Introduction: The Transformation of American Journalism Is Unavoidable

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This essay is part survey and part manifesto, one that concerns itself with the practice of journalism and the practices of journalists in the United States. It is not, however, about ‘the future of the news industry,’ both because much of that future is already here and because there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.

There used to be one, held together by the usual things that hold an industry together: similarity of methods among a relatively small and coherent group of businesses, and an inability for anyone outside that group to produce a competitive product. Those conditions no longer hold true.

If you wanted to sum up the past decade of the news ecosystem in a single phrase, it might be this: Everybody suddenly got a lot more freedom. The newsmakers, the advertisers, the startups, and, especially, the people formerly known as the audience have all been given new freedom to communicate, narrowly and broadly, outside the old strictures of the broadcast and publishing models. The past 15 years have seen an explosion of new tools and techniques, and, more importantly, new assumptions and expectations, and these changes have wrecked the old clarity.

There’s no way to look at organizations as various as the Texas Tribune, SCOTUSblog and Front Porch Forum or such platforms as Facebook, YouTube and Storify and see anything like coherence. There’s no way to look at new experiments in nonprofit journalism like Andy Carvin’s work at NPR during the Arab Spring and convince yourself that journalism is securely in the hands of for-profit businesses. And there’s no way to look at experiments in funding journalism via Kickstarter, or the coverage of protest movements via mobile phone, and convince yourself that making information public can be done only by professionals and institutions.

Many of the changes talked about in the last decade as part of the future landscape of journalism have already taken place; much of journalism’s imagined future is now its lived-in present. (As William Gibson noted long ago, ‘The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.’) Our goal is to write about what has already happened and what is happening today, and what we can learn from it, rather than engaging in much speculation.

The effect of the current changes in the news ecosystem has already been a reduction in the quality of news in the United States. On present evidence, we are convinced that journalism in this country will get worse before it gets better, and, in some places (principally midsize and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse. Our hope is to limit the scope, depth and duration of that decay by pointing to ways to create useful journalism using tools, techniques and assumptions that weren’t even possible 10 years ago.

We also highlight the ways new possibilities for journalism require new forms of organization. Traditional news organizations have tended to conserve both working methods and hierarchy, even as the old business models are collapsing, and even when new opportunities do not fit in those old patterns. In interview after interview with digitally focused members of the traditional press, the theme of being thwarted by process came up. Adapting to a world where the people formerly known as the audience are not readers and viewers but users and publishers will mean changing not just tactics but also self-conception. Merely bolting on a few new techniques will not be enough to adapt to the changing ecosystem; taking advantage of access to individuals, crowds and machines will mean changing organizational structure as well. (We recognize that many existing organizations will regard these recommendations as anathema.)

This essay is written for multiple audiences–traditional news organizations interested in adapting as well as new entrants (whether individual journalists, news startups or organizations not previously part of the journalistic ecosystem)–and those organizations and entities that affect the news ecosystem, particularly governments and journalism schools, but also businesses and nonprofits.

We start with five core beliefs:

  • Journalism matters.
  • Good journalism has always been subsidized.
  • The internet wrecks advertising subsidy.
  • Restructuring is, therefore, a forced move.
  • There are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways.

Journalism Matters

Journalism exposes corruption, draws attention to injustice, holds politicians and businesses accountable for their promises and duties. It informs citizens and consumers, helps organize public opinion, explains complex issues and clarifies essential disagreements. Journalism plays an irreplaceable role in both democratic politics and market economies.

The current crisis for the institutions of American journalism convinces us of two things. First, there is no way to preserve or restore the shape of journalism as it has been practiced for the past 50 years, and, second, it is imperative that we collectively find new ways to do the kind of journalism needed to keep the United States from sliding into casual self-dealing and venality.

Not all journalism matters, of course. Much of what is produced today is simply entertainment or diversion, but here, we grapple only with what has variously been called ‘hard news,’ ‘accountability journalism’ or ‘the iron core of news.’ Hard news is what matters in the current crisis. Rather than try to list or define the elements that separate hard news from the fluff, we have simply adopted Lord Northcliffe’s famous litmus test: ‘News is something someone somewhere doesn’t want printed. Everything else is advertising.’

