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Nov. 27, 2012, 12:31 p.m.

“Post-Industrial Journalism”: A new Columbia report examines the disrupted news universe

The report, by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky, surveys the new opportunities available to individual journalists and news organizations old and new. Here are some of its highlights.

There’s a big new report out from Columbia Journalism School this morning, entitled “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.” Its authors are a sort of Justice League of New York journalism schools and will be recognizable to anyone who’s been following the future-of-news world in recent years: CUNY’s C.W. Anderson, Columbia’s Emily Bell, and NYU’s Clay Shirky.

It’s good! It aims to bring together a variety of threads around where news is headed — at the levels of the individual journalist, the legacy news organization, and the startup — and paint a picture of the forces pushing adaptation on each. It’s a less prescriptive document than its spiritual predecessor, Len Downie and Michael Schudson’s 2009 report “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”; as the authors state in their introduction:

This essay is part survey and part manifesto, one that concerns itself with the practice of journalism and the practices of journalists in the United States. It is not, however, about “the future of the news industry,” both because much of that future is already here and because there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.

Chris, Emily, and Clay do a really great job of drawing on a broad range of examples to draw what, to me, seem like smart conclusions on where we’re headed. You should read it! But just in case you don’t have time for the full 122-page report, I’ve pulled out some of the passages I found the most interesting — a few of which I’ll comment on or quibble with.

If there’s one overarching critique I’d make of the report (admittedly, after a single quick read), it’s that its focus on the practices of journalists creates a blind spot when dealing with the practices of the audience. That, of course, is a natural byproduct of the fact a report can’t focus on everything, and it makes sense that journalism educators would want to focus on the production end of journalism. But for me, the most interesting developments of 2012 have been shifts in news consumption — the reframing of the article, the rebundling of the news package, and the reflowing of news into new delivery mechanisms. Aggregators and platform builders are getting smarter and more attuned to the ways people want to get news.

The report doesn’t use the words iPad, tablet, Android, or smartphone — all of which are key to the redefinition how news gets consumed. The word “mobile” does appears a handful of times, but only in passing. These shifts on the consumption end, driven primarily by the adoption of new devices and platforms, are already having big implications on news production, and they’re only going to grow. (It’s also the sector where capital is flowing these days.) News organizations and journalists need to be in that battle. More about that below.

Page 2

We start with five core beliefs:

— Journalism matters.

— Good journalism has always been subsidized.

— The internet wrecks advertising subsidy.

— Restructuring is, therefore, a forced move.

— There are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways.

Adjusting to No. 4 — the reality that change was coming, like it or not, and the status quo wouldn’t work — was, I think, the hardest for news companies to appreciate. We live in a world where Media General’s CEO could say that it wasn’t until spring 2011 “that we realized the world had changed.” Bubbles can be entrancing places.

Page 5

Good journalism has always been subsidized; markets have never supplied as much news as democracy demands. The most obvious form is indirect public subsidy: Radio and TV enjoy free access to the airwaves, in return for which fielding a credible news operation is (or was) the quid pro quo. Businesses are forced to pay for legal notices in newspapers. Print publications are given favorable postage rates.

Page 6

In addition to advertising, many other forms of private subsidy exist. For most of U.S. history, some owners have been willing to publish newspapers and magazines at a loss, in return for prestige or influence. Both the New Yorker and the New York Post bleed red ink; their continued existence in their current form involves a decision by their wealthy owners that they should not be completely exposed to the market. These kinds of publications are de facto nonprofits.

It’s worth pointing out that The New Yorker, which operated at a loss for many years, shifted to generating small profits in the David Remnick era. Elite publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times have generally fared better than their middlebrow peers in the Internet era — their quality and unique value proposition stands out amidst the newfound mass of media.

Page 8

On top of all this, of course, is heightened competition. As Nicholas Carr noted in 2009, a Google search for stories about the U.S. Navy rescue of a U.S. cargo ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates returned 11,264 possible outlets for the story, the vast majority of them simply running the same syndicated copy. The web significantly erodes the value of running identical wire service stories in St. Louis and San Luis Obispo.

