Nabobs of negativism v. cock-eyed optimists

This Friday, I’m giving a keynote at the University of Texas International Symposium on Online Journalism. My topic: “The end of the mourning, mewling, and moaning about the future of journalism: Why I’m a cock-eyed optimist about news.” I’d like your help. Tell me why you’re optimistic about news: what we can do now that we couldn’t do before, where you see growth, where you see new opportunities. (I’ll put the spiel up as soon as I figure out how to export Keynote with my notes.)

We’re in dire need of a little optimism. We need to see the opportunities and grab them. And here’s the clearest illustration of that need from Tim O’Reilly’s blog on the San Francisco Chronicle:

Apparently, Phil Bronstein, the editor-in-chief, told staff in a recent “emergency meeting” that the news business “is broken, and no one knows how to fix it.” (“And if any other paper says they do, they’re lying.”)

The response to this in the blog world was inspiring. Tim had his ideas. Dave Winer contributed his. Robert Scoble, like Dave, discusses the new requirements for journalism education. Adrian Monck, like like both of them, had suggestions about journalism education. Monck also sees relevant wisdom in Andy Kessler’s interview with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (who said the wisest thing I heard at Davos: that it is now our job in media not to create communities that already exist but to bring them “elegant organization”); ditto Om Malik. Here‘s Doc Searls’ help. Scott Karp suggests a little imagination and treating news like a charity. I disagree with that and much of what is written in these posts and the many times more in the comments under each post. But the moral to the story is that you sure won’t save the news business if you don’t try, Mr. Bronstein. And if you do try, you’ll have plenty of allies who will offer their ideas and lend their support.

Here’s a link to my PowerPoint (actually Keynote) slides. They’re pretty much meaningless without the spiel, but they give you an idea of some of the topics I’ve outlined. Please add yours.

: LATER: Now compare and contrast Bronstein’s alleged defeatism with Alan Rusbridger’s talks with his staff in the editor’s office at the Guardian (repeated disclosure: I write and consult for the Guardian). As reported by former newspaper editor and now Guardian blogger Roy Greenslade:

What really emerged, crystal clear, was Rusbridger’s restatement of the underlying reasons for making this leap into the future, even though the future itself remains unclear. He said: “The print-on-paper model [for newspapers] isn’t making money and isn’t going to make money. It’s no longer sustainable. Though the future is unknowable, we are taking an educated guess about what we should be doing and where we should be going.”

If it’s broke, in short, fix it.

: LATER: Richard Benefits offers some eloquent industrial-age advice:

Here’s what I’d tell the children:

The good news about the news is that there’s no shortage of news. The best experts forecast a nearly boundless supply of news clear into the next century, so the news conservation efforts of the past (recycling, echo-chambering, and other forms of plagiarism) are no longer necessary and will phase out as soon as we have the means to harvest the coming bumper-crop of news.

And things aren’t just rosy on the supply side, they’re looking real good on the demand side. Previous generations of news consumers had to get by on two newsfeeds a day, one before work in the morning and the other after work. Now we can graze and forage on news all day long without becoming over-educated.

The challenge to news harvesters is in the construction of the apparatus that harvests raw news, processes it, and takes it to market. In previous generations, this process was most efficient when centralized in local news factories, but today and tomorrow the process will become more decentralized, sometimes even taking place on consumer premises under the control of news robots which sift, sort, organize, and filter according to consumer preferences. The process of moving these functions from central offices to consumer equipment is just beginning, although we’ve had working prototypes of the news robot for 25 years.

The revenue picture has never been brighter, as each feed is easily supported by multiple sources of ad and subscriber fees.

The key elements are understanding that decentralization is in fact multiple centralization, and that each center of news processing is a potential revenue generator. That’s all I wish to say at the moment, but you can do the math.

And Hook ‘Em.

  • http://www.ustyleit.com Mary

    The news doesn’t really add much value….it is filled with expert commentators who don’t usually provide anything insightful.

  • Joseph

    I like your thoughts–I don’t see the link to your Keynote presentation–is it there and I’m not finding it?

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Joseph,
    Oops. Link added. thanks

  • http://blog-o-blog.com Zac Echola

    I see the strongest growth in weekly newspapers. Where before, market size and press operating costs left those news organizations stuck producing few bits of news every week, now, provided they have a good web framework, can post news much, much faster online. Essentially, they can become mini-dailies with their Web sites.

    Bloggers know that more content means more eyes, so I’d like to see more newspapers treating the Web for what it is. So many papers out there push news online a day late and a dollar short, just like their paper products.

