A complete ecology of news

Dave Winer called my scenario for the future of (local) news a “nightmare,” which may be a bit strong but gets the point across.

Dave wisely and eloquently tries to get away from old assumptions about news, who operates it and how and tries to abstract it to its constituent elements. I’ll agree and disagree with him – or actually, agree with him and then add to it – as I try to draw a picture of a complete ecology of news here.

In one post, Dave says (my emphases):

Think about news as its constituent components, not in the bizarro news world we live in, think about news in the actual world. The components are: sources, facts, ideas, opinions, readers.

The challenge of the news industry, to the extent that there is one, is to connect the first four items with the last item. I don’t think you need a reporter and editor to do that. I don’t think they were doing their jobs anyway, they were being very selective about what sources, facts, ideas and opinions we could have.

I want it all, and I don’t want anyone saying what I can and can’t have.

In a following post, Dave gives us a different expression of the point:

If they [newspapers] could consider other points of view, two in particular, they might get somewhere. The two points of view are:

1. People with news.

2. People who want news.

Source and destination. Reporters are distributors. And editors are facilitators of distribution.

If the people with the news can publish it themselves, and they can; what’s to stop the people who want the news from reading it directly.

I think he’s right in identifying his first four components as the base of news and in identifying the essential relationships in gathering and sharing news. I have long said that gathering and sharing what the public knows will form much – most, even almost all – of news. But not all. There are things missing.

Missing from what? A complete picture. How do I define complete? Complete enough to inform society, to tell us what we need to know. Need or want? That’s a tough decision but I think the proper verb for this discussion is “need” (“want” tends to conjure images of Britney Spears, but I can argue either way). Who determines that need? Society – not the press. But the press, properly deployed and supported, can help assure that need is met. Who’s the press? Anyone can be. So what adds up to completeness? Tasks that need to be actively pursued to add value to the base Dave and I agree forms the foundation of news. I’ll outline those components shortly.

I need to be very careful here not to fall into the traps of (1) defining this ecology of news as the press – newspapers – would define it, from their perspective and (2) defining the tasks as if journalists (as formerly defined) must perform them. I will try hard to be agnostic to both, instead looking at what I think forms a complete ecology of news. Neither should we assume the form of news (see this about moving past the article, and this about rethinking the interview).

First, I’ll reiterate that I believe Dave is quite right in defining his components and how they will be gathered and shared: The public knows and wants to know and in a marketplace of information the internet now enables – with new tools that cannot be imagined in any well-intentioned scenario such as mine (see: Twitter) – that information will flow freely. So what’s missing? Or better yet, what value can be added atop this base? How can it be made better and operate more effectively? What needs and opportunities lie there? Those are the questions I try to concentrate on.

* Reporting. I’ll define this as getting information that people don’t know and/or don’t want to share. This is most commonly seen as investigation: finding out that the mayor is on the take, which may be revealed only by asking the right questions or demanding the right documents and understanding where to look. There is also the case of reporting that asks a question that has not been asked, as researchers do (e.g., what is the impact of the internet on friendship?). Reporting in this definition is an active, not passive, activity of digging, discovering, demanding and in a complete ecology of news – in an informed society and democracy and economy – it is not just a luxury but, I’ll argue, a necessity. (Again, keep in mind, I’m agnostic on who does the reporting; I’m saying that this is a different function from information transport.)

* Organization. Dave says he wants it all. Damned straight. That is to say that we don’t want others to filter, stop, or control information. It was Dave who coined the important notion of the river of news – and wanted no dams on it. Amen. But…. There are also times when we need and want organization. That could be curation (which, in Dave’s posts, Paul Krugman’s blog links provide). It could be summary (which Wikipedia amazingly provides even and especially in providing snapshots of knowledge in big news events – though without the curation of links). In the Mumbai story, GroundReport curated – or organized and facilitated – people, finding Twitterers in Mumbai – amid thousands who were not – to report and write. There are many means and tools to provide organization – bloggers, Digg, blog search, Daylife, GoogleNews, Technorati… My point is only that this is a function – a value – that sits atop the base. And when we all do news, “organization” brings new definitions and opportunities.

* Editing. Editing is such a loaded word, bringing baggage of control and orthodoxy. Keep in mind that here, you are my editors and I greatly value and need (almost all of) your editing. I’m also mindful of the incredible help my book editor, Ben Loehnen at Collins, gave me. Trying to get past the traps I listed above – who performs the tasks and the history of them – let’s try to define the real values of editing. They include vetting facts, clarifying language, asking questions, filling in gaps, adding perspective. Editing is, by definition, value added to the flow of information (when it does, indeed, add value).

