I have seen the future of media…

By , 12 November, 2008, 1 Comment

…and even the people there can’t agree on how it works.

Last night, I went with high hopes to a panel at Columbia on the Changing Media Landscape, hoping to get some tips on how to prepare myself for the jobs I’ll be applying for when this program is over. You can watch a video here but it’s about 2 hours long. Or read my recap of the major points below.

Erica Smith from the St. Louis Post Dispatch has made a name for herself blogging and microblogging ABOUT the financial struggles and associated layoffs of print publications. She had the best mastery of technology itself, talking about the merits of Friendfeed vs. Twitter, but little to say about journalism.

Sewell Chan, who blogs for the New York Times, had a vision of the future that sounded a lot like mine: blogs are bringing a conversation about trust and transparency back into journalism, and that’s good. But trust is as much about information as it is about the individuals doing the writing. The value of fact doesn’t vanish in some post-modern, Jarvis-ian way. Nor does the authority of established (print) brands: half of NYTimes.com readers still enter through the homepage not through searches or links from other sites. Instead, established brands should be using the web to do a better and more trustworthy job of delivering authoritative expertise than they did before, then allow readers to advance the story further by being transparent about their sources. That’s why the Times and ProPublica (more on them below) are launching a digital document archive, to get citizens involved in investigations and participant media, while still retaining the curation of the experts. The print product, meanwhile, will become a collector’s appendage of the website. That may already have happened.

Slate.com’s Jacob Weisberg was on the other end of the spectrum. He referred to himself as a web evangelist and said the web is in its process and its ethos fundamentally opposed to that of traditional journalism: it’s the tone of the conversation, not the quality of the information they receive, that today’s readers care about. As a result, he says, peaceful coexistence between old and new media is over; now it’s all out war. As people actively pursue conversation and participation more than information, traditional journalistic practice will diminish in value. I think Weisberg was right on about the nature of what makes a good web conversation (he described the many niche sites Slate is creating and niche is definitely the mode web journalism is taking). But I think he goes too far when he suggests that the values of traditional journalism will vanish–print publications may vanish, but the value of fact? Doubtful, especially since Slate is itself a subsidiary of the Washington Post. Personally, I think Weisberg’s problem is that he conflates the message with the medium–he sees that print is losing its primacy as a delivery mechanism and assumes that the editorial process is losing its primacy too.

Adriana Farano, who has a new startup, Cafe Babel that runs six identical news sites in English, Italian, Spanish, Italian, French and Polish. Volunteer editors, a la Wikipedia, see stories on one site and offer to translate it for one of the others, to create a transnational dialogue, that is especially relevant in Europe where–despite the Euro and the EU–people still rely on their vernacular national press for information. The site is a great example of what the web does best curating content around communities. The opinionated, essay style of the content on these sites seems to follow Weisberg’s vision that this curation now trumps fact. But the design is still pretty preliminary and needs a major face-lift before it can get seriously off the ground.

Meanwhile, David Cohn’s start up spot.us goes the opposite direction and seems to fulfill Chan’s model of communities building trust around verifiable fact. On spot.us individuals donate small amounts of money to fund investigative journalism in their communities that can then be sold to and published in newspapers. Cohn is treating the crisis in media as a business model failure rather than some generational rejection of the value of facts. To cope with a business crisis, news organizations are cutting back on their fact-seekers and investigative journos are taking a big hit. ProPublica already uses donor money from big foundations to fund investigations that big papers can run, but based in NYC, it mostly gets the big stories that can help fill the gap in enterprise reporting at major city papers. Cohn’s model seems better designed for small towns and smaller cities. It’s a great idea, but it will be very slow to grow: like Craigslist, each city’s model would have to be launched and scaled independently. Cohn hedged when asked, but I don’t think he has the funding to keep going for long.

So effectively, we wound up where we started, with the two poles of the new media debate equally represented. As I’ve been doing all fall, I’m asking you, readers, to break the tie–which group has it right?

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1 Response {+}
  • rafigagum

    plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose; can’t figure out how to do the accents being an “oldie”. information is more diffuse, and more people can see themselves immediately in “print” but its the trusted brands that still have a hold. it takes a lot of effort to create a CNN or equivalent in regional terms

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