I understand that last point, but I think reality is a little more nuanced. The chance that someone was reading news sites in both St. Louis and San Luis Obispo is near zero. There is functionally no competition between them.

If you’re approaching the story by searching Google News after the fact then, sure, it looks like massive duplication. But if you look at it as a reader who has some sense of loyalty to the paper in San Luis Obispo — and loyalty in this case doesn’t mean warm fuzzies; it just means you’ve found it a useful place to get news — having that wire story on its site does add value. It eliminates discovery cost for your reader; it promotes the value of your site as an editorial filter; it gives you something to put an ad next to.

Of course, that’s all subject to a cost-benefit analysis — maybe the wire service costs too much money, or maybe the process of getting that wire story on your site is inefficient and wastes a web producer’s time. But the nichification of media shouldn’t ignore the fact that most people don’t have the kind of high-intensity media diet that I (and, I’d wager, Chris, Emily, and Clay) have. Most people don’t have RSS readers with hundreds of feeds; most go to only a few news sites a day, if that; most use social media for purposes other than news filtering. For those more casual news consumers, some duplication is likely welcome — and a decent business strategy for certain kinds of news organizations.

Page 15

The idea of “the public” has been core to American theorizing about news since John Dewey’s famous response to Walter Lippmann in the 1920s. Lippmann despaired that the average person in a mass society with complex economic and technical workings could ever become the kind of informed citizen that most democratic theory seemed to assume. Dewey, in response, argued that there were multiple, overlapping publics that could be “activated” by the emergence of particular issues. This notion of news outlets serving disparate but overlapping publics has remained core to their organizational logic.

Page 16

Finally, a note about why we will not be concentrating very much on the fate of the New York Times. A remarkable amount of what has been written about the fortunes of American journalism over the past decade has centered on the question of what will happen to the Times. We believe this focus has been distracting…Any sentence that begins “Let’s take the New York Times as an example…” is thus liable to explain or describe little about the rest of the landscape.

Co-sign. (It’s amazing how many future-of-news conferences end up being discussions about the Times and NPR — because the kind of people who attend those conferences tend to be Times readers and NPR listeners.)

Page 23

Most journalists, and journalistic institutions, have failed to take advantage of the explosion in potentially newsworthy content facilitated by the growth in digital communication. The reality is that most journalists at most newspapers do not spend most of their time conducting anything like empirically robust forms of evidence gathering. Like the historical fallacy of a journalistic “golden age,” the belief in the value of original reporting often exceeds the volume at which it is actually produced.

Too many reporters remain locked into a mindset where a relatively limited list of sources is still relied on to gather evidence for most important stories, with the occasional rewritten press release or direct observation thrown in. This insider-centric idea of original reporting excludes social media, the explosion of digital data, algorithmically generated sources of information, and many other new strategies of information gathering that we emphasize here.

That second paragraph, especially, is a really important message. Reading even a decent newspaper over a long-enough span of time makes it clear how narrow the channels of reporter interest can be — and how limiting their source networks can be.

Page 28

Self-evident as it is, journalists can be much more efficient than machines at obtaining and disseminating certain types of information. Access and “exclusivity” or “ownership” of a story is created through interviewing people. Making phone calls to the White House or the school board, showing up at meetings and being receptive to feedback, sharing views and expressing doubt all make news more of the “drama” that James Carey identified as central to the concept of a newspaper. These very personal and human activities mark journalism as a form of information performance rather than simply a dissemination of facts.

This comes in a section where the authors detail the strengths of various kinds of journalistic actors, including “What Journalists Do Better” (than machines and social media). The key advantages of human journalists: accountability, efficiency, originality, and — most intriguingly — charisma.

Page 44

Every journalist can now be a publisher. One very obvious side effect of newsroom automation is the lowering in value and utility of the role of editors. Visionaries at the top of organizations will still set the tone and editorial direction for brands, and perhaps each topic will have a specialist editor. Time saved by the automatic organization and editing of pieces, however, dramatically reduces the need for editors to oversee every part of the process. Newsrooms can no longer afford senior staff who do not produce content. Every news desk editor should at least be aggregating and linking to work both inside and outside their organization, providing meta-analysis of the process and sources, following stories through cultivating and recommending sources in public.