* Education. Among all the things I say about news, this is actually the most out-there but gets the least attention. I argue that when everyone does news and wants to do it better, education is a key value to add. Michael Rosenblum does this when he teaches hundreds of people who want to learn how to make better video. Newspapers in the U.K. have been doing this when they tell people how to file effective FOIAs. The Media Bloggers Association does this when it organizes classes in libel law so bloggers can both avoid going to court and get insurance. Journalists were not generous with their knowledge, neither were journalism educators. Again, I’ll get past those old roles in this discussion and say that sharing knowledge about how to better share information is an important value to add to the base. It’s often – usually – not necessary, but it can be helpful for those who want and need it and those who have it would be wise to share.

* Functionality. It may be a mistake to make this a separate value, as technology is primarily a tool of organization. Twitter helps us organize ourselves into conversation. Technorati and Google help us organize our information. But I think it’s important to recognize that just as the internet itself is a tool of sharing our information, its component parts and inventions facilitate and add great value to that.

* Economy. Here Dave and I have disagreed in the past so I want to be careful in this, too, to avoid the traps above, assuming the definitions of the economy of the news industry as it stands. In most of this ecology, the sharing will happen because of generosity and need, without currency. Indeed, information is its own currency. And it would be a mistake to try to define the economy based on the supposed need of its participants (the old, “who’s going to pay for my newsroom?” argument). Instead, as in all economies, when the base – the free exchange – does not meet a need, sometimes it is necessary to pay to fill that need. Let’s say I want to shine as much sunlight as possible on school boards in New Jersey and convince hundreds of people to podcast their board meetings. But I can find no one in Trenton, which needs it most. I decide it’s so important I pay someone to reliably perform the task. I could do that out of goodness and charity, but if there are the means to support that with commerce (e.g., contributions or advertising), I can support and might be able to expand the service. There are opportunities there just as there are needs. I believe that just as software companies can grow out of such opportunity, so can news enterprises that help society better inform itself. I see that as real value atop the base and I also see it as a necessity to get to what I hope is a complete ecology of news and a better informed society.

One side of this discussion will get mad at me for not protecting the role and jobs of journalists. The other side will get mad at me for trying to involve journalists. Here’s my perspective: In one of the many fact-checking queries that apparently amended copy left on the cutting-room floor for the Observer article, John Koblin asked a thought-provoking question about defining myself as a utopian or an earth-scorcher or such (I forget his choices). I said I tried to be a realist about the forces at work in media, technology, and society today and an optimist about the opportunities these bring tomorrow. I’m not trying to kill journalists’ jobs nor do I see it as my role or in my power to protect them. I am trying to understand the inevitable changes occurring – and help spur conversation about them – and then to see opportunities in them, which I believe is the only sane and productive response to change. (Protection, in one of my favorite chestnuts, is not a strategy for the future.)

I hope that journalists will see and seize the opportunities at hand just as I celebrate the opening of news – its definitions and functions – to a vast and broad array of people. I value that new and open exchange of information and news greatly and where it is possible or necessary to add value, great.

So… I agree with Dave that the components of news are sources, facts, ideas, and opinions, though I’ll say the fifth is not readers – following Jay Rosen’s first pronouncement at the first Bloggercon Dave organized – but us, all of us, no matter what role we play. Those roles, I agree with Dave, start with those who have and want or need news. But to that I add the roles and values I outlined here: reporting, organization, editing, education, functionality (or facilitation), and in an economy of some sort – with or without money – supporting that.

Dave concludes his first post:

Now, I’m not glad to see the news industry go that way, I’ve been pleading with them to embrace the future, to stop fighting it, to accept the changes, to give up their point of view. I think it’s still possible to do it, and save some of what they’ve built, but not so much anymore. But it’s going to take some major shifting of point of view to get there. And us users don’t really have much reason to care anymore.

Exactly. But we all care about news.

[I accidentally published this before I was finished editing… as if I’m ever finished. So there are a few changes from the first RSS.]

  • Brian Robinson

    This all sounds very erudite, and very analytical. But nowhere in all of this is there any idea about how to feed the bigger audience for news and information. The assumption is that everyone is online reading all of the blogs and twitters and links and God-knows what else there will be in the future, and then recompiling everything for themselves to come up with the news of the day.

    Guaranteed that does not describe the real audience for news other than the uber-nerds that read blogs like this (myself included) and who maybe blog and twitter themselves. The real world, even the so-called Internet generation, doesn’t have much time for that. That’s why the biggest sites in terms of traffic remain the BBC, Guardian, Times, NY Times, WPost etc. — people know they can go there and get a compilation of stuff that gives them a good idea of what’s going on.

