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The end of “disruption”

“The big, transformative changes in the industry — the shifts in the habits of readers and advertisers — happened years ago, and since then a kind of uneasy stability has taken hold.”

In 2013, news will continue to be made and reported. Much of it will be bad. Some of it will be good.

In 2013, newspapers and newsmagazines will struggle to make ends meet. Some will go out of business. Some will be acquired. Some will survive into 2014, at which point they will continue to struggle to make ends meet.

In 2013, ad sales will be crucial to the health of the news business, and ad sales will follow a cyclical pattern, tied to the health of the economy. But ad sales won’t be enough, not for general interest publications, anyway, and so we’ll see more experiments with online paywalls and subscription plans.

In 2013, breaking news will be reported immediately through the web, and online forums will provide endless opportunities to discuss the news. But the “atomic unit” of journalism (to borrow a term beloved by news pundits and no one else) will be the story.

I make these obvious observations not to be glib but to point out that many of journalism’s fundamental qualities aren’t changing, or at least aren’t changing all that much. That’s true even when you look at the technological and financial aspects of the news as a business. Searching, aggregating, linking, blogging, craigslisting, photosharing, social networking, microblogging: These things are not new anymore. The big, transformative changes in the industry — the shifts in the habits of readers and advertisers — happened years ago, and since then a kind of uneasy stability has taken hold.

The future is uncertain, yes, but the future has been uncertain for a while now. The basic dynamics of the news business didn’t change much from 2010 to 2011 to 2012, and I suspect they won’t change much in 2013 or, for that matter, in 2014.

For a long time now, “disruption” has been the go-to buzzword in commentary about journalism. Pundits and consultants love to say “disruption” because the word tends to attract money and attention. But the word is starting to ring hollow. Throwing it around today seems more like a way to avoid hard thinking than to engage in it. Maybe 2013 will be the year when we finally stop talking about “disruption.” I hope so, because then we can start giving as much consideration to what endures as to what changes.

Nicholas Carr’s most recent book is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. He blogs at roughtype.com.