This does not mean that the output of news organizations can be cleanly divided into two categories, hard news and fluff. Sometimes a business section will run stories on tie colors; sometimes the lifestyle section will break business news in the fashion world. As we write this, the New York Daily News home page features one story on Miley Cyrus’ new haircut and another on the city’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.

Even with that spectrum recognized, however, hard news is what distinguishes journalism from just another commercial activity. There will always be a public appetite for reporting on baseball, movie stars, gardening and cooking, but it’s of no great moment for the country if all of that work were taken over by amateurs or done by machine. What is of great moment is reporting on important and true stories that can change society. The reporting on the Catholic Church’s persistent harboring of child rapists, Enron’s fraudulent accounting and the scandal over the Justice Department’s Operation Fast and Furious are all such stories.

Because telling true stories is vital, the value of journalism can’t be reduced to other, ancillary needs. Journalism performs multiple overlapping functions, and there never used to be much urgency in defining those functions. In the period in which public speech was scarce (which is to say, all of history until now), journalism was simply what journalists did, journalists were just people hired by publishers, and publishers were the relative handful of people who had access to the means of making speech public.

We believe that the role of the journalist–as truth-teller, sense-maker, explainer–cannot be reduced to a replaceable input for other social systems; journalists are not merely purveyors of facts. Now and for the foreseeable future, we need a cadre of full-time workers who report the things someone somewhere doesn’t want reported, and who do it in a way that doesn’t just make information available (a commodity we are currently awash in), but frames that information so that it reaches and affects the public.

An increasing amount of firsthand reporting is done by citizens–much of our sense of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan and the Pearl Roundabout massacre in Bahrain came from individuals on the ground–but this does not mean that all professional journalists will, can or should be replaced. Instead it means that their roles will change, overlapping with the individuals (and crowds and machines) whose presence characterizes the new news environment.

Good Journalism Has Always Been Subsidized

The question of subsidies for news has been a hot issue for some time now. Observers of the news environment such as Steve Coll, David Swensen and Michael Schmidt, and Michael Schudson and Len Downie have suggested that the U.S. press should move toward a more explicitly subsidized model, a suggestion that generated heated responses from other observers–Jeff Jarvis, Jack Shafer, Alan Mutter–who insist that only a commercial press produces the necessary resources and freedom that the U.S. press requires.

We believe that this is a false dichotomy. Subsidies are often regarded as synonymous with direct government funding, which would raise obvious and serious concerns, but subsidy, in the sense of support granted to work seen to be in the public good, comes in many flavors. It can be direct or indirect, and it can come from public or private sources. Citizen donations are as much a subsidy as government grants.

Good journalism has always been subsidized; markets have never supplied as much news as democracy demands. The most obvious form is indirect public subsidy: Radio and TV enjoy free access to the airwaves, in return for which fielding a credible news operation is (or was) the quid pro quo. Businesses are forced to pay for legal notices in newspapers. Print publications are given favorable postage rates.

There has been some good news in the form of direct reader fees for digital properties, using the ‘payment after a page-view threshold’ model. These fees are obviously welcome; however, few large publications implementing them have managed to get to even 5 percent adoption by their web users, and the page threshold virtually guarantees that most such users will never be asked to pay. As a result, though the new income serves to slow the reduction of revenue, it does not stop it, much less reverse it.

The biggest source of subsidy in the news environment has always been indirect and private, coming from advertisers. As Henry Luce put it 75 years ago, ‘If we have to be subsidized by anybody, we think that the advertiser presents extremely interesting possibilities.’

There are a few publications in the news business whose audience pays directly for the journalists’ work, but they are a tiny fraction of the news ecosystem, clustered around professional practices (finance, law, medicine), with a handful of outliers, such as Ms. magazine, selling freedom from advertising. Most outlets for news aren’t in the news business but the advertising business.

The most important thing about the relationship between advertising and journalism is that there isn’t one. The link between advertiser and publisher isn’t a partnership, it’s a sales transaction, one in which the publisher has (or had) the upper hand. The essential source of advertiser subsidy is lack of choice; so long as businesses have to rely on publishers to get seen, publishers can use the proceeds to pay for journalism, regardless of advertiser preference. Nine West doesn’t care about keeping the Washington bureau open; it just wants to sell shoes. But in order to reach potential Nine West customers, it has to pay an organization that does care about the Washington bureau.

