TalkingPointsMemo.com founder (and Polk Award winner) Josh Marshall gave the 2008 Knight Lecture at Stanford last night. Among his more prescient observations:
"Journalism, as we know it, is in the process of being destroyed."
And yet Marshall, like me, isn't all in a tizzy about this. It's only journalism "as we know it" that is being destroyed, not journalism itself. He used one of the most apt metaphors I've yet heard to describe the phenomenon we're in the midst of. In the late 1800s, the railroad industry was on the cusp of a similar demise. The reason, Marshall said, that they failed to successfully transition into the new world was a faulty understanding of what their business was about. They saw themselves being in the railroad industry, rather than being in the transportation industry. Instead of asking themselves, "How can we create a long-term plan to continue to provide transportation?", they asked themselves, "How can we perpetuate trains?"
Newspapers are facing the same thing. Instead of asking themselves: "What's our long-range plan for continuing to do journalism?" (which, as I've mentioned before, we need to define as "the collection and dissemination of meaningful information"), they seem hell bent on figuring out how to perpetuate journalism as they know it today. Ie: perpetuating the forms that they're used to: inverted pyramids; a single entity that provides the whole kit and kaboodle, everything from national news to local news to business news to lifestyle news to sports; discrete stories that get wrapped up in a bow once a day, etc....
But this doesn't make sense. These forms are only a product of the technology to which they were beholden. When you have to deliver your journalism once a day via a limited number of physical pages, you develop certain ways of doing things to optimize for efficient use of the technology. But liberate yourself from that delivery vehicle, and you can "collect and disseminate meaningful information" in myriad other ways that are just as useful, authoritative, and effective. Or, as Marshall put it: "When you get out of that technology [physical pages delivered once a day], the canon of the news article seems arbitrary."
Here's another exercise: Take a beat. Any beat. Education. Crime. Green technology. Now ask yourself: If I were starting from scratch today and I wanted to develop a new entity to deliver information about my beat to everyone in the world who was interested in learning about it, how would I do it?
-- What technologies would I use for delivery?
-- How would I tell my stories so that people would be engaged and would keep coming back for more, would be chomping at the bit to hear what I was going to report next?
-- Who would I bundle myself with? A larger organization that also includes news on matters unrelated to mine? Go it alone? Somewhere in between?
-- Would I insist on publishing a completed story once a day, or unspool my story in drips and drabs, sharing things I knew as I learned them? Use Twitter to "live blog" from an event?
-- Would I straightjacket myself into an "objective", "dispassionte" voice? Or would I inject some personality into my reports?
Tip: Think about the websites, news, information sources you use today. Not for work, but just to gather information about whatever it is that interests you: knitting, swing dance, stem cell research, baseball, personal finance.... How do they deliver their information, and what it is it that you like about it that keeps you coming back for more?
Note: For now, don't worry about how you'd earn money to pay for this. For this exercise, simply take it on faith that, if you build a reader base, income will follow. (And if you don't believe me, again, just take a look at TalkingPointsMemo, which, today boasts at least 9 or 10 paid staffers, maybe more.)
Photo courtesy of festivefrog