now,’ is how much demand it has exposed for long-form writing and video. News.me, a recent startup, filters through people’s Twitter feeds and recommends the most widely viewed links from previous 24 hours; a remarkable amount of what gets surfaced is not singing cats but long, careful pieces of reporting or opinion.
Though the ‘hamster wheel’ (chasing transient viewers with rapid publication of sensational stories) is an obvious effect of the internet’s colonization of the news landscape, the increase in the dynamic range of the news environment is taking place at both ends of the distribution; the hamster wheel has been accompanied by an increase in large-scale reporting and analysis.
More techniques will be deployed in the production of news–algorithmic data analysis, information visualization, solicitation of amateur input, feedback loops with crowd reaction, automated production of data-driven stories. More generalists will be working in niche subjects; interviewers on particular topics who create, edit and distribute photos, audio or video as a newsroom of one. Narrower and deeper specialization will occur among the newsrooms that have staffs large enough to allow collaborative units to work together: By 2020, the most expert data miner, information visualizer or interactive experience designer will have a far more refined set of tools and experience than any of those people do today.
Each newsroom will become more specialized, with less simple replaceability of employees and functions from one newsroom to the next. Each newsroom will have a better sense of who its partners are, among institutions and the general public, and will have customized its sense of how best to work with them. Many producers of the kind of material we used to regard as news won’t be news organizations, in any familiar sense of the word. The police blotter will come from the police. Environmental data will be presented via interactive tools hosted by the Sierra Club. Wikipedia and Twitter will strengthen their roles as key sources of information for breaking news.
As Kaiser and the Washington Post eventually found out, there’s no reserving the right to postpone implementation for the kinds of changes we are witnessing. There is only the struggle to adapt and to secure a niche in the ecosystem that allows for stable creation of long-term value.
What Should Journalists Do?
Like a Necker cube, it’s possible to look at the journalism landscape and see one of two sets of relationships–the work of individual journalists supporting institutions, or the work of institutions supporting individual journalists. There is some truth to both views, of course, but we have concentrated on the latter, for several reasons.
First, the work of journalists takes both logical and temporal precedence over the work of institutions. Second, the act of witnessing, discovering or understanding what is important, and then conveying that in a way that various publics can understand, is the sacred task; concern for journalistic institutions takes on public urgency only to the degree that they help the people engaged in those tasks. And third, far too much of the conversation of the past decade has assumed that the survival of existing institutions is more important than the ability of anyone to take on that sacred task, however it’s done.
Though the concept has been somewhat tainted by the cheesiness of ‘Brand You!’ boosterism, we live in an age where the experiments of individual journalists and small groups are ideal for identifying possible new sources of value–process is a response to group dynamics, so the smaller the group, the easier it is to balance process and innovation (though later, of course, those innovations will have to be rendered boringly repeatable).
If you were looking for an ideal mantra for a journalist, writer, analyst, media artist, data miner or any of the other roles and tasks that matter today, ‘Proceed until apprehended’ is a good one. As an NPR executive said to Andy Carvin during his invention of the curated Twitter news feed, ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing, but please keep doing it.’
In this essay, we’ve offered a description–several, actually–of the skills and values an individual journalist can bring to bear. The range of these descriptions exists because journalism is not moving from A to B, from one stable state in postwar America to some new, alternate state today. Journalism is instead moving from one to many, from a set of roles whose description and daily patterns were coherent enough to merit one label to one where the gap between what makes Nate Silver a journalist and what makes Kevin Sites a journalist continues to widen.
With the coming increase in possible modes and tempos of journalism, our overall recommendations for journalists are these:
Know yourself. Know what you are good at and what you are not good at, and know how to explain those things to others. Know your areas of expertise, both for content (North African politics; civil engineering; historical weather patterns) and skills (are you an interviewing journalist? A researching journalist? A Final Cut journalist? An Excel journalist? A Hadoop journalist?).
Know when the tools you need are algorithms or crowds. Know when a person you need to talk to is more likely to be found via Twitter than directory assistance. Know when your network can help; know when someone in your network’s network can help, and get good at asking for that help (and also get good at rewarding people who help).
