One problem I’ve had with much discussion about the future of news lately is that it’s too press-centric. It focuses on the press as if it were at the center of the world, as if it owned news, as if news depended on it, as if solving the press’ problems solves news. That’s not the ecosystem of news now. There’s a fundamentally new structure to media and there are many different ways to look at it. And until we realize that, I don’t think we’ll begin to create successful new models for news. So pardon my simplistic drawings, but here’s an attempt to begin to illustrate that new ecosystem of news and media.
We start, of course, with the way things were: news through the filter of the press to us with few other options. We all know this chart:
This is replaced today by a press-sphere in which any of many sources can, thanks to links, add up a story and to fulfilling the need or desire for news and information. The press may be involved and may create a news story. But we might have found that via links from our peers who tell us it’s news (“if the news is important, it will find me”). Either of those might have linked to source material from a company or government site — which now plays a press role in adding to the whole of a story. Witnesses can join in the process directly. Background might come via links to archives. Commentary from observers may add perspective. An accumulation of data may alert us to news or augment it. All of these elements add up to news.
When we put the public at the center of the universe — which is how these charts should be drawn and how the world should be seen, as each of us sees it — we see the choices we all call upon: the press still, yes, but also our peers, media that are not the press (e.g., Jon Stewart), search, links, original sources, companies, the government. It’s all information and we curate it and interact with it with the tools available. And, again, the press stands in a different relationship to the world around it.
So this yields a different view of the news story itself. The notion that news comes in and stories go out — text and photos come in and paper goes out — is an artifact of the means of production and distribution, of course. Now a story never begins and it never ends. But at some point in the life of a story, a journalist (working wherever) may see the idea and then can get all kinds of new input. But the story itself — in whatever medium — is merely a blip on the line, a stage in a process, for that process continues after publication.
When I was talking with the Guardian about their new newsroom, I saw two views of news in 3-D relief: In print, the process leads to a product. Online, the process is the product.
This has an impact on how a newsroom and the journalists in it see themselves and their relationship with the public, over time. It calls into question the organizing principle of newsrooms. It used to be that we were organized around sections — news, sports, business… — and job descriptions — reporter, editor, photographer, designer. Then along came online and we were organized around media — print, online.
But in this new ecology, I think newsrooms will need to be organized around topics or tags or stories because the notion of a section is as out of date as the Dewey Decimal System (hat tip to David Weinberger).
Stories and topics become molecules that attract atoms: reporters, editors, witnesses, archives, commenters, and so on, all adding different elements to a greater understanding. Who brings that together? It’s not always the reporter or editor anymore. It can just as easily be the reader(s) now.
Of course, these aren’t the only architectural changes. Last week, I joined a discussion with the faculty at CUNY about these shifts, which included these ideas:
* The separation of content from presentation on web pages means that design, navigation, brand, and medium can change and are not necessarily controlled by an editor’s design.
* Feeds also have an impact on — and can reduce the value of — packaging and prioritization (also known as editing).
* Live reports from witnesses also reduce the opportunity to package and edit.
* The ecology of links motivates us to do what we do best and link to the rest. It fosters collaboration. It changes the essential structure of a story (background or source material can be a link away).
* Links also turn our readers into our distributors.
* Links turn our readers into editors.
* Aggregation, curation, and peer links become our new newsstand.
* Search and SEO motivate us to create repositories of expertise (topic pages) and make news stories more permanent.
* Search reduces the power of the brand.
* We see ourselves not as owners of content or distribution but as members of networks.
* These networks can be about content, trust, interest, or advertising relationships or all of the above.
I could keep drawing bad charts all day to illustrate the new network, reverse syndication models, the audience as the network, and more. I’ll spare you. (But if you have any charts to show, please do send links.)
These are all fundamental shifts in how news and the world around it is constructed. So to keep talking about newspapers as if they were news is far too limiting in the discussion. It’s bigger now. It’s more complex. It moves over time. It’s more about process than product. It has no limit of sources and handlers and distributors and curators and perspectives. When we rethink this ecology of news, we’ll be in a better position to plan for what’s next.