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Sept. 1, 2009, 10 a.m.

The future of news in 4 dimensions: Charting new kinds of news orgs

With the journalism and technology landscape changing literally by the hour, I often feel that one thing missing from conversations about “the future of news” is the long view. Steve Yelvington was implicitly making this point about history when he recently wrote that

…newspapers have a track record of empirical learnings that perhaps ought to be considered before jumping off into a debate about beliefs.

It’s this historical perspective that makes Scott Rosenberg’s book on blogging so valuable. I tried to bring a sense of local media history to my Philadelphia research as well.

In the summer of 2006, I published a two-part post entitled “Actually Existing Citizen Journalism Projects.” It was an attempt to sort through the noise about who counted as a journalist and trace the developments of the form during the prior decade. I don’t want to recap the entire post here, but I do want to summarize my previous thinking before I turn to more recent developments. In this post, I want to ask: How would we describe the overall arc of media history from 2006 to 2009?

In my original posts from the summer of 2006, I argued that we could point to six “actually existing” types of citizen journalism, which emerged in roughly chronological, but overlapping, order: personal homepages; Indymedia; blogs; hyperlocal journalism; “Big Media” citizen journalism; and networked journalism.

I argued that personal homepages could trace their ancestry back to the world of zines, and that the emergence of Indymedia represented a huge step forward in the world of web reporting, as it marked one of the first times amateurs delivered breaking, reported news to a live audience. I argued that (some) blogs marked a further expansion and popular diffusion of the citizen-journalism model. The second part of the post tried to come to grips with the fact that the old model — “amateurs vs. professionals” — was mutating into various forms of collaboration between citizen and professional journalists. (I should note that this collaboration was not preordained. There was a huge cultural tension between these two groups in the early days, and there sometimes still is.)

It’s now three years later, and a tremendous amount has already changed in the journalism world. The biggest development, without a doubt, has been the economic crisis in the news industry. What was once a cultural conflict about definitions of professionalism has become the much more serious crisis surrounding the future of reporting itself. It is a crisis in which professional definitions — battles over “who counts” as a journalist — play a part…but only a part.

So given that, how should we update my original timeline, three years later?

I would argue that the locus of our attention, and our typologies, should be at the intersection between the professional and the amateur. As many people have argued, it’s no longer meaningful to distinguish between a “corporate” or “traditional” journalist from a “blogging” journalist. This is a mistake a lot of traditional journalists still make when discussing online media — you don’t get special analytic consideration just because you work for a newspaper, magazine, or an affiliated website. The whole notion that you would is a little ridiculous. Many journalists these days write for blogs affiliated with newspapers with very low readership and revenue, and then go on to write for standalone publications with much greater institutional resources.

This new journalism timeline would emphasize dynamic organizational movement along four axes: (a) the type of work predominant in your organization, (b) how traditionally “institutionalized” your organization is, (c) your institutional resources, and (d) how open or closed your organization is to non-affiliated members (volunteers, etc). And when we talk about the history of online journalism, we can trace the movements of different people, or organizations, or wide-scale “centers of gravity,” across all four of these axes.

The type of work predominant in your organization: from pure commentary, to link gathering, aggregation, and filtering, to “fact” gathering, aggregation and filtering. Does your news organization primarily comment on the news? Does it gather and sort through online links and already reported facts? Or does it gather/analyze/distribute new facts? All of these types of work cost money, all contribute to democracy, and all overlap to one degree or another. But by asking “what does Organization X generally spend its time on and how does it define itself,” we can usefully start categorizing different kinds of journalism organizations.

How traditionally “institutionalized” your organization is: Do you have a traditional management structure? Do you have a large organization with a clear hierarchy and chain of command, with procedures in place for solving problems? Or do you operate in a more loosey-goosey fashion? Within sociology there’s a long tradition studying “institutionalization,” and this category would plot organizations along this axis.

Your institutional resources: How many staff do you have? Do you pay them? How much? Do you own your own office building? Can you compensate people for the work they do for you, and do you need to?

How open or closed your organization is to non-affiliated members? Who does the work? Are they people with loose organizational attachments or strong ones? Do you mostly rely on drop-by volunteers? Do you give people a title and an email address? Is most of the work done by staffers or the networked web? Keep in mind that while there might be a correlation between greater institutionalization and a more closed workforce system (as in this article about Wikipedia’s new consultants), this is not always the case. Large institutions can have very open systems, or small organizations can be run in a very bureaucratic, closed way.

When taking all those factors into consideration, you end up with the four-dimensional graph at the top of this post. The x-axis moves from commentary to fact-gathering (with link-gathering in the middle). The y-axis moves from institutionalization to deinstitutionalization.  The z-axis (the size of the dots) represents institutional resources. And the shade of the dots represents how open and closed they are. So one organization could be institutionally strong, very closed to unaffiliated volunteers, have a (fairly) high level of resources (money, space, etc), and primarily engage in a hybrid of commentary and link collection.

Hey, I just think I described Gawker!

As you can see, it helps to have examples. I’ll get to those in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to open this up to comments: How would you write the history of the last three years of changes in journalism? What’s the “long view” as you see it? What’s the big picture we should all be focusing on?

POSTED     Sept. 1, 2009, 10 a.m.
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