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March 22, 2009, 8:58 a.m.

Thinking the thinkable: Dan Conover’s vision for the future of journalism

So you’ve read Clay Shirky’s widely-linked “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” and you know why the unthinkable is nigh, but Shirky has no answer (italics added):

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?   I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

But the revolutionaries do have some pretty good ideas, which Shirky doesn’t explore.  And Dan Conover at Xark! lays them out in a masterful post called “2020 vision: What’s next for news.”

Conover starts by pointing out that at the moment, the existence of struggling and dying newspapers in most cities is serving to inhibit the emergence of new models for journalistic enterprises.  Therefore, Conover says, “the first meaningful test won’t come until a major American city loses its only metro daily.”  He suggests that the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as small-town dailies with circulations under 30,000, will be OK for now, but that the “hybrid beast known as the metro daily is in trouble, and most will not survive past 2010 in their traditional configurations.”

So in the short term, Conover envisions frequency reductions down to one to three times per week, single-digit profit margins becoming the norm as monopolies die, the elimination of duplicate coverage among media outlets in individual markets, and the disaggregation of the business as printing and distribution, or even newsgathering, are outsourced.

These are assumptions most of us have made, but Conover’s vision extends to what will shape journalism beyond the short term.  Like Shirky, he says “nobody knows what that shape will be”, but he offers dozens of ideas on what the components will be.  It would not be fair to summarize; you just have to go read it, but I’ll tell you what I liked particularly:

Journalism includes explanation and memory. Sites that develop intelligent ways of curating old information could play a big role in the presentation of breaking news information.

Yes!  Matt Thompson and I have been evangelizing the idea of news wikis as a tool for this function; the Washington Post has built this into its WhoRunsGov site; fellow Nieman blogger Matt Ingram has experimented with it at the Globe and Mail.

Intelligent aggregation. Human aggregations of relevant content add value by improving the signal-to-noise ratio and scanning all relevant media, including coverage from bloggers, Tweeters, etc. The more diverse the mediascape, the greater the need for this service. Likely result? Many aggregators, each with a different combination of revenue sources and relationships to the content producers they cover.

Other than that Twitter reference, Conover doesn’t mention social networking anywhere in his vision. I happen to think it has to become a central factor in journalistic enterprises, and it seems to me that social networks can evolve much better crowd-sourced aggregation and recommendation engines than we have today.

Intelligent Agents. Machine readability via Semweb lets computers talk to each other in their own language. Once that foundation is in place, users should expect a rapid proliferation of free intelligent agents from various vendors, including news organizations. You’ll program one agent to find you great travel deals, another to spot trends that could influence the value of your investments. Agents that learn from your choices could act as your romantic matchmakers, or do something as simple as selecting your morning headlines. Intelligent agents will be the primary way in which individual humans configure their interests and actions in the Web 3.0 world and beyond.

I’ve been waiting for these since 1993.  They’re still “out there” a ways, but I agree with Conover they’re coming, and they’ll change everything, once again.

Value-added revenue. Traditional news media is in the business of serving sellers while pretending to be in the business of serving users. One way of realigning that system is to invent “news” organizations that fund their operations largely by getting paid for adding value to transactions on behalf of the buyer. By the way, I’ve been playing around with an idea for such a business in my spare time.

Conover’s spare-time idea involves a marketplace for business-to-business transactions, but a well-designed news social network could also add value to business-consumer interactions.

Once again: don’t stop at my summation — read the original post, follow some of its excellent links.

(Thanks to Chuck Peters for the tip.)

POSTED     March 22, 2009, 8:58 a.m.
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