    The reality is that many papers are probably looking at two very different audiences viewing their Web product and their print product (at least from what I’ve seen at my job and read in a few studies). Though, it’s a huge culture shift for newspapers to start thinking like radio or TV news on a daily basis.

    There’s quite a bit of information out there waiting to be organized, too. Like police blotters. And information about charities. And government spending. If it comes in the form of a spreadsheet, it can pretty easily be “elegantly organized.”

    Though all of this means that newspapers are going to have to hire programmers that also understand journalism. Not an easy combination to find, especially for the pay most people in journalism make.

  • http://www.planetabell.com John C Abell

    The good news is great news: there is no evidence that the public interest in news has waned. We just don’t know exactly what people are doing or like – and maybe they don’t either since the volume of choice can tend to breed fickleness.

    I feel like a kid in a candy store most days, free to be disloyal or to ignore, to find out what’s happening on my terms. Or to skip a day or two and catch up later. Catch me if you can, metric-boy!

    The definition of news may be expanding (thank you Jon Stewart and Bill Maher) and the way we get our news may remain a moving target for some time to come, but the appetite is not going away. I would even take the over and bet that it is borderline insatiable: how else to explain all the passion behind strident comments about media accuracy and comprehensiveness? Why else would there be multiple comments on routine local stories?

    The Internet saved the news business.
    The Internet saved the news business.

    Without the Internet, television would have been the dominant medium, without portability, interactivity or the ability to delve deep all the time, every time, infinite in all directions (apologies to Freeman Dyson).

    Our inability to understand how to perfectly exploit the digital medium after 10 years or so shouldn’t be surprising or demoralizing. We still can’t count TV viewership in prime time properly, 50 years on. The patient ones among us will prevail and flourish and if that means keeping some extra powder dry for a while, so be it.

    This isn’t the first era of paradigmatic change for news and, with any luck — any luck — it won’t be the last one, either.

  • http://chron.com Dean Betz

    Jeff, I’ll be at the symposium crowing about how excited we are about what the future of news brings. Bring on change!

  • http://www.vergenewmedia.com Jim Long

    I had a conversation with NBC News VP for Digital Media, Mark Lukasiewicz, where I expressed the notion of re-defining what an network affiliate is and what it might be in a world where content can be created and distributed by everyone. Does it have to be a tower and transmitter? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s an independant content creator with an editorial track record. Time will tell if that amounts to anything. Bringing different voices to the conversation would seem to me to be a mutually beneficail arrangement for traditional journalism outlets and emerging ones. I really enjoyed our conversations at VON07 and your interviews were cruicial to my storytelling out there. So once again, I’ve given you “face time” in my VON07 recap video.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    The good news about the news is that there’s no shortage of news. The best experts forecast a nearly boundless supply of news clear in to the next century, so the news conservation efforts of the past (recycling, echo-chambering, and other forms of plagiarism) are no longer necessary and will phase out as soon as we have the means to harvest the coming bumper-crop of news.

    And things aren’t just rosy on the supply side, they’re looking real good on the demand side. Previous generations of news consumers had to get by on two newsfeeds a day, one before work in the morning and the other after work. Now we can graze and forage on news all day long without becoming over-educated.

    The challenge to news harvesters is in the construction of the apparatus that harvests raw news, processes it, and takes it to market. In previous generations, this process was most efficient when centralized in local news factories, but today and tomorrow the process will become more decentralized, sometimes even taking place on consumer premises under the control of news robots which sift, sort, organize, and filter according to consumer preferences. The process of moving these functions from central offices to consumer equipment is just beginning, although we’ve had working prototypes of the news robot for 25 years.

    The revenue picture has never been brighter, as each feed is easily supported by multiple sources of ad and subscriber fees.

    The key elements are understanding that decentralization is in fact multiple centralization, and that each center of news processing is a potential revenue generator. That’s all I wish to say at the moment, but you can do the math.

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  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    And BTW, when speaking to the U. of Texas, one must always say: “Hook ‘Em!”

  • http://blog.syracuse.com/newstracker Brian Cubbison

    When the levee breaks, we’ll need the news.

    We could have used the news before the levee breaks, too.

    We might not need paper, until after the levee breaks and the power’s off and the cellphones won’t work and the battery on the transistor radio is dying.

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  • http://sandlander.blogspot.com Sandlander

    The Guardian hiring a Head of Video, four Producers and a couple of audio technicians is surely a sign of optimism.