Broadly true, although I’d argue that the role of editors is changing more than it’s losing value.

It’s more about aggregation and curation — the old wire editor job — and less about being another step on the stairway to a story’s publication. As news organizations narrow into niches, the value of a talented editor guiding story selection increases. And as news organizations start integrating the work of non-journalists more, the ability of a good editor to slap copy into shape and turn raw material into something recognizably journalistic is key.

Look at The Huffington Post’s masthead — I count at least 184 people with the title of editor. Those people aren’t doing the same job a city editor did in 1997, to be sure, but the professional frame lives on.

Page 47

When it comes to news institutions, we’re telling ourselves a lot of stories at once. While the stories of decline and rebirth make up the majority of discussion about the “future of news,” there is a relative gap when it comes to understanding the third story, that of institutional adaptation. Though the effect of the internet on the American journalism ecosystem has often been portrayed as anti-institutional, serving mainly to erode or even destroy institutional viability, its effect is actually more complex. While the internet has indeed disrupted many existing institutions, it has also helped usher in many new ones. Much of the fate of the news business will be decided not by what is going away, and not by what is exciting and new, but by how new institutions become old and stable and how old institutions become new and flexible.

Page 50

We’d sum up the general lament this way: The presence of process is a bigger obstacle to change than the absence of money. This conundrum isn’t surprising; as we noted in our definition of institutions, the entire purpose of institutional arrangements is actually to ingrain and rationalize standardized patterns of behavior — in other words, to make change hard.

This is where the broad literature around change management comes in — a field journalism hasn’t historically spent much time engaging with. Institutions are hard to change. It’s also where Clay Christensen and disruption theory come in. His work is pretty gloomy about the prospects of large incumbents adapting successfully — but there are examples to follow.

Page 53

In the long-term sweep of history, the 20th century saw news institutions move from being exciting, muckraking and often scandalous conveyors of useful information and advertisements to the sober guardians of democracy itself. This is an exaggeration, of course, but it is not an entirely unfair one. The reasons for this change lie outside the scope of this paper, but they are as much cultural and sociological as they are economic, and the myth of Watergate marked more the culmination of a long-term reputational upswing more than it did the emergence of it. Between roughly 1908 and 1968, news institutions became the “Fourth Estate.”

Reputational capital primarily attached itself to journalism as a profession and as a set of institutions, rather than to individual journalists. What this meant was that, at least in part, the levels of symbolic capital possessed by individual reporters were as much a function of where they worked as who they were. Although there are exceptions (I.F. Stone being a particularly prominent example), the symbolic capital that individual journalists possessed in the minds of the public and in the minds of politicians was largely a product of their institutional and professional affiliations.

In this section of the report, the authors get at what news institutions do well: leverage (to get information and reach audiences), symbolic capital (to provoke engagement by the powerful), continuity (to survive the loss of individuals), and slack (to respond to the news needs of the day).

Page 59

We heard a similar story from a senior editor at the New York Times: “We were told effectively that the cuts meant doing more with less, one less person, no letup in the coverage. At no point were we ever asked by someone who had the technical capabilities or authority to actually change the tools or the ways we might use them: ‘Let’s look at what you have to do in a day and see how we can change processes.’ This is what was so maddening.”

Included here because it’s the closest thing to smack talk in the report.

Page 66

Recommendation: Create “Startup Guides”

Starting a new news organization isn’t as hard as stabilizing these startups over the medium to long term. Because of this, successful startups (such as Talking Points Memo, the Texas Tribune, West Seattle Blog, Baristanet) should create publicly accessible “startup guides” that can be used by emerging news organizations.

We also need to keep in mind that, because these organizations are successful, their founders might have little time or interest in devoting resources to explaining their success. They, after all, have journalism to produce! For this reason, these organizations and others like them should receive foundation money that will allow them to engage in this “meta-reflection.”

From talking with people who run many of those successful startups (particularly the nonprofits), I know how much time they spend dealing with people calling for advice. It’s worth noting that The Hub, funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and now run by the Investigative News Network, is an attempt to perform this information-sharing role for “community-based and nonprofit” outlets. (Howard Owens rightly notes in the comments that Local Independent Online News Publishers has similar aims.)

