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Dec. 10, 2009, 10:39 a.m.

Next year’s news about the news: What we’ll be fighting about in 2010

I’ve helped organize a lot of future of journalism conferences this year, and have done some research for a few policy-oriented “future of journalism” white papers. And let’s face it: as Alan Mutter told On the Media this weekend, we’re edging close to the point of extreme rehash.

This isn’t to say there won’t be more such confabs, or that I won’t be attending most of them; journalists (blue-collar and shoe-leather types that they are) may not realize that such “talking” is actually the lifeblood of academia, for better or worse. However, as 2009 winds down, I do think that it might be worthwhile to try to summarize a few of the things we’ve more or less figured out this year, and point towards a few of the newer topics I see looming on the horizon. In other words, maybe there are some new things we should be having conferences about in 2010.

In the first section of this post, I summarize what I think we “kinda-sorta” learned over the past year. In the next, I want to point us towards some of the questions we should be asking in 2010.

To summarize, I think were reaching consensus on (1) the role of professional and amateur journalists in the new media ecosystem, (2) the question of what kind of news people will and won’t “pay” for, and (3) the inevitable shrinking and nicheification of news organizations. And I think the questions we should be asking next year include (1) the way changes in journalism are changing our politics, (2) the relationship between journalism, law, and public policy, (3) what kind of news networks we’ll see develop in this new ecosystem, (4) the future of j-school, and (5) the role of journalists, developers, data, and “the algorithm.”

But first, here’s what we know.

What we kinda-sorta know

As Jay Rosen has tweeted a number of times over the past few months, what’s remarkable about the recent wave of industry and academic reports on journalism is the degree to which they consolidate the “new conventional wisdom” in ways that would have seemed insane even a few years ago. In other words, we now kinda-sorta know things now that we didn’t before, and maybe we’re even close to putting some old arguments to bed. Here are some (big) fights that may be tottering toward their expiration date.

1. “Bloggers” versus “journalists” is (really, really) over. Yes yes. We’ve been saying it for years. But maybe this time it’s actually true. One of the funny thing’s about recent pieces like this one in Digital Journalist or this one from Fast Company is just how old-fashioned they seem, how concerned they are with fighting yesterday’s battles. The two pieces, of course, show that the fighting won’t actually ever go away…but maybe we need to start ignoring most of it.

2. Some information won’t be free, but probably not enough to save big news organizations. If “bloggers vs. journalists” was the battle of 2006, the battle of 2009 was over that old canard, “information wants to be free.” We can expect this fight to go on for a while, too, but even here there seems to be an emerging, rough consensus. In short: Most people won’t pay anything for traditional journalism, but a few people will pay something, most likely for content they (1) care about and (2) can’t get anywhere else. Whether or not this kind of money will be capable of sustaining journalism as we’ve known it isn’t clear, but it doesn’t seem likely. All of the current battles — Microsoft vs. Google, micropayments vs. metered paywalls, and so on — are probably just skirmishes around this basic point.

3. The news will be increasingly be produced by smaller, de-institutionalized organizations. If “bloggers vs. journalists” is over, and if consumers won’t ever fully subsidize the costs of old-style news production, and if online journalism advertising won’t ever fully equal its pulp and airwaves predecessors, than the journalism will still get produced. It will just get produced differently, most likely by smaller news organizations focusing more on niche products. Indeed, I think this is the third takeaway from 2009. Omnibus is going away. Something different — something smaller– is taking its place.

What we might be fighting about next year

So that’s what we’ve (kinda sorta) learned. If we pretend (just for a moment) that all those fights are settled, what might be some new, useful things to argue about in 2010? I’ve come up with a list of five, though I’m sure there are others.

1. What kind of politics will be facilitated by this new world? In the old world, the relationship between journalism and politics was fairly clear, and expressed in an endless series of (occasionally meaningful) cliches. But changes on one side of the equation inevitably mean changes on the other. The most optimistic amongst us argue that we might be headed for a new era of citizen participation. Pessimists see the angry town halls unleashed this summer and lament the days when the passions of the multitude could be moderated by large informational institutions. Others, like my colleague Rasmus Kleis Nielsen at Columbia, take a more nuanced view. Whatever the eventual answer, this is a question we should be trying to articulate.

2. What kind of public policies and laws will govern this new world? Law and public policy usually move a few steps “behind” reality, often to the frustration of those on the ground floor of big, social changes. There’s a reason why people have been frustrated with the endless congressional debates over the journalism shield law, and with the FTC hearings on journalism — we’re frustrated because, as far as we’re concerned (and as I noted above), we think we have it all figured out. But our government and legal system don’t work that way. Instead, they act as “consolidating institutions,” institutions that both ratify a social consensus that’s already been achieved and also tilt the playing field in one direction or another — towards incumbent newspapers, for example. So the FTC, the FCC, the Congress, the Supreme Court — all these bodies will eventually be weighing in on what they want this new journalistic world to look like. We should be paying attention to that conversation.

3. What kind of networks will emerge in this new media ecosystem? It’s a strong tenet amongst most journalism futurists that “the future of news is networked,” that the new media ecosystem will be the kind of collaborative, do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest model most recently analyzed by the CUNY “New Business Models” project. But what if the future of news lies in networks of a different kind? What if the news networks we’re starting to see emerge are basically the surviving media companies (or big portals) diversifying and branding themselves locally? This is already going on with the Huffington Post local initiative, and we can see national newspapers like The New York Times trying out variations of this local strategy. A series of “local networks,” ultimately accountable to larger, centralized, branded organizations may not be what “networked news” theorists have in mind when they talk about networks, but it seems just as likely to happen as more “ecosystem-esque” approach.

4. What’s the future of journalism school? This one’s fairly self-explanatory. But as the profession it serves mutates, what’s in store for the venerable institution of j-school? Dave Winer thinks we might see the emergence of journalism school for all; Cody Brown thinks j-school might someday look like the MIT Center For Collective Intelligence. Either way, though, j-school probably won’t look like it does now. Even more profoundly, perhaps, the question of j-school’s future is inseparable from questions about the future of the university in general, which, much like the news and music industries, might be on the verge of its own massive shake-up.

5. Human beings, data, and “the algorithm.” This one fascinates me, and it seems more important every day. In a world of Demand Media, computational journalism, and AOL’s news production strategy, questions about the lines between quantitative, qualitative, and human journalism seem ever more pressing. If we are moving towards some kind of semantic web, what does that mean for the future of news? What role are programmers and developers playing? How will they interact with journalists? Is journalism about data, about narrative, or both? Is journalism moving from a liberal art to an information science? And so on.

These are all big, big questions. They get to the heart of democracy, public policy, law, organizations, economics, education, and even what it means to be a human being. They may not be the same questions we’ve been debating these past several years, but maybe its time to start pondering something new.

Photo by Kate Gardiner used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 10, 2009, 10:39 a.m.
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