    I wonder if part of the problem is the persistent compartmentalization which journalists seem to indulge in.

    Media 2.0 is here already. Ashley Highfield says “We are half way through the revolution. When it’s over the world will have changed forever.”

    Isn’t ‘news’ just another genre within the Media 2.0 ecology? If so, then reporting, delivering and sharing the news – continuing the conversation – will be a wonderfully exciting on-going process. At least it will be for those bold enough and humble enough to embrace change.

  • http://fedoralreserve.wordpress.com Tom

    Jeff, I don’t think you should call the optimists cock-eyed, we’re the ones who can see clearly. The simplest place to start is with the communities around the papers. Web startups are applications in search of communities, newspapers have communities but aren’t offering them the applications. Newspapers are still in the position to bring these services to their local areas. Once they start down this line there is a world of possibility open to them.

  • http://www.sixtysecondview.com David Brain

    Jeff; how about these quotes from Richard Sambrook of the BBC and Chris Ahearn of Reuters? These guys run the news output of two of the biggest international broadcasters going and they seem to be optimistic too.

    Richard Sambrook, Director of BBC’s Global New Division: “News has always required eye-witness testimony, and increasingly, much of this will come from our own listeners and viewers through emails, texts, camphone pictures or video uploads. We have always enabled the public to participate in our services through phone-ins, letter and and so-forth. The arrival of user-generated content, blogs and much else will allow us to expand this involvement dramatically.”

    Chris Ahearn, President of Reuters Media: “We now have a truly engaged audience model. The audience decides what they want to watch, arrange for it to be saved and pull it up with their remote devices at times of their choosing. They declare a desire for a specific kind of sport, news or comedy and demand that it be satisfied.

    “It ought to be possible to integrate professional journalism with the insights of amateur contributors in a valuable way. News providers will still need to perform the traditional professional job of letting people know what is happening, but they have the opportunity to do more. They have the capacity to engage their viewers, listeners and readers more directly and put them in touch with the raw material from which news stories are derived.” He finishes: “News providers need to seize this moment and harness what technology can offer to engage everyone who wants to participate.”

    By the way, these quotes from a very good little book called Global Voice about Britain’s role in international broadcasting.

  • Satch

    There’s a few things I’d like to say on this subject, but I’m a bit pressed for time at the moment; so in the spirit of “If it’s broke, in short, fix it,” I’ll just note for now that your Keynote slides mention Walter “READ” Medical Center; it’s actually REED.

  • http://adrianmonck.blogspot.com Adrian Monck

    Do we still need people who do nothing except gather and report the news? The people formerly known as journalists? My answer (no surprises) is yes. But newsgathering has always been a cost centre in search of a revenue stream. That stream could flow from an Emir, a company that sells computer terminals to financial traders, or advertisers, or taxpayers, or (fill in the blank).

    Do the opportunities outweigh the threats? Industry-wide – of course. But those opportunities will come at the cost of losing things we’re fond of, and inventing things we’ll take time to value. And that means pain for individuals.

    Still communications as a part of what EVERYONE does is huge now – the British Interior Ministry has more people in its news management operation than one of the British networks (Channel 4) has gathering news.

  • http://www.mediasurvey.com Sam Whitmore

    People want to tell the truth, and reporters want to re-tell it. Tech (SMS, IM, Internet) avails everyone of the truth if one wants it. Just look at the WaPo reporting that’s come out of Washington in the past year. Investigations also are alive and well in local TV, and in broad-reach mags such as BusinessWeek, the New Yorker and the forthcoming Conde Nast Portfolio.

    Americans’ willingness to stick their neck out and stand up for the truth makes for business opportunity — the single biggest reason why reporting will flourish going forward.

  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    The good news is that, since it is so easy and so cheap to read the news, more people read them.
    The not too good news is that increasing the audience means a decreasing in quality.
    Sometimes it is hard to see what is news and what is gossip, the second being the most requested (and thus the one producing a better revenue).

    But news or gossip or ads or blogs, the positive thing is that people read again and read more and like to read more.
    And they are getting so fond of news that many have taken to write. That is the Magic of our time (and the Internet).
    Giving opportunities to readers and to writers.
    And with all this big writing and reading we won’t certainly lack news…

  • http://billkosloskymd.typepad.com/lexicillin_qd/ Bill K, MD

    The good news is that with more people connected to the Web, the journalist as generalist is quickly subjected to fact checking, which one would think would increase the quality of reporting.