Page 71

Rebuilt news institutions will design their workflow around a new, basic fact: News is never a finished product, and there is never a daily paper or evening newscast that sums up the work of the entire day.

This implies that news content, and the production of that content, will take iteration as its starting point. News products will have to be made as reusable as possible: on other platforms, on other devices, in new news stories, and even by other news organizations.

Another place I’d quibble: Lots of people want that summary of the entire day.

People like me and this report’s authors (and, I’d wager, you, dear Lab reader) enjoy the iterative hunt for information — living on Twitter, watching our browser history grow like kudzu. And because the digital tools of the past decade have enabled our lifestyle like nothing ever before, it’s easy to think that our path will be the path for everyone else — that we’re just the early adopters and everyone else is playing catch-up.

But not everyone wants to do what we do. And that’s fine! I honestly believe that the single biggest journalistic opportunity for news organizations out there now is to find ways to bring order to information madness — to do a better job of summarization and curation and highlighting and compacting and repackaging. Why doesn’t The New York Times do a good job of giving me a readable-in-10-minutes summary of what happened today each evening? Why aren’t there better algorithms to let me know what stories I can confidently ignore? Why can’t I easily ask The Washington Post “Give me five longer pieces from this week — it’s Saturday and I’ve got some time to spend with my Kindle”? This is the space that products like Summly, Circa, and Evening Edition are trying to address, and it’s an area I worry news companies (old and new) are going to miss out on.

Page 72

Much ink has been spilled over the question of organizational partnerships in the news business, and many arguments have been advanced as to how institutions need to be more open to collaboration with other members of the digital news ecosystem. To date, however, the verdict on existing collaborative projects is mixed. A number of the New York Times’ most highly touted collaborations (with the Chicago News Cooperative, the Bay Citizen, and the CUNY-sponsored Local, for instance) have come to a rather inglorious end; at the same time, many Times partner organizations have noted how working with a powerful organization has the potential to distort their own organizational priorities. The notion of institutional collaboration, while intellectually powerful, is in need of some rethinking.

Agreed. Partnerships often take much more energy to manage than news organizations expect. (They’re actually an excellent argument for the classic newsroom structure, where collaboration can happen under a single roof and a single management hierarchy.)

Page 75

A third perspective despairs that either of these market-based solutions can be easily conjured up. Thinkers and writers in this camp point out just how unusual the confluence between wealthy capitalist institutions and the public-minded journalism they produced actually was. They argue that digital market dynamics actually punish institutional players that seek to create broad-based, monitorial media content. Unlike thinkers in the second camp, however, they do not believe that the current dynamics of the digital news system can be easily undone, nor do they think the dynamics necessarily should be undone even if such an option were possible. Some thinkers within this perspective move from here to an argument that the public goods produced by news institutions (particularly beat reporting) can be funded only via non-market forms of subsidy, whether philanthropic or proceeding more directly from the state.

One of the more interesting bits of theory in the study: distributed responsibility for democratic accountability. Good section.

Page 83

A common theme in writing about the response to those changes by traditional news outlets is the failure of newspaper management to recognize the problems they would face. This, in our view, misdiagnoses the problem: The transition to digital production and distribution of information has so dramatically altered the relations among publishers and citizens that “stay the course” has never been an option, and, for the majority of the press that was ad-supported, there was never an option that didn’t involve painful restructuring.

Also true. Journalists who complain about how stupid their publishers’ decisions are may well be right — but there’s not exactly a long list of newspapers for whom the Internet has been of business benefit. These were issues far bigger than any one company.

Page 89

This was a system where flows of business value were specified in bilateral agreements and priced in dollars—a newspaper signs an agreement with the AP in return for access to its feed. Compare that to the Huffington Post’s original model: the realization that some of HuffPo’s published material could excerpt existing stories, add commentary, and produce an economically viable new product.

Fair use has existed in this form for decades; what changed was the conditions of the ecosystem. HuffPo management realized that fair use, as applied on the web, meant that, in essence, everything is a wire service and that excerpting and commenting on unique content from the Washington Post or the New York Times was actually more valuable to readers than contracting with the AP or Thomson Reuters.