In addition to advertising, many other forms of private subsidy exist. For most of U.S. history, some owners have been willing to publish newspapers and magazines at a loss, in return for prestige or influence. Both the New Yorker and the New York Post bleed red ink; their continued existence in their current form involves a decision by their wealthy owners that they should not be completely exposed to the market. These kinds of publications are de facto nonprofits.

Similarly, family ownership of newspapers provided a shield from demands for short-term profits, in part because the publisher was typically willing to take some compensation in status goods (salary aside, it was good to be the publisher of the local paper) and in part because family ownership meant managing for long-term viability, as opposed to immediate revenue extraction, another form of being in the market but not of it.

Though recent conversation about subsidy and journalism has mainly focused on governmental rather than private provision, the various forms of subsidy are quite entangled. General Motors and Diageo spend significant sums annually on 30-second spots or full-page ads because they are legally stuck with brand advertising. GM might want to sell directly from the factory, as Dell does, and Diageo might be happy to offer a click-to-buy button, as Ghirardelli does, but state law forbids them to use direct marketing. Brand advertising for cars and trucks and beer and booze is propped up by government-mandated subsidy that prevents the affected businesses from investing in the alternatives.

The American public has never paid full freight for the news gathering done in our name. It has always been underwritten by sources other than the readers, listeners or viewers. This essay does not concern itself with where future subsidy can or should come from or how it should be directed. Income can come from advertisers, sponsors, users, donors, patrons or philanthropies; cost reductions can come from partnerships, outsourcing, crowdsourcing or automation. There is no one answer: Any way of keeping costs below revenue is a good way, whether an organization is large or small, niche or general, for-profit or nonprofit. What is clear is that the model long adopted by the majority of news outlets–a commercial entity that subsidizes the newsroom with advertising dollars–is in trouble.

The Internet Wrecks Advertising Subsidy

This report is concerned with the way journalists do their jobs rather than the business practices of the institutions that support them. However, the business practices intersect journalistic practices in one critical way: Advertiser support, the key source of subsidy for American journalism since the 1830s, is evaporating. (Indeed, for newspapers, much of it is already gone, but more bad news is coming for newspapers, and for magazines, radio and TV as well.)

Advertisers have never had any interest in supporting news outlets per se; the link between advertising revenue and journalists’ salaries was always a function of the publishers’ ability to extract the revenue. This worked well in the 20th century, when the media business was a seller’s market. But it does not work well today.

The disruption began in earnest in the 1990s, with the launch of the commercial web, though it was masked for a decade by rising ad revenue for traditional publishers and by the dot-com bust, which convinced many publishers that they had overestimated the threat from the internet. Traditional ad revenue began to fall in 2006, but by that time the alteration of the underlying advertising market was already well along; lost income was a trailing indicator of a transformed environment.

Legacy publishers don’t sell content as a product. They are in the service business, with vertical integration of content, reproduction and delivery. A news station similarly maintains the capabilities to send out its material over cable or satellite; a magazine runs or contracts for both printing services and distribution networks. Vertical integration carries high capital costs, reducing competition and sometimes creating a bottleneck where the public could be induced to pay.

The internet wrecks vertical integration, because everyone pays for the infrastructure, then everyone gets to use it. The audience remains more than willing to pay for reproduction and distribution, but now we pay Dell for computers, Canon for printers, and Verizon for delivery, rather than paying Conde Nast, Hearst or Tribune Co. for all those services in a bundle.

When people want to read on paper, we are increasingly printing it ourselves, at a miniature press three feet away, on demand, rather than paying someone else to print it, 20 miles away, yesterday. When we want to listen to audio or watch video, we increasingly use the commodity infrastructure of the internet, rather than purpose-built (and -funded) infrastructure of broadcast towers and cable networks.

Publishers also typically engage in horizontal integration, bundling hard news with horoscopes, gossip, recipes, sports. Simple inertia meant anyone who had tuned into a broadcast or picked up a publication for one particular story would keep watching or reading whatever else was in the bundle. Though this was often called loyalty, in most cases it was just laziness–the path of least resistance meant that reading another good-enough story in the local paper was easier than seeking out an excellent story in a separate publication.