    In what you describe above, where is the idea that these readers will be better served by the info age? In the UK when I was growing up, you had the intellectual papers and then the tabloids which (no surprise) were the best read of the lot. They may have been lurid and sensational, but they provided good snapshots of the bigger stories of the day along with the crappy stuff. How is anything that you propose going to address this audience — or is journalism not bothered with them anymore?

    Finally, where in all of the stuff you say is the word story? You speak of links and opinion and organization and blah, blah, but where is the discussion about what story means in the current scenarios for news? People don’t read links, they read stories. And for the great mass of readers — outside of the nerds — that still holds true. What I see here is the fracturing of story, not a way to tell a better one. Or do I have that wrong?

  • Still very meta Jeff — the stuff you’re justifying is the stuff that’s going away, that there is no money to support. If we all care about the news, and making sure that it gets from the people who have it to the people who want it, we’re going to have to learn how to do it without all the heavy iron. It seems to me the responsible thing for the news industry to do, while it is laying off its reporters and editors and the rest, is to help us come up with a Plan B — what we will do for news once all that is gone.

    An analogy — imagine a group of doctors knew that all hospitals and pharmacies were about to shut down. What would they do? Might they do *something* to make sure their client’s health needs were at least partially attended to?

    We’re always asked to believe how noble the profession of news is — now that is about to be tested in a whole new way. Are we just supposed to cry for this industry and throw our hands up and wait for the collapse before starting to put it back together, or would they like to help while they’re still here?

    Here’s a question I ask people privately to help focus their thinking…

    Suppose there were no NY Times tomorrow, and you heard somewhere, maybe on Politco or Huffpost or Memeorandum that it had gone out of business and was never going to publish again.

    1. How would you feel?

    2. What would you do?

    3. What should the Times have done but didn’t do before they shut down?

    Food for thought.

    It’s time to have this conversation Jeff. Imho. :-)

  • Dave,

    Amen to having the discussion. That’s just my goal.

    I don’t buy your starting shot, that this “stuff” is “going away” and that I’m just “justifying” it. Nowhere in my post do I talk about crying or throwing up hands for the incumbents (which will get me in trouble in other ways). My point is that some organizations may or may not but the functions are often still needed and I believe there will be a market demand and fulfillment of that need.

    Also agree about plan B. I set forth one plan in my scenario for news, linked above. But it’s just one. I’d like to see many more and, more important, see them not just presented but tried with people sharing lessons and best practices. That comes way down from the meta.

    In that scenario, I didn’t propose the end of the NYTimes (the grand exception to all rules) but the Philadelphia Inquirer or equivalent. That needs more discussion, more alternatives, more work and I’ll be digging into that via CUNY.

    As for the blame question, I really got hell for my view holding journalists to account for the state as well as the fate of journalism and news. One could argue that blame for what is past is irrelevant, as some argue. I think there is a role for that discussion as well and I’m girding my loins for it.

    I do see people in the business trying to move to the next level. I see people out of the business doing that. I think we need to be open to both camps/tribes rather than excluding either – that has long been my primary point.

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  • Mike Manitoba

    Pardon my digression (and intrusion), but you got hell because I think you may have made the same mistake Paul Farhi did in his AJR piece. His error was in exonerating the Fourth Estate completely, yours was in appearing to dump the whole corpse on its doorstep. Naturally, journalists don’t take kindly to that–especially those who are still passionate about what they do. You might as well tell them they’ve killed their own mothers.

    I speak as a former print journalist who works almost exclusively online these days. But I was among the pulp ‘n’ inkers–small-town variety–from 1991 to 2000, so I was definitely around for the initial Internet buzz. Our office was finally hooked up around 1996 (on one machine, mind you!), when I was about 24 years old. I was already in love with it, as were many of my peers. Yes, we did meet resistance in the newsroom among older editors and reporters. But truly, the rot went a lot higher than that.

    Nevertheless, I’m curious about and excited for the future of news, and despite my often snarky disposition, I will be watching this space with interest.

  • Mike,
    I’m doing neither in this case. I went to pains to say that I’m agnostic about who does what and I’m only trying to abstract the functions. I make NO presumptions about who does what in this post. NONE.

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  • Education is a huge issue for journalists. Knowledge sharing is easier and more important than ever as the way we work evolves but I doubt many media organisations are sharing knowledge and expertise – both internally and externally. It’s a big challenge in our organisation where we have journos at different stages of digital development.

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