The Huffington Post has often been criticized for this stance, but this is shooting the messenger — what it did was to understand how existing law and new technology intersected.

For me, the great unlearned lesson of The Huffington Post is that its approach is available for the taking. Its brand of aggregation-plus-comment has become the norm in the online-native news-org world, but traditional companies have been remarkably hesitant to steal its tricks.

Page 96

There is a place for rapidly produced, short pieces of breaking news. There is a place for moderately quickly produced analysis of moderate length (the first draft of history). There is a place for careful, detailed analysis by insiders, for insiders. There is a place for impressionistic, long-form looks at the world far away from the daily confusion of breaking news. And so on. Not many organizations, however, can pursue more than a few of these modes effectively, and none that can do all of them for all subjects its audience cares about.

True for the all-subjects piece, but I think there are good counterexamples to the idea that doing long, medium, and short is hard. Look at the Vox Media sites like The Verge and SB Nation, for instance: They’re built on a mix of long-form features, short aggregation pieces, liveblogging, video where appropriate, and a variety of story types. It’s stock and flow: The longer stuff adds prestige and brand to the shorter stuff, and the shorter stuff brings audience and vibrancy to the longer stuff. Once you’ve narrowed into a niche, I think there’s plenty of room for variation in modes.

Page 100

Recommendation: Demand that Businesses and Governments Release Their Data Cleanly

The most valuable dollar a news organization can make is the dollar it doesn’t have to spend, and in the 21st century, the easiest dollar not to spend is the dollar spent gathering data. In keeping with our recommendation that news organizations should shift some of their priorities from covering secrets to covering mysteries, anyone who deals with governments or businesses should demand that publicly relevant data be released in a timely, interpretable and accessible way.

Amen. This is part of what Duke’s Jay Hamilton has been arguing: that one response to lower revenues is to lower the cost of doing journalism. And clean, accessible government data (and better public records laws) are a great way to do that.

Page 105

The story of journalism in 2012 is still often told as the story of the breakdown of the old world, the end of the period when “the news” was whatever an enumerable collection of institutionally stable actors chose to publish. This assumption ran so deep that even someone who had seen decades into the future could still believe that the digital turn in the newspaper business would favor traditional virtues of editorial choice over the new ones of user empowerment and that the business case for electronic media was around revenue generation rather than cost reduction.

That “End of an Era” story, though, is itself ending. We are living in the least diverse, least inclusive media environment we will inhabit for the foreseeable future, which is to say that the ecosystem forming around us will include more actors and actions than even today’s environment does.

This is worth repeating: If you think things are strange and chaotic now, just wait until 2013. Or 2016. Or 2020. There will eventually be a re-institutionalization in reader habits, in platforms, and in corporate structure — but the number of voices will only continue to rise. (Hence my belief that news companies should be investing more effort into building products that aim to focus that cacophony.)

Page 108

Seen in this light, the long-term collapse of trust in the press is less a function of changing attitudes toward mainstream media outlets than a side effect of the continuing fragmentation of the American media landscape. (It is probably time to retire the idea that there is something called “the press” that enjoys a reputation among some group called “the public.”)

Fragmentation all around.

Page 111

Journalism schools will have to adapt to these changing models as well. Already, journalism schools are more like film schools than law schools, which is to say that the relative success or failure of a J-School grad is going to be far more variable than it used to be. There are fewer entry-level jobs — the jobs that used to serve as unofficial proving grounds and apprenticeships — in metropolitan dailies and local TV than there used to be. Furthermore, the careers students head into will be more variable, and more dependent on their ability to create their own structure, as opposed to simply fitting into a position in a well-known collection of rich and stable institutions.

See our series on journalism schools for more on that.

Page 115

Our overall recommendation for new news organizations is even simpler than for journalists or for legacy organizations:

Survive.

Easier said than done! “Our overall recommendation to people with terrible diseases: Don’t die!”

Disclosure: While I had nothing to do with the report itself, I was one of about 20 people who met for two days in April at Columbia to provide input to Chris, Emily, and Clay on their thinking. And the report says nice things about Nieman Lab on page 45.

POSTED     Nov. 27, 2012, 12:31 p.m.
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