The web wrecks horizontal integration. Prior to the web, having a dozen good-but-not-great stories in one bundle used to be enough to keep someone from hunting for the dozen best stories in a dozen different publications. In a world of links and feeds, however, it is often easier to find the next thing you read, watch or listen to from your friends than it is to stick with any given publication. Laziness now favors unbundling; for many general interest news sites, the most common category of reader is one who views a single article in a month.

On top of all this, of course, is heightened competition. As Nicholas Carr noted in 2009, a Google search for stories about the U.S. Navy rescue of a U.S. cargo ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates returned 11,264 possible outlets for the story, the vast majority of them simply running the same syndicated copy. The web significantly erodes the value of running identical wire service stories in St. Louis and San Luis Obispo.

In addition to the changes wrought by technology, the spread of social media has created a new category of ads that are tied to media without subsidizing the creation of content. In the 1990s, many websites had discussion boards that generated enormous user interest but little revenue, because advertisers didn’t regard user-created material as ‘brand-safe.’

MySpace was the first big site to overcome that obstacle. Like the junk-bond transformation of the 1980s, MySpace made the argument that low-quality ad inventory was a good buy if enough of it was aggregated, at a low enough price. The pitch to advertisers was essentially ‘Even at miniscule click-thru rates, there is a price at which MySpace page views are worth it to you.’

This opened the floodgates. Once enough businesses decided that social networks were acceptable venues, the available media inventory became a function of people’s (limitless) interest in one another, rather than being a function of publishers’ ability to create interesting content or maintain an audience. When demand creates supply at a cost barely above zero, it has a predictable effect on price.

The past 15 years have also seen the rise of advertising as a stand-alone service. The loss of classified ads to superior services like Craigslist, HotJobs and OkCupid has been widely commented on; less noticed is the rise of user-to-user recommendations in a transactional environment, as on Salesforce or Amazon. These recommendations take on some of the functions of business-to-business or business-to-consumer advertising, while involving no subsidy of content (or even a payment to anyone who looks like a publisher). Those services themselves also provide little or no subsidy for media outlets: after a 15-month test of television advertising, Amazon abandoned TV for most products, concluding that the ads would be less effective in driving sales than spending the same amount of money to provide free shipping.

Even publishers who understand that the lost revenue will not be replaced, and that print revenue (and production) will continue to wane, hold out hope that the change in advertising subsidy can somehow be reversed.

The fact that the web, a visually flexible medium, has nevertheless been more readily adapted to direct marketing than brand advertising was a disappointment to publishers, who have always benefited disproportionately from brand advertising. Over the past decade, there have been periodic assertions that the direct marketing version of web advertising is a phase and that someone will reinvent brand advertising online. This is essentially an assertion that advertisers will start handing over significant sums of money for animated graphics or time in the video stream, while expecting little in return but the assurance that they have somehow built awareness.

This seems unlikely. The shift from the logic of brand advertising to the logic of direct marketing is just a symptom of the larger change driven by the web, which is the victory, everywhere, of measurement. What made brand advertising profitable was that no one really knew how it worked, so no one really knew how to optimize it–making a TV commercial was more like making a tiny Hollywood film than it was like running a giant psych experiment.

Online, businesses increasingly expect even brand advertising will have measurable results, and measurable ad spending disrupts the high margins of the good years. John Wanamaker’s endlessly quoted line about not knowing which half of his advertising budget was wasted explains why measurability in advertising puts further pressure on revenue.

Another source of hope for restoration of ad revenue was the internet’s improved specificity (‘You can target only real estate lawyers in Montana!’). It was widely assumed that this narrow targeting would lead to defensibly high advertising rates for at least some websites; better targeting would yield better results, and this would make a higher premium worth the cost.

The shift to cheap advertising with measurable outcomes, however, wrecks much of the logic of targeting as well. To take a simplified example, it costs about 60 cents to reach a thousand people with untargeted web advertising. Ad space that costs $12 per thousand viewers (a widely discussed estimate in 2010 for certain niche sites) may well be more efficient because of targeting, but to make economic sense, the targeted ad would have to be 2,000 percent more efficient. Any less, and the junk inventory is more cost-effective.

