Per John Robinson, the digest version of this overlong post may be read here.
- The goal of his CUNY study wasn't to consider outlandish ideas, but to consider what might happen in a metro media market if its daily paper folded;
- He states his bone fides on the subject of outlandish long-term ideas;
- He says I unfairly slapped the Knight Foundation by asserting that foundation money is most likely to continue funding studies that reflect conventional wisdom;
- He says I'm judging the entrepreneurial future of journalism through old, institutional glasses;
- He concludes that futureshockers (a group in which he includes himself) are not realistic when they imagine wild new models for news. "I’ll repeat: think about TODAY. I mean that. The paper dies tomorrow. You have people eager to do journalism. You have some – but very little – investment. You have a proven amount of revenue and nothing more. What do you do?"
If that's a fair summary (and by Long Now rules, I wouldn't get to respond to Jeff's post until he agreed that my summary was sufficient), then let's see what's left to discuss.
My original post either stipulated or never challenged the points in items 1-3. My critique wasn't interested in the internal logic of the study, didn't challenge the rationale behind the concept of the study, didn't suggest that Jarvis lacked radical ideas of his own and never claimed that Knight and Jarvis deliberately conspired create a report that reinforced conventional wisdom.
Instead, I talked about how the forces that shape such studies tend to produce prudent, rational results that don't do a good job of creating predictive accuracy. I'm not really interested in being fair in that context. I'm interested in trying to understand what's coming.
So here's how I'd summarize the difference between Jeff's response and my original point:
Jeff: You're unfairly critiquing my study for something it was never intended to be!
Restated? Thank you, Jeff, for a useful study. It gives us lots of interesting, high-value, milestone data within an artificially limited context. Some of us simply consider your data and reach different conclusions, largely because we're trying to answer different questions. And while you're passionate in asserting that what matters now are immediate answers, I'm equally passionate in contending that the context you've defined is too limited to produce answers that lead us somewhere.
A hole in the canopy
The question that Jeff attempts to answer (What happens the day after a metro area loses its newspaper?) is literally the question that framed the 2020 Vision: What's Next For News post in March. It laid out options and made a few predictions, some short term, some extending a decade. That was my contribution. Meanwhile, Jeff got Knight money, narrowed his assumptions to what he concluded were workable short-term parameters and hired some top-notch business analysts.
What Jeff's study describes is essentially the initial scrubby growth that fills the hole in the canopy after a fire burns through an old-growth mass-media forest. Its greatest contribution is that it puts hard numbers on conventional wisdom that had not previously received the benefit of much public business logic.
But I'm less interested in the most visible growth during the scrub period than I am in the simultaneous stirrings that are less visible but of greater importance. Yes, the things Jeff describes will likely be part of our short-term and long-term networked media future (and we'll be able to do very cool things with them). I just don't believe they will be the engine of that future.
Jeff's challenge to me (and to Cody Brown, in comments) is to put forth our own plans within the context of his study. If you'll stipulate that we'll have to do that without the benefit of months of foundation-funded study, Jeff, then I'll contend that I've spent much of 2009 doing exactly that. I think what Jeff describes will come to pass (2020 Vision, Section III), but will be rapidly overtaken by new models that generate independent value for information (restated? They won't require ads to make money).
In addition to thinking about how outsiders might benefit from these opportunities, I've also given practical advice to media companies that want to make the transition. From Dave Kindred's book on The Washington Post to Steve Buttry's live chat for API, if people asked for my ideas, I gave them. And when it became clear that there wasn't a formal iteration of the semantic journalism ideas that I kept encountering via my reading, I wrote a post that summed them up.
Those may be meager contributions. But they're what I've got.How soon is soon enough
Jeff's response suggests that what matters to this discussion is the speed in which a model can be brought online, and he dismisses the informatic model as not immediate enough to be relevant. He could be right -- as I stated in my original post, a big part of what I'm trying to do is to encourage people who are not engaged in these things to imagine the possibilities.
On the other hand, Objects In The Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear. As I write this I am sitting in snowbound Cedar Rapids, where I'm helping e-Me Ventures build a data repository (and digital asset management system) for Gazette Communications. Right now we're working on an Alpha version of the project, which will integrate technologies developed by Zemanta and Nstein.
Every day I spend on this project further convinces me that the practical, profitable applications of these technologies are right there to be implemented. So while Jeff and others are free to cast those of us working on the semantic side of things as wild-eyed Utopians, the daily reality I experience is a company making hard choices as it races to create a new business before its old business dries up. Everyone knows we could get there faster if we could focus solely on the future, but everyone accepts that we have to operate the existing businesses in order to fund the innovation.
Frankly, we'd be a lot closer to a working model had the industry invested more in ideas with the potential to create sustainable profits and less on paid-content promises with no chance of producing sufficient revenues. That's not whining, just an observation.Assets and jobs
It's kind of a sidebar, but Jeff says my critique of local news blogs is the result of an old institutional perspective, that if you were to apply my entrepreneurial exit strategy critique to other businesses, there would be no independent restaurants, dry cleaners, etc. He ascribes to the belief that "Small is the New Big," a Very Big Idea that former Rocketboom star Amanda Congdon so famously announced at SXSW in 2005.
I disagree. The fracturing of Big certainly is what we're experiencing today, and in media terms small coherent audiences attract higher margin CPM rates. But with Small comes higher unit costs, shitty economies of scale, no budget for R&D and low gross revenues. Small survives by keeping its operating expenses very, very low. So if human-powered Small is the future, it's not a particularly abundant future.
A machine-powered ability to get Small is another matter, but you don't get to that future without some aspects of Big. And you've got to understand, Jeff: I say this as a very Small guy, with a lot of DIY sentiment. I spent months this year and last laying the groundwork for my own small local news operation, pulling the plug only once I'd satisfied myself that the site would have been a poor decision for me and my family.
I think there will be all sorts of journalism in the short-term and long-term future, including self-employed journalists who make it work. But only a few will ever employ as many people as my neighborhood bar, and if the primary asset is between the blogger's ears, then there's not even a brand to sell to someone else. No vacation. No retirement plan.
Entrepreneurs start businesses to sell them. Small-business people, like my mother and step-father, start businesses to run them. And while I wish the future's self-employed small-business journalists well, here's a warning: Watch out for that next wave of disruptive development, because it's likely to wash your job -- and your mortgage -- out to sea.The take away
Will there be more closures? I think so. But they won't all die immediately, and despite the terrible things I've said about newspaper management and the cultural anchors they've dragged into the 21st century, I recognize that a metro newspaper still represents a great deal of potential community value if properly reconfigured and aligned.
When those executives start asking around for alternatives, or when start-ups with little direct news experience start looking for interesting models to pursue, I want to make sure that there are more options on the table than the ones Jeff included in his study. I don't want to see the next two years wasted on ill-advised initiatives to "make newspapers more like Facebook" or to "exploit the profit potential in social media." That's not going to feed the bulldog, and it's not going to produce more or better journalism.
Jeff said that if he'd put wild ideas like ours on the table at Aspen he'd have been laughed out of the room, and with good reason. Well, if the cost of getting these civic-minded, profitable ideas into the conversation is a little derision, I'll accept that. What we're proposing is that given the right tools, culture, people and processes, we can do excellent journalism and improve the lives of people in communities around the world.
We'll need new tools -- that could be configured on open source platforms in a matter of weeks. We'll need new approaches and forms -- that we're already exploring. The near-future is the practical present. The present is functionally obsolete.
I've been reading Jeff for years and I think these are his goals, too. I'm betting he'll come around.