This week in media musings: Filters for a self-informing public, and circ takes a hit
After a pretty crazy last couple of weeks in the new-media-and-journalism world, we were probably due for a relatively slow one. There wasn’t a ton of breaking news about the news this week, but we still got plenty of good ideas to chew on. Let’s take a look at a few of them. (An explanation of what I’m doing is here.)
— The most passed-around essay of the week was easily NYU undergrad Cody Brown’s explanation of journalism’s move from a “trustee” model (in which a news org appoints itself a trustee of the public’s interests and controls what information is disseminated to that public) to a “direct” model (in which a public produces and shares its own news). News, Brown says, is “so important that leaving it to a group of people in an office downtown is and has always been irresponsible.”
Brown has demonstrated over the past few months a remarkable knack for explaining fairly abstract ideas in a persuasive, engaging way. (And, as Tom Van Hout commented, he’s probably going to make himself a millionaire at some point.) That’s certainly the case again here, as he sharply synthesizes and spins forward the ideas of several thinkers like Clay Shirky, from whom he’s probably absorbed a good bit at NYU. As a big-picture framework for where we’ve been and we’re headed in news, Brown is right on point: The action and authority of journalism are being transferred from the self-appointed “trustees” of news to the people, and that’s the fundamental shift that’s driving all of the changes in the news business that we’ve been talking about.
But as we drill down to the details, we can find a few areas in which Brown’s analysis is incomplete. (That’s entirely excusable, by the way: It’s a blog post, not a book.) Jason Fry has a smart pushback to Brown’s essay examining accountability journalism, and I’d echo much of what he has to say — particularly his observation that Brown is probably conflating news production and news dissemination. As Fry argues, the public may now be creating its own “bundle” of news rather than relying on news orgs to do it for them, but that doesn’t mean those news orgs can’t play a significant role in producing that news.
The main piece I saw missing from Brown’s piece, though, was the presence of filters to sort through all of that news and information the public is sharing with itself. So much of that information is bound to be irrelevant and unhelpful for each individual person within that public, and not many of them are going to have the time to wade through all of the noise to find the signal. (As Shirky has said, “information overload is filter failure.”) In the model of news Brown discusses, the people and organizations who do that work for others — who find and organize news and information in a way that makes some sense out of it for a community of similarly interested people — play an even more critical role, because the public now has so much more information within its grasp.
Now, I’m not saying we need the trustees of old to play that role; it’s a function that I think the public is very capable of performing for itself, and it should fit very smoothly into Brown’s new model of news. It’s simply a crucial part of that model — almost even a corollary — and it’s something we need to pursue as we learn how to execute this “direct media” system online.
— This Week in Depressing Newspaper Statistics actually turns out to be one of the week’s top stories, too. The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported this week that newspaper circulation dropped more than 10 percent over the past six months, a fall that surprised even the industry’s more pessimistic observers. The Nieman Journalism Lab has a good survey of the damage, and just in case you were hoping this might be some kind of cyclical thing, Alan Mutter — the go-to-guy on these newspaper business issues — gives a historical analysis of how newspapers got themselves into this mess. (Penetration, he notes, has been down since well before the internet era.)
Mark Potts points out that this circulation plunge is also probably connected to the precipitous drop in quality of daily newspapers in the last few layoff-heavy years. Ken Doctor makes a similar point and wonders whether these numbers mean the strategy of marketing newspapers as a higher-priced, niche product was a bad idea. Daniel Gross offers Slate’s customary contrarian piece (“Newspapers aren’t doing as badly as you think”), but this graph of the last 20 years of the nation’s top papers’ circulation sure makes it hard to believe.
— We also found out this week that Washington, D.C., will be getting a major new local news organization. Robert Allbritton, who owns Politico and two D.C. TV stations, announced that he plans to merge those stations’ sites and add 50 new staff members to create a local news site that will compete with the Washington Post.
Politico, launched in time for the 2008 presidential campaign with two ex-Post guys at the helm, quickly became one of the destinations on the web for political news. Now, with ex-Post online editor Jim Brady in charge of this new venture, it’s easy to see why this is a lot bigger than your typical local-news startup. Brady talks to paidContent about what he wants to do, Washington City Paper warns of skimpy ad revenues, and Slate’s Jack Shafer tells Brady not to forget about sports.
— In a conference Q&A session last week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt opined on what the internet will look like five years from now: Primarily Chinese, and without the traditional distinctions between radio, TV, print and the web. He also said that learning to rank real-time information is “the great challenge of the age.” Andrew Keen, one of internet culture’s most prominent iconoclasts, notes that the real “$150 billion question” is “What will Google look like in 2015?”
Meanwhile, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles makes a compelling case against local news sites’ involvement in Google News, and tech guru Robert Scoble argues that the new Twitter Lists function makes a great replacement for Google Reader.
— The Columbia Journalism Review’s Megan Garber uses a media gaffe earlier this week involving a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a launching point for some insightful thoughts on why the web is better at making corrections than traditional news outlets are.
— On a more personal level, my bosses (or bosses’ bosses’ bosses), the Omaha World-Herald Co., bought the hyperlocal site WikiCity, which Gina Chen of the Nieman Journalism Lab introduced us to in August. Matt Thompson is skeptical about WikiCity’s value and advises the World-Herald to reboot it and create a new one just for Omaha.
— Finally, I had this link all ready to go last week and somehow forgot it, but better late than never: Danny Sullivan has the most devastating evisceration I’ve seen yet of the silly idea that Google News is hurting news organizations who list on it. Worth saving.