Because ads can now appear on social media, the junk end of the cost curve is very low indeed, low enough to exert continued pull on the higher prices for targeted ads. Businesses don’t care about reaching people with ads. Businesses care about selling things. The ability to understand who actually buys their products or services online means that many advertisers can arbitrage expensive and cheap ads at will.

There may yet be some undiscovered source of advertising revenue, but to restore the fortunes of ad-supported journalism, this philosopher’s stone must be available to publishers but not to social media or advertising-as-service sites. To justify the return to formerly high rates, it must be dramatically more effective than any current advertising method. And it must generate revenue immune to price pressure from large-scale competition.

On current evidence, these conditions seem unlikely. Publishers’ power over advertisers is evanescing; since the appearance of the web, a huge shift has occurred in net value per advertising dollar from the publisher back to the advertiser, and more signs are pointing to that trend increasing than reversing. Even publishers willing to bet their businesses on this kind of salvation should consider alternative plans for continuing to produce good journalism should the advertising subsidy continue to decline.

Restructuring Is a Forced Move

The broadly negative turn in the fortunes of legacy news businesses leads us to two conclusions: News has to become cheaper to produce, and cost reduction must be accompanied by a restructuring of organizational models and processes.

Many factors point to further reductions in ad revenue and few point to increases in the next few years. Though the most precipitate revenue collapse is over, we are nevertheless writing this in the 23rd consecutive quarter of year-on-year revenue decline. The past three years of decline have taken place during a period of economic growth; in addition to the cumulative effects of revenue loss, the inability to raise revenue even in a growing economy suggests that legacy media firms will suffer disproportionately when the next recession begins, as it doubtless will within a few years.

Web advertising has never generated anything like the same revenue per reader, mobile looks even worse, and the continuing rise in online advertising generally is now often bypassing traditional news properties altogether. Meanwhile, hoped-for sources of direct fees–pay walls, micropayments, mobile apps, digital subscriptions–have either failed or underperformed.

Of these, digital subscriptions, as practiced at the Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, New York Times and others have done best, but even here the net effect of subscriptions has not made up the print shortfall. Furthermore, because most digital subscriptions are designed to increase print circulation, the short-term effect of digital subscriptions has the immediate effect of making the papers more reliant on print revenue, despite the long-term deterioration of print.

We do not believe the continued erosion of traditional ad revenue will be made up on other platforms over the next three to five years. For the vast majority of news organizations, the next phase of their existence will resemble the last one–cost reduction as a forced move, albeit in a less urgent (and, we hope, more strategic) way, one that takes into account new news techniques and organizational models.

In the 1980s, much academic ink was spilled over the ‘productivity paradox,’ where businesses had invested heavily in information technology over the preceding two decades, but, despite the capital outlay, had very little to show for their efforts. A few firms, however, did show strong early productivity gains from their embrace of IT. The companies that benefited didn’t just computerize existing processes; they altered those processes at the same time that they brought computers into the business and became a different kind of organization. By contrast, companies that simply added computers to their existing processes produced no obvious gains in output or efficiency.

We believe that a similar dynamic is at work today, one we’re calling post-industrial journalism, a phrase first used by Doc Searls in 2001, to mean ‘journalism no longer organized around the norms of proximity to the machinery of production.’ (The original rationale of the newsroom was not managerial but practical–the people producing the words had to be close to the machine, often in the basement, that would reproduce their words.)

Observers of the news industry such as David Simon have noted, correctly, that ‘doing more with less’ is the mantra of every publisher who’s just laid off a dozen reporters and editors. However, because the ‘with less’ part is a forced move, we have to try to make the ‘doing more’ part work, which means less cynical press-release-speak about layoffs and more restructuring to take advantage of new ways of doing journalism.

Post-industrial journalism assumes that the existing institutions are going to lose revenue and market share, and that if they hope to retain or even increase their relevance, they will have to take advantage of new working methods and processes afforded by digital media.

This restructuring will mean rethinking every organizational aspect of news production–increased openness to partnerships; increased reliance on publicly available data; increased use of individuals, crowds and machines to produce raw material; even increased reliance on machines to produce some of the output.

