So you're on an ocean liner and it sinks. Step No. 1 is: Tread water. Step No. 2: Grab the first floating thing that happens by.
That's where the newspaper industry is located today -- desperately grabbing at whatever debris is available, looking for one thing (or several smaller things) with sufficient buoyancy to support its ponderous, monopoly-bloated weight. And there's nothing wrong with that. When you're drowning, stop drowning first and THEN think about how to get to dry land.
Clinging to wreckage isn't a plan. It isn't even survival. And sadly, most of the people writing about this tremendous change simply can't imagine any alternative to grabbing some still-floating piece of the original ocean liner and hanging on like grim death. We're basically squabbling over which wreckage is the best wreckage (pay-to-read news, with or without a rational argument in its favor, is the current flavor of the month).
I've been writing about the inevitability of this change for some time, and I'm now officially fed-up with the daily round of nostalgic, whiny defeatism.
Nothing lasts forever. I grew up in the era of tinny AM radios and 45 rpm records. I've worked for an afternoon paper that went under, the scrappy Washington Star. Maybe serious journalism will reinvent itself in new and unexpected forms. But if everything goes electronic, I'll always miss the feel of newsprint.
Oh, please. Is that all that's left? Really? Some intramural competition to see which print pundit can write the most moving elegy to a self-mythologized press corps'? Makes me want to shake them and shout "SNAP OUT OF IT, MAN!"
The path to an abundant and meaningful future isn't backwards or sideways -- but ahead, into the new. Howard Kurtz was right that "Lack of Vision Is To Blame for Newspaper Woes," but that deficit isn't just historical -- it's ongoing. So in case you've missed it, here's the my best candidate for a hopeful future for professional journalism:
OK, That Was A Tease
Before I pitch my idea, I want to make sure you get the context first, and it begins with Kurzweil's Law::
- Evolution applies positive feedback in that the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage. Each epoch of evolution has progressed more rapidly by building on the products of the previous stage.
- Evolution works through indirection: evolution created humans, humans created technology, humans are now working with increasingly advanced technology to create new generations of technology. As a result, the rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time.
- Over time, the "order" of the information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival) increases.
Restated? Things speed up. Exponentially (that link is a video, by the way, and I recommend you grok its message, if not memorize its details, before you publish another thought about the future of media).
Got a problem? Be human: Build a tool
Also included in Kurzweil's Law is an important thought about information. There is not only more of it being generated, there's also more signal amidst the static.
That's counter-intuitive, since the first thing you encounter in the networked world is the incomprehensible level of static that's now available to anyone with an ISP. Consequently, print-centric writers are forever talking about how much garbage is available in the blogosphere (thereby demonstrating an astounding ability to miss the point) as a rhetorical prelude to asserting mass-media journalists' value as information processors.
That proposition was largely true in the 20th century, when most information was analog. Reporters told you what a thing was like. Editors decided what things deserved description. It was a highly profitable system with some excellent features, but it was a business based on scarcity and the monopolies of one-way communications channels.
Those limited channels have been superseded by the Web, which is why the pace of information creation is now increasing exponentially. In the language of engineering, our traditional mass-media communications system is now failing because it doesn't scale to the size of the new world it's trying to describe.
This acceleration isn't likely to be reversed (absent a global catastrophe, of course), which is why pay-to-read plans based on creating artificial scarcity are doomed. The new information environment is one of clutter, not scarcity, and you don't deal with clutter -- not in your home, not on the Web -- by ignoring it.
The important insight here? Once you build tools that extract meaningful order from clutter, you haven't just reduced clutter -- you've created something new and immensely valuable.
I propose that the future of the professional press rests upon building and deploying that immensely valuable thing.
From documents to data structures
As I wrote last month, one key to the future is to Own Your Data. This isn't copyright advice: What I'm really saying is we have to begin learning how to add value to the information we collect, and then put that information into a thoughtful structure to retain and expand that value.