Know when process is aiding your work and when it’s not, and, to the degree you can, know when to break the glass in the latter case. Know when to work alone, when to call for help, when to partner outside your usual sphere.
Much of this is about specialization of one sort or another. It’s possible to specialize in content: in the kind of material you cover, or the kind of background you master, or the kind of people you interview. It’s also possible to specialize in technique: you can get good at mining databases, reading investment documents, traveling in distressed zones, or engaging users, and each of those skills will be transferable to many areas of inquiry. You can specialize in content and be a generalist about technique, you can specialize in technique but be a generalist in content, or you can specialize in both. (Specializing in neither used to be a fine answer; less so today.)
Journalism schools will have to adapt to these changing models as well. Already, journalism schools are more like film schools than law schools, which is to say that the relative success or failure of a J-School grad is going to be far more variable than it used to be. There are fewer entry-level jobs–the jobs that used to serve as unofficial proving grounds and apprenticeships–in metropolitan dailies and local TV than there used to be. Furthermore, the careers students head into will be more variable, and more dependent on their ability to create their own structure, as opposed to simply fitting into a position in a well-known collection of rich and stable institutions.
Schools should respond by helping students both understand what sorts of specializations they’d like to undertake, and how to go about them, a task that has much less to do with fitting them to particular institutions, as with the old (and now harmful) broadcast vs. print split, and much more to do with fitting them to particular forms of inquiry, wherever and however they practice it.
The fate of journalism in the United States is now far more squarely in the hands of individual journalists than it is of the institutions that support them. To get the kind of journalism that a complex, technocratic democracy requires, we need the individual practitioners to take on the hardest part of the task of working out what constitutes good journalism in a world with no publishing scarcity.
What Should Legacy News Organizations Do in This Environment?
Though many existing institutions still regard the principal effect of the current changes as continued loss of revenue, the restructuring of American journalism is far more influenced today by organizational models than by income (or lack thereof). With a handful of exceptions, for-profit news organizations will have to continue to reduce expenses to below still-falling revenue, but simply cutting will leave us with legacy institutions that do less with less.
Existing institutions must adapt their journalistic operations, not just their bottom line, to the internet. Doing more with less is always easier said than done, but as Homicide Watch or Narrative Science demonstrate, it is not impossible.
Though we put forward several recommendations in the body of this essay, our overall recommendations for legacy institutions are essentially these:
Decide what part of the news you want to report and how. Get out of any activity that doesn’t support those goals. Look for partnerships or collaborations with other organizations that advance those goals at lower cost than you could manage in-house. Work to make the remaining activities either excellent or cheap (or, ideally, both).
Some legacy news organizations will simply shrink the cost of filling the news hole with no other reorganization, a move that will amount to getting out of the hard news business by degrees. Some of these organizations may be able to survive with their newly lowered expenses, but the reason to care about the continued health of legacy news organizations has always been about the public service they provide; organizations that shrink without trying to take on new, cheaper capabilities are abandoning at least part of that public service mission. They will also attract fewer competent journalists.
Keeping expenses below revenue remains a problem, of course. Advertising declines–six years and counting–have left the nations’ newsrooms, subsidized by that money, in a parlous state. Given advertisers’ continued decampment to alternate platforms and the dreadful logic of a declining print audience–income compresses faster than costs for running the presses–many legacy organizations will have to operate with an expanded sense of where revenue can come from: running events, applying for grants for specific beats, digital membership dollars from the most committed 5 percent of readers. Continued reduction of costs, however, remains the most obvious strategy.
There is no way to support the old ‘one-stop shop’ model for supplying all (or even most) of a user’s news and information, because, without geographic barriers to entry, there is very little defensible advantage in running commodity news that’s the same as in the next town or state over. Like the principle of subsidiarity for the U.S. government (that the federal government should ideally run only those services not better run by the states, states than cities, and so on), news should be produced and distributed by the people best able to cover it. This suggests a shift to dramatically increased specialization and partnership.