These kinds of changes will be wrenching, as they will affect both the daily routine and self-conception of everyone involved in creating and distributing news. But without them, the reduction in the money available for the production of journalism will mean that the future holds nothing but doing less with less. No solution to the present crisis will preserve the old models.

There Are Many Opportunities for Doing Good Work in New Ways

If you believe that journalism matters, and that there is no solution to the crisis, then the only way to get the journalism we need in the current environment is to take advantage of new possibilities.

Journalists now have access to far more information than previously, as a result of everything from the transparency movement to the spread of sensor networks. They have new tools for creating visual and interactive forms of explanation. They have far more varied ways for their work to reach the public–the ubiquity of search, the rise of stream-like sources (Facebook’s timeline, all of Twitter), the wiki as a format for incorporating new information. All these developments have expanded how the public can get and process the news.

Superdistribution–the forwarding of media through social networks–means that a tiny publication with an important article can reach a huge audience quickly and at no additional cost. The presence of networked video cameras in people’s pockets means that an increasing amount of visual reporting comes from citizens.

As new possibilities of information gathering, sense-making and distribution proliferate, it’s possible to see organizations taking advantage of working methods unavailable even 10 years ago, as with Narrative Science‘s automating the production of data-driven news; or ProPublica‘s making data sets and templates available for repeating a story, as with Dollars for Docs; or searching through existing data to discover new insights, as independent financial fraud investigator Harry Markopolos did with Bernie Madoff (one of the greatest missed journalistic opportunities of the past decade).

The commonality to enterprising digital members of traditional organizations–Anjali Mullany, formerly of the Daily News; John Keefe of WNYC; Gabriel Dance at the Guardian in the U.S.–and digital news startups such as WyoFile, Technically Philly and Poligraft is that they organize their assumptions and processes around the newly possible, like making graphics interactive, providing the audience with direct access to a database, soliciting photos and information from the audience, or circulating a story via the social graph. It’s not clear that Poligraft will be around in a decade (nor the Daily News, for that matter), but the experimentation being done at these organizations exemplifies good use of new tools to pursue journalistic goals.

The most exciting and transformative aspect of the current news environment is taking advantage of new forms of collaboration, new analytic tools and sources of data, and new ways of communicating what matters to the public. The bulk of our recommendations later in this essay will focus on these opportunities.

Defining ‘Public’ and ‘Audience,’ and the Special Case of the New York Times

Before presenting the body of the report, we need to engage in a little throat clearing about two contentious words–public and audience–as well as discussing the special case of the New York Times as a uniquely poor proxy for the general state of American journalism.

Public first. The concept of ‘the public,’ the group of people on whose behalf hard news is produced, is the ‘god term’ of journalism, as James Carey put it:

… the final term, the term without which nothing counts, and journalists justify their actions, defend the craft, plead their case in terms of the public’s right to know, their role as the representative of the public, and their capacity to speak both to and for the public.

The public is the group whose interests are to be served by the news ecosystem. It is also very difficult to define cleanly.

The idea of ‘the public’ has been core to American theorizing about news since John Dewey’s famous response to Walter Lippmann in the 1920s. Lippmann despaired that the average person in a mass society with complex economic and technical workings could ever become the kind of informed citizen that most democratic theory seemed to assume. Dewey, in response, argued that there were multiple, overlapping publics that could be ‘activated’ by the emergence of particular issues. This notion of news outlets serving disparate but overlapping publics has remained core to their organizational logic.

Since the emergence of Lippmann’s and Dewey’s competing views of mass media and mass society, philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas, Nancy Fraser, James Carey, Michael Schudson and Yochai Benkler have all made some conception of the public sphere core to their work, enriching but complicating any account of media whose role serves a (or the) public.

We will adopt the coward’s strategy of noting but not solving the dilemma. We do not propose to provide a definition any more rigorous than this one:

The public is that group of consumers or citizens who care about the forces that shape their lives and want someone to monitor and report on those forces so that they can act on that knowledge.

This is an unsatisfying, question-begging definition, but it is at least respectful of the welter of opinions about what actually constitutes a ‘public.’

