This week in media musings: A full reboot for news, and a rude run-in over paywalls
There was quite a bit of compelling stuff said this week in the new-media-and-journalism department, but unlike the last few weeks, there’s no one or two issues that much of the discussion has orbited around. So rather than doing my usual mini-essay on the top item or two, I’m going to have some shorter comments a few more of the items. Enjoy. (By the way, I’ll be taking next week off for the holiday, and if you’re new, an explanation of what I’m up to is here.)
— Jason Fry, who’s been pumping out consistently thought-provoking posts at his blog lately, has this week’s best pithy one-sentence summary of a key future-of-journalism idea: “If we were starting today, would we do this?” Fry, who used to write for The Wall Street Journal Online, looked at a couple of journalism conventions and concluded that they were, as he says, “broken as in ‘this no longer works, and we need to stop doing it.’” First, he took on the hoariest of sportswriting traditions — the game story. In a world of continual SportsCenter highlights and instant mobile updates, the next-day game story needs to be blown up, he concluded.
Then, Fry dissected a New York Times story to show why the standard inverted pyramid-style structure for an incremental development in a larger story can be virtually incomprehensible. (On that point, Matt Thompson’s Nieman Reports piece from earlier this fall makes for wonderful background reading.)
These two critiques make perfect case studies for the need for a started-from-scratch news mentality — “rebooted” is the much more apt word Dave Winer and Jay Rosen use — where all the old-school assumptions, even on such elemental aspects as basic news story structure, are considered on equal merits along with the new ones. It would be like the ideological equivalent of the Gannett paper that made every one of its employees reapply for new jobs as part of an overhaul of the newsroom. And the central question in this reboot should be, “If we were starting today, would we do this?”
— A sequel of sorts to last week’s Rupert Murdoch/Google brouhaha: NPR’s On Point held a freewheeling show discussing the issue with “What Would Google Do?” author Jeff Jarvis and Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff — both firmly in the anti-paid content, pro-Google camp. The real fireworks start 17 minutes in, when host Tom Ashbrook brings in Steven Brill, co-founder of Journalism Online, the new business that’s working with traditional news orgs to charge for their content online.
Jarvis and Wolff (especially Wolff) smelled blood, and the feeding frenzy began before Brill finished his first answer (though, to be fair, Brill took the first bite). After Brill’s nearly-out-of-control segment ended, Jarvis and Wolff teed off on whatever listeners were intrepid enough to call in and challenge them.
The pair made their points loudly and clearly — and for the most part, I agree with them — but they don’t come off well here. Wolff is almost laughably boorish, and both and he and Jarvis end up sounding like those phantom “the Internet will fix everything” Pollyannas that Jay Rosen spends so much time calling out as straw men. Which is disappointing, because having read a decent amount of their writing, I know they’re both much more reasonable in print than that. Brill’s claims about his startup are sketchy enough — as the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Zachary Seward deftly pointed out this week — and it doesn’t help to make him sound so thoughtful by comparison.
— For anyone interested in the intersection between journalism and academia, The Chronicle of Higher Education released a nifty batch of ideas last weekend. In descending order of importance: Penn’s Carlin Romano opines on the need to teach philosophy of journalism, 18 people from various segments of the academy offer their quick takes on how the decline of the traditional news media will affect higher education, and Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson make the case for university-based reporting.
— The Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette’s Steve Buttry has a smart post on the need for news orgs to move from a “Web-first” to a “mobile-first” mentality. I’ll be honest: This is a difficult transition for me to make, given the spotty 3G coverage in rural Nebraska and my own personal apathy toward cell phones. But Buttry’s right — we should be moving past Web-first and into a mobile-centric outlook if we’re going to stay in front of (or even in the neighborhood of) of the social forces that are dramatically shifting the way news is consumed. Could anyone honestly argue that the demand for mobile news consumption isn’t going to be exponentially greater five years from now? Why not prepare for it already?
— Search expert Danny Sullivan has a wide-ranging two-part interview with Google News business product manager Josh Cohen that covers just about everything having to do with Google News. I haven’t taken time to absorb it all yet, but it’s must-reading if you’re trying to understand the controversy over aggregation, search and Google News.
— More bad news at The Washington Post, the paper that’s arguably fallen farther within the past five years than any other in America other than The Los Angeles Times: The online and print departments are merging, and it’s the Web folks that are getting the axe. Former employee Derek Willis and Mathew Ingram of The Globe and Mail in Toronto are worried about what this says about the print-focused direction the Post is headed.
— Over at Xark, Dan Conover, who is usually good for some of the more thoughtful long-form blog posts on the state of journalism and new media, has another that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. He examines the question of what assets journalists have that they can put a monetary value on, depressingly whittling down each candidate until he comes to “the structure in which it assembles and stores freely available (but expensive to gather) information.” I think he could be onto something here, but take that with a grain of salt, because I’m still trying to figure out what he’s referring to.
— Two for the road: Microsoft’s danah boyd, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars on youth and social media, gave a talk at the Web2.0 Expo last week on attention and the flow of information in social media. The talk was pretty poorly received (partly, yes, because of the audience’s inattention to a speech on decreasing attention), but it’s still great stuff in print. Finally, Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore has a look at America’s best media critics, the writers of The Daily Show. Want some examples of their work? Start with their eviscerations of Fox News and CNN.