I know that idea doesn't instantly make sense to most people, so here's an example:
The old way:
Dan the reporter covers a house fire in 2005. He gives the street address, the date and time, who was victimized, who put it out, how extensive the fire was and what investigators think might have caused it. He files the story, sits with an editor as it's reviewed, then goes home. Later, he takes a phone call from another editor. This editor wants to know the value of the property damaged in the fire, but nobody has done that estimate yet, so the editor adds a statement to that effect. The story is published and stored in an electronic archive, where it is searchable by keyword.
The new way:
Dan the reporter covers a house fire in 2010. In addition to a street address, he records a six-digit grid coordinate that isn't intended for publication. His word-processing program captures the date and time he writes in his story and converts it to a Zulu time signature, which is also appended to the file.
As he records the names of the victimized and the departments involved in putting out the fire, he highlights each first reference for computer comparison. If the proper name he highlights has never been mentioned by the organization, Dan's newswriting word processor prompts him to compare the subject to a list of near-matches and either associate the name with an existing digital file or approve the creation of a new one.
When Dan codes the story subject as "fire," his word processor gives him a new series of fields to complete. How many alarms? Official cause? Forest fire (y/n)? Official damage estimate? Addresses of other properties damaged by the fire? And so on. Every answer he can't provide is coded "Pending."
Later, Dan sits with an editor as his story is reviewed, but a second editor decides not to call him at home because he sees the answer to the damage-estimate question in the file's metadata. The story is published and archived electronically, along with extensive metadata that now exists in a relational database. New information (the name of victims, for instance) automatically generates new files, which are retained by the news organization's database but not published.
And those information fields Dan coded as "Pending?" Dan and his editors will be prompted to provide that structured information later -- and the prompting will continue until the data set is completed.
Why this matters
The 2005 story can be found by archive search, but the labor cost of reacquiring and sorting for relevance every story listed under the search term "fire" is expensive and inaccurate. Consequently, its commercial value approaches zero.
On the other hand, the 2010 "story" is only a subset of a much more complex and valuable data set, which exists within a data structure that allows its information to be retrieved accurately and reconfigured in useful ways.
Traditionally, news organizations viewed this kind of metadata coding as a library (or, in newsroom jargon, "morgue") function. Its value? Improved reporting quality on future stories, without a quantifiable payoff. Consequently, such improvements were ignored, if not actively resented. Why bother improving your information structure if there's no payoff for the effort?
But in my 2010 example, the structure of this information is the news organization's primary product. Yes, the story is "given away" both in print and online (a misnomer: the news industry has ALWAYS given away news -- it's a loss-leader that supports our core business: renting your attention to advertisers). But the semi-structured data set that comprises the totality of the news organization's reporting has intrinsic commercial value to any person or entity that benefits from relevant, useful information.
Who might pay for access to a data set that includes the fire information included in my example? Well, insurance companies, for starters, but perhaps also attorneys, the Red Cross, real estate agencies, marketing companies, private detectives, specific vendors, etc.
And as a newspaper editor with access to that resource, could I build and curate a data tool that my readers might be willing to pay to use? Sure thing: I could create a mashup of public safety, educational, real estate and political information that could give dynamic "quality of life" grades to towns, neighborhoods and individual streets. And so on.
Restated: If there's a demand for information in a useful form and you can provide it accurately and cheaply, then you have a business. Potentially a lucrative business.
That's owning your data. I call this outcome, for lack of a better term, the Informatics Scenario.
Capture the value in your workflow
Since the real value is in the totality of your data, and the value of each individual piece of information is marginal, then the most obvious consequence is that going back into archives and adding structure isn't likely to be cost-effective. The value improves slowly over time as you collect new information, then accelerates as the sets of data become statistically significant .