In practice, many legacy newspapers have followed this advice by loading their front pages with reams of AP content and the occasional ‘big blowout’ news story, a prime example of adapting to loss of income rather than adapting to the internet. A digitally minded news organization would dispense with running commodity content online entirely, perhaps linking to important news, or even excerpting the content of smart bloggers or other aggregators. No matter what specific decisions get made in this regard, however, news institutions that see the ‘front page’ as their primary organizational concern will miss many opportunities for reinvention.
The wastefulness of pack journalism and the empty calories of unimproved wire service news are both bad fits for most institutions in the current environment. The organizations that set out to provide a public with a large part of the news will more often be aggregators, in the manner of Huffington Post or BuzzFeed, than traditional news organizations, if only because the cost and quality curve favors that form of aggregation over expensive improvements of syndicated content or, further up that curve, creation of custom material that lacks either a passionate audience or a long shelf life.
Similarly, newsrooms will have to decide what parts of their operations to commodify. Much checklist reporting (e.g., brief pieces on last night’s game or this quarter’s sales figures that have to be present, but don’t have to be long or excellent) can be replaced by aggregation, or by machine production. For most organizations, anything that is high touch but low value (and by high touch we mean anything that involves more than 10 minutes of paid human attention) should be automated, outsourced to partners or users, or removed entirely.
Newsrooms that have mixed reporting goals–breaking news and long-form analysis–will have to get better at understanding the sharpening trade-offs between speed and depth. There is no right answer here, or even right mix: Coverage of slow-moving beats with a relative handful of relevant participants–the mining industry, or automotive design–will have a different mix than fast-moving, surprise-driven ones–electoral politics, civil wars.
Similarly, newsrooms will have to understand the sharpening trade-offs between aggregation and original reporting, and optimize for each activity differently, or the trade-offs between translating first-person accounts vs. putting journalists in between those sources and the audience, to contextualize and interpret.
Existing organizations will also have to get better at managing both relationships and data as new resources. The ability of an institution to ask its own users to participate in the creation, vetting and distribution of news, or to find firsthand witnesses or knowledgeable insiders for a particular story, will become key sources of differentiation. Similarly, the ability to master certain sorts of data and to be able to reliably create value from it over time are increasingly essential skills. (The irony of U.S. News and World Report’s long competition with Newsweek and Time is that the U.S. News college listings database may soon become more valuable than those other two publications combined.)
On the procedural front, organizations will have to get better at understanding when process is a help and when it is a hindrance, and they will have to get better at making their process ‘hackable.’ They will likewise have to decide which employees or volunteers have the ability to violate or alter the standard institutional processes, in order to pursue unforeseeable but valuable opportunities. Of all our recommendations, this one may be the most difficult for legacy institutions to follow. But in other ways, the success or failure of many of these companies will be determined by their ability to embrace flexibility.
What Should New News Organizations Do?
The range of new models and ideas being tried by journalism startups is wide, but most of the groups working on these ideas are not yet either robust or stable. This is partly because, as in any revolution, the old things break long before the new things are put in place, but it is also because the business model in the last several decades has created a news monoculture, where advertising subsidy has been the default revenue source even for those organizations that also charged fees directly to their users.
New news organizations will have to do everything legacy organizations do in terms of mastering the trade-offs between speed and depth, aggregation vs. origination, or solo creation vs. partnership. In general, however, understanding and managing these trade-offs is easier for new organizations, simply because individual employees don’t have to unlearn previous assumptions in order to adapt to present realities. As always, the advantage young people and organizations have over older ones isn’t that they know more things. They don’t. The advantage is that they know fewer things that aren’t true any longer. Without carrying the weight of accumulated but maladaptive assumptions, they have to spend less time and energy unlearning things before they can see and respond to the present world.
Our overall recommendation for new news organizations is even simpler than for journalists or for legacy organizations:
The visible crisis of news institutions is the shrinking of their traditional functions, but the second, less discussed, crisis is the need for institutional stability, predictability and slack among the nation’s news startups.