    The story just broke about Tony Snow recurrent colon cancer in the form of metastatic disease in the liver. CNN mistakenly provides a link to liver cancer as a follow-up to this story.

    (see graphic) http://billkosloskymd.typepad.com/lexicillin_qd/2007/03/tony_snow_annou.html

    The future of news means a much faster pace, and the online journalist has to be up to the challenge.

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  • http://rwrld.blogspot.com/ Ron Davison

    Old media is a monologue; new media is a dialogue. It’s that simple and that messy.

  • http://www.unjournalism.com Mike Keliher

    While every form of journalism has its strengths and its weaknesses, I think Mary is confusing “news” with “cable news networks.”

  • Meredith Barnhill

    The one thing that really struck me on the keynote slides was the idea of “and not or.” We multimedia journalism students at UT are taught that the reign of newspapers is over and the industry has to embrace multimedia aspects to their companies. My question is about the timeline. When are we going to see more newspapers embracing the idea of web journalism? Right now, a handful have embraced a well-rounded array of multimedia elements including Flash packages, web videos and soundslides. When can we expect to see the majority of papers jump accept that idea?

  • Patricia Hartwell

    I was a network TV producer for many years, am an avid reader of BuzzMachine. You asked for two cents, here’s mine: the key reason I am optimistic about news is — because anyone and everyone can generate news and information now — I think it makes us much less likely to be prey to group think/herd mentality — which is a major downside of MSM journalism.

    Without “professionals” looking over your shoulder — news producers/journalists/bloggers can feel free to follow leads, hunches, tidbits, whatever — where they lead. And in this open environment, you know if you put information out there, people will challenge it – which to my mind surely acts as editorial oversight. Having been inside CBS News for many years, far too often, senior and executive producers did not want to hear where my reporting might be leading me, if it did not fit in with the “prescribed” story.

    I also think the new news environment encourages people to become part of news – being a contributor gives them influence in their own lives because they are part of deciding what is “important or relevant” to know and to disseminate.

  • http://www.newsfight.com RHMF

    Subscribe to your optimism Jeff..and “hook ‘em” back at ya. However, what’s troubling is the lack of structured venues where good journalism can defeat bad journalism on a global scale. Accepted places where stories and their tellers continuously compete head to head with the public naming the victor.

    Imagine the quality of sports and stock markets if they lacked platforms where competitors could come to compete in places deemed as fair and open. Why should journalism be any different? How do stories compete now? Via ratings or subscriptons as part of news shows, papers, or websites? Or most viewed on some day on some website? Too embedded, too fragmented, not places where it’s story vs. story – it’s one-to-many instead of one-to-one.

    If a journalist is like an athlete and telling stories is his game, then how does he become great if not required to overcome a series of competitions that culminate in the crowning of a champion?

    So long as journalism acts like it’s unlike any other endeavor where the better the competition platform, the better the competitors, the prosperity of journalism will be needlessly limited.

  • joe frohlinger

    The future of journalism for most newspapers in this country is fixed on a model that is largely broken. There needs to be a greater emphasis of local news and information that readers can’t get elsewhere. Everything is local and news should be tailored. Most savvy readers understand the limits and prejudices of local newspapers but they crave a better understanding of where they live and things that affect their families directly. That is the beauty and the strength of newspapers. Traditional newspapers’ ad sales and circulation figures combined with an overlap of a highly effective website/blogger universe tied into the model represents a powerful combination. There is an untapped local blogging universe that could be built into a newspaper’s model that is attractive. Sports, food and other items could be built into the model.

  • Meredith Barnhill

    Mr. Frohlinger,

    I agree with your call for hyperlocal and citizen journalism to an extent, but don’t you think that if people are too focused on what directly affects themselves and their loved ones that the larger-scale issues that affect us as a nation or as human beings will be ignored? This is the problem I think journalism is facing by allowing users to tailor news homepages to their specifications. I think that it would cause disjunct in the population and hinder the promotion of helping others.

  • http://mysa.com DB

    For those who oppose delivering the type of information people want instead of just what editors think they need:
    News/information is our product, journalism is our service. If we can’t sell our product, we won’t be around to deliver our service.

  • William Roberts

    What we are getting now is a Corporate idea what news is, and what should be in a story. Just a suggestion. Obtain a copy of the Dallas Morning New any date in the year 1900, and compare it with any of todays offerings. Today they only provide part of a story. ei: Judge overturns voting right of Sam Bigalow. NONAME judge is the key to the story. The next time we vote for a judge, there is no trail to follow…We get pablum from the editorial page.