Waiting for the world to change

28 03 2009

I guess the frustrations that I’m feeling (and the world collectively is feeling) about the state of newspapers, journalism education, media literacy and academia have got to come to a head sometime. Maybe now. The tensions have always been there, and this bad economy is merely the tipping point that will catalyze further change.

It’s almost cliche now but Clay Shirky’s article about the uncertainty and possible troubles ahead (thinking the “unthinkable” so to speak) is a pretty sobering view of the challenges ahead. I’d like to think that things won’t be quite that bad, but we can definitely expect that things may never be the same. When I was studying journalism and walking the hallowed halls of academia, I always felt a little uneasy. Sort of like I was traveling back in time and not really in step with what was going on outside the newsroom and journalism classroom. (Granted, they were trying as hard as they could, and none of us really had the answer. We’re still learning.)

Especially in light of what you can see happening now, I can certainly relate to Shirky’s concept of being a “barking madman” about the future, although I can hardly blame my contemporaries for resisting in a time when finances weren’t so dire and there wasn’t such a stark division between success and failure. But going into college, I was terribly undecided and uninspired whenever I examined the reams and reams of schools and majors at my university. I simultaneously wanted to everything and nothing. So little information about what to do with information.

The job I do now didn’t exist then, and I couldn’t have conceived of it as I sat at desks listening to old war stories of reporting about criminals and city councils. Sure, we discussed the Web and experimented with it and did internships and made online magazines, but we viewed it with a certain distant reverence and simultaneous grateful pity toward the people making it happen. “Web producer” jobs at that time weren’t terribly exciting — little more than shuffling content from print to online. We knew that was the future, but we had horrific visions of being reduced to moles working odd hours to cut and paste someone else’s stories — nearly going blind from wading through a sea of poorly conceived HTML tags.

Overall, I am thrilled with the education I got. It steered me where I needed to go. But I got lucky, too, and I wonder if the time has come for everyone to think differently about things. (It’s not just me wondering.)

I remember how we used to think back then. Focus on the basics and then the technology will fall into place afterward. Turns out things are changing so fast that the basics themselves have changed.

What about the future? We all knew deep down the current newspaper model was unsustainable. I’m surprised it worked as long as it did. Are people really going to pay for what is essentially old and outdated news that wastes trees, when they can get the same thing for free? I love reading a newspaper and being able to hold it in my hand, but I don’t like dealing with the waste of paper or the mass of it, and I don’t want to pay for it every day. And this idea that newspapers should withhold news until the morning… that worked then, but what about now, when the rumor mill is so much more active? It will only be more so in the future. Sure, the “hold-for-release” concept has its appeal and its need, but for crucial information and breaking news, old news is no news.

Some folks from the now-beleaguered East Valley Tribune, once heralded as a great Phoenix-area paper, are trying to start online-only publications. Same with people who left the shuttered Rocky Mountain News. Lots of people are starting up as citizen journalists, and will be doing it. Heck, dealing with that stuff is my job now. Could we have imagined that someone like me would make a living like this just a few years ago? I never would have fathomed and yet here we are.

So… we’re certain now that the future is uncertain and people won’t have the big conglomerations that we once had. Things are going to be individually driven. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The question is, if it’s not your full-time job, will you have time to do the reporting? Will your employer allow you to be a reporter and can you maintain the distance required? Who’s going to keep an eye on City Hall?

From my limited experience doing traditional news reporting, I recall attempting to gain respect from sources and the community (and my editors) by building a sense of trust among people and having good relationships with area stakeholders. That’s not a whole lot different from what I’ve seen while experimenting with social media. You build a following on one of these sites by captivating interest, putting in work and reciprocating with other members. In other words, you “join the conversation,” one of the most overused phrases ever as of late. But that ain’t no bull.

Conversation and community give you something that content cannot. One important thing Shirky notes is that people on Usenet were making copies of Dave Barry’s work back when the Internet started, and publishers’ immediate guttural reaction was to attempt to stop the sharing and stifle human nature. It is human nature to want to share and even to take another’s idea and spread it around both because you like the idea and because you want a piece of that attention for yourself. In short, trying to fight this urge is counterproductive.

Content is reproducible in many cases, but you cannot take a human interaction or experience and replicate it.

At the same time, you well know that people tend to develop great interest in certain kinds of content and high levels of traffic can go to these places. Sites are very good at delivering this content. So this can be capitalized upon and even discussed. If you are the source of this discussion, all the better. But chances are you won’t be, given how information is shared at light speed. Take, for example the idea of people Twittering while in the middle of a plane crash. You can’t beat the speed of that.

What it comes down to is a complex dance not unlike to two awkward birds preparing to mate — not so much audience-performer but more like different voices talking to one another. At least, that’s what my college experiences eventually taught me.

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