The word ‘audience’ has become similarly problematic. When the media landscape was cleanly divided into publishing (print, broadcast) vs. communication (telegraph, then telephone), the concept of an audience was equally clean–the mass of recipients of content produced and distributed by a publisher. Movies, music, newspapers, books–all these had obvious audiences.

One of the most disruptive effects of the internet is to combine publishing and communications models into a single medium. When someone on Twitter shares a story with a couple of friends, it feels like a water cooler conversation of old. When that same person shares that same story with a couple thousand people, it feels like publishing, even though it’s the same tool and the same activity used to send the story to just a few. Furthermore, every one of those recipients can forward the story still further. The privileged position of the original publisher has shrunk dramatically.

Observing a world where the members of the audience had become more than recipients of information, the scholar Jay Rosen of New York University coined the phrase ‘The People Formerly Known as the Audience’ to describe the ways in which previously quiescent groups of consumers had become creators and annotators and judges and conduits for information. We adopt Rosen’s view of this transformation here; however, writing out his formulation (or TPFKATA) is too unwieldy.

We will therefore talk throughout about ‘the audience’–keep in mind that we mean by that the people formerly known as the audience, newly endowed with an unprecedented degree of communicative agency.

Finally, a note about why we will not be concentrating very much on the fate of the New York Times. A remarkable amount of what has been written about the fortunes of American journalism over the past decade has centered on the question of what will happen to the Times. We believe this focus has been distracting.

In the last generation, the Times has gone from being a great daily paper, in competition with several other such papers, to being a cultural institution of unique and global importance, even as those papers–the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, among others–have shrunk their coverage and their ambitions. This puts the Times in a category of one. Any sentence that begins ‘Let’s take the New York Times as an example …’ is thus liable to explain or describe little about the rest of the landscape.

The Times newsroom is a source of much interesting experimentation–data visualizations, novel partnerships, integration of blogs–and we have talked to many of our friends and colleagues there in an effort to learn from their experiences and make recommendations for other news organizations. However, because the Times is in a category of one, the choices its management can make, and the outcomes of those choices, are not illustrative or predictive for most other news organizations, large or small, old or new. We will therefore spend comparatively little time discussing its fate. While the Times serves as an inspiration for news organizations everywhere, it is less useful as a model or bellwether for other institutions.

Organization

This essay is written with several audiences in mind–startups, traditional organizations trying to adapt, journalism schools, and organizations that support or shape the ecosystem, from the Pulitzer Prize Board to the U.S. government.

After this introduction are three main sections: Journalists, Institutions and Ecosystem.

We start by asking what individual journalists can and should do today, because their work matters most, and because the obsessive focus on institutional survival in recent years has hidden an obvious truth–institutions matter because they support the work of journalists, not vice versa.

We next ask what institutions can do to support the work of journalists. We are not using the word ‘institution’ in its colloquial sense of ‘legacy news organization,’ but rather in its sociological sense of ‘a group of people and assets with relatively stable patterns of behavior.’ Huffington Post is as much of an institution as Harper’s; we are as interested in the institutionalization of current news startups as we are in the adaptation of old institutions to new realities.

Finally, we examine the news ecosystem, by which we mean those aspects of news production not under the direct control of any one institution. The current ecosystem contains new assets, such as an explosion in digital data and computational power. It also contains new opportunities, such as the ability to form low-cost partnerships and consortia, and it contains forces that affect news organizations, from the assumptions and support or obstacles produced by schools, businesses and governments.

In our brief conclusion, we extrapolate several of the current forces out to the end of the decade and describe what we believe some of the salient features of the news environment of 2020 will be.

We do not imagine that any one organization can act on all or even a majority of our recommendations; the recommendations are too various and directed at too many different kinds of actors. We also don’t imagine that these recommendations add up to a complete strategic direction. We are plainly in an era where what doesn’t work is clearer than what does, and where the formerly stable beliefs and behaviors of what we used to call the news industry are giving way to a far more variable set of entities than anything we saw in the 20th century.

We do imagine (or at least hope) that these recommendations will be useful for organizations that want to avoid the worst of the anachronism between traditional process and contemporary opportunity and want to take advantage of the possibilities that exist today.

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