Since cost-efficiency is important, the foundation of the Informatics Scenario requires a reporting, editing and database workflow that integrates good data collection principles into the process of newsgathering and editing. This means that we'll need to invent word-processing tools that interact with writers and editors in helpful ways, such as automating some functions (like the Zulu conversion I suggested above) and streamlining others (orienting a real-time map by street address to aid the writer in setting the grid coordinate).
Today we use multiple layers of editing to improve "copy." That system will eventually evolve into one that puts primary value on assuring the value of the data structure, because the company's primary asset will be the completeness and reliability of its records. This will put more pressure on the quality and integrity of the original news gathering, and that's great news for citizens.
We'll refine the list of what we choose to capture in our info-structure in response to the questions that have the most commercial value. Some subjects may come with lots of data fields to complete -- others, just a few. But over time it's likely that we'll develop systems that not only capture the most valuable data, but do so in ways that are interoperable across organizations and platforms.
Result? The likely outcome of this trend will be a consortium of newsgathering organizations that share identical data structures and agree to abide by a common set of transparent, mutually agreed-upon quality standards. The benefit to the news organizations that participate? Profit-sharing from the sales of enormous, immensely valuable data sets. The benefits to society? Profound.
The benefit to the press? An expanding future.
Why journalists hate this
My first reporting job wasn't for a newspaper, but for NATO. My armored cavalry troop drove jeeps along the borders of East Germany and Czechoslovakia and watched for activity on the other side of the fences. When we spotted something interesting, we recorded it in a highly structured way that could be accurately and quickly communicated over a two-way radio, to be transcribed by specialists at our border camp and relayed to intelligence analysts in Brussells.
Since the audience for this reporting was comprised entirely of intelligence experts, and since the ultimate value of such trivia is its ability to be stored in ways that might eventually indicate a pattern, my ability to communicate information accurately and quickly was prized. My ability as a storyteller? Utterly insignificant.
A print journalist is supposed to do both things well, but truth be told, if you can't tell a good story in a compelling way, your print-reporting career is toast. Weak reporter? We'll coach-you-up. Fundamentally clueless as a writer? Consider another line of work.
Journalism is a profession for storytellers, and our newsroom culture celebrates romantic myths that are generally hostile to structure. We enjoy jockeying with authority, poking bureaucrats and annoying anal-retentive city editors. Few journalists are good with numbers, and we don't see that as a weakness. It's all part of a rebellious "ink-stained wretch" identity that hasn't reflected reality in at least a generation, if in fact it ever did.
So I understand my curmudgeonly colleagues when they scoff behind my back at the word "metadata." They don't see its value, so they mock it. The beancounters? I expect even less from them. And the newspaper management class? Don't get me started.
That's why I don't expect newspapers to lead this charge. It's far more likely that television, or a web-only start-up, will take the lead. What's left of the newspaper industry will follow suit once it has exhausted every other possibility. Because that's just how they roll.
The vision, then
Getting to the Informatics Scenario requires interim steps and supposes some developments that haven't yet occurred. It supposes that there's no paid-content future for news and opinion and that the combination of traditional and exotic advertising concepts will be important revenue streams, but insufficient to fund a stable and meaningful professional press in the long term.
Still, I expect it to develop, if only because we are entering a global economy that will run on information, in the same way the Industrial Revolution ran on coal. An efficient information economy requires better raw materials than the low-grade schlock our profession currently generates, so it's almost just a matter of time before the market forces align in ways that force some kind of change.
It means journalists will need to learn to think in terms of data structures (if you're really not sure what that means, take a look at this example -- just understand it's still in the draft stage) and storytellers will have new tools at their disposal. Journalism schools will have to change their curricula. News organizations will have to hire and promote different people. And so on.
Are there drawbacks? Sure, leading off with privacy and equity questions. But these aren't show-stoppers.
I wish I could say that we'll get to this future smoothly. I suspect we'll lurch there instead, and that means more trauma in the near future. But it's like what Harvey Milk used to tell his political supporters during far darker times: You Gotta Give 'Em Hope.
Well, here's hope. Now do something with it.