Much of the question of institutionalization of startups concerns the way these organizations manage income and expenses, a conversation outside the scope of what 21st-century journalism looks like. (To reiterate our position: Most of the for-profit vs. nonprofit discussion is useless. Any way of keeping expenses below revenue is a good way.) Some of it, however, has to do with organizational assumptions and capabilities built into new organizations from the start.
New organizations should assume that cost control is the central discipline and that many sources of subsidy available to startups have a limited lifespan. They should master working with amateurs, crowds, machines or other partners to keep cost low and leverage high. To survive, new news startups will need to take on some of the routinization of work and stabilization of process of the older institutions they are challenging. They should not fear becoming a little boring.
There is a certain blitheness to the conversations around the current disruption, a kind of ‘great cycle of life’ belief that the old institutions will be weakened and that the new institutions will then automatically take their place.
That is one possible scenario, of course. Another is that the old institutions become weakened but that the new ones don’t take their place, because they lack the institutional stability to act as a counterweight to large, bureaucratic organizations. Of all the terrible scenarios it is possible to imagine, this is the worst one–the legacy organizations continue to diminish in force and function, but the new entities arising simply can’t be as effective a check on bureaucratic power.
The End of Solidarity
Perhaps the most salient change in the next seven years will be the continued weakening of the very idea of what constitutes news, and thus what constitutes a news organization. This change, long since begun by Jon Stewart and MTV election coverage, is still at work today; to the question ‘Is Facebook a news organization?’ neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ is a satisfactory answer. (A better reply is ‘Mu,’ programmer-speak for ‘The question as asked has no sensible answer.’) Facebook is critical to the news ecosystem, yet it is organized along lines that are out of synch with anything we would recognize as a journalistic organization; its presence alters the context of that question.
There will also be fading clarity as to what constitutes ‘the news,’ full stop. Institutions persistently mistake shallow continuity for deep structure; news isn’t a coherent or ontologically robust category; it is a constantly negotiated set of public utterances by a shifting set of actors, one that happened to go through a period of relative stability in 20th-century America. We are seeing the end of that stability, the end of the curious bookkeeping that says that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a news organization, even though it runs Annie’s Mailbox and the funny pages, while Little Green Footballs is not, even though Charles Johnson did a better job than CBS in vetting the phony National Guard memos involving George W. Bush’s service.
The production of news has moved from being a set of jobs to a set of activities; there will always be a core of full-time practitioners, but there will be an increasing amount of participation by people working part time, often as volunteers, and distributed by people who will concentrate less on questions of what is news and what isn’t than on questions like ‘Will my friends or followers like this?’ Increasing overlap and collaboration between the full- and part-time practitioners, and between the employees and the volunteers, will be a core challenge over the rest of the decade.
This will be a world where the biggest changes have come in the roles of not full-time journalists, but of the public, where atomized consumption and private discussion in small groups have given way to a riot of alternate ways of sharing, commenting on and even helping shape or produce the news.
All of us are adapting to this changed environment; the existing institutions and the new ones, the full-time shapers of the news and the part-time ones, the generalists and the specialists. And perhaps the single most important adaptive trait is to recognize that that we are in a revolution, in its sense of a change so large that the existing structure of society can’t contain it without being altered by it.
In a revolution, strategies that worked for decades may simply stop working (as many already have). Strategies that seemed impossible or insane a few years ago may now be perfectly suited to the current environment. This period is not over, and the end is not even in sight; the near future will hold more such reversals, so that even up-to-the-minute strategies of a few years ago (RSS feeds and staff blogs) may fade into prosaic capabilities, while new ones (the ability to hunt for mysteries instead of secrets, the ability to bring surprising new voices to public attention) may become newly important.
More than any one strategy or capability, the core virtue in this environment is a commitment to adapting as the old certainties break and adopting the new capabilities we can still only partially understand, and to remember that the only reason any of this matters to more than the current employees of what we used to call the news industry is that journalism–real reporting, about whatever someone somewhere doesn’t want published–is an essential public good.