Monday, July 16, 2012

Why ‘future of journalism’ confabs fail

After recently attending the latest in the never-ending series of “future of journalism” conferences, I finally realized why they all fail:  They don’t include the right people. 

While these well-intended yakfests are rich in whining and dining ops, journo-futuramas generate few practical or actionable ideas because they lack the perspectives of four key constituencies:  

∷ Consumers – The actual people who not only consume journalism but evidently will create growing amounts of it in the future.   

∷ Technologists – The actual people who are creating the platforms on which consumers will get and give information in the future. 

∷ Marketers – The actual people whose advertising purchases historically underwrote journalism and, given the right sorts of products and services, might continue to do so in the future.   

∷ Investors – The actual people who could bankroll innovative commercial or non-profit ventures to sustain journalism in the future.   

Instead of bringing together these diverse and strategically vital stakeholders, the usual journo-futurama is composed largely of white, middle-aged newspapermen (or, more likely, former newspapermen) who came up in the day when cold type was the hot new technology. 

While my fellow newsosaurs contribute welcome institutional knowledge and gravitas to any discussion, they represent a significantly outdated view of what journalism is, what it ought to be – and how it may manifest itself in the future. 

Their views were shaped in the pre-interactive era, when journalists, in their sole discretion, decided who to cover, what to report, what to write and when to publish it.  Apart from the occasional crayon-scribbled note that arrived in the mail, readers seldom talked back, leaving little reason to doubt the work was being well received.  This led to the ill-advised belief that journalists, in their sole discretion, were wise enough to know what readers wanted, whether they really wanted it or not. 

Unfortunately, this type of one-way, prescriptive thinking suffuses journo-futuramas. But it is seriously out of step with the real world, where readers not only can talk back to the media but also publish news and commentary on their own.  Politicians, entertainers, marketers and even humble hockey moms can bypass the legacy news media by establishing direct, one-to-one connections with their intended audiences.

Those of us worried about the future of journalism need to understand today’s marketplace on its own terms.  Instead of relying on seat-of-the pants intuition and wistful thinking, we need reliable research and objective data to come up with relevant new formats and forums for journalism.       

That means listening to consumers, technologists, marketers, investors and others who form the many constituencies for whatever shape(s) journalism takes in the digital age. 

The most important things that press vets can bring to journo-futuramas are strong advocacy for the immutable values of public-interest journalism: fair reporting, balanced presentation and effective storytelling. 

Though we hope and trust these values will endure, it seems increasingly clear that the institutions traditionally responsible for supporting journalism may not be as capable of doing this in the digital age as they were in the era of snail media.  

To build next-gen journalism, we will need all the help we can get.  And that means bringing many more players to the table than the usual suspects who turn up at most journo-futuramas. 

If anyone out there wants to do this right, I am ready to help. Otherwise, I am all kvetched out. 

19 Comments:

Blogger Taylor said...

I've given up on future of news presentations because the only folks who present are the management who are responsible for the current state of the news landscape and long-standing critics with ideas that have never been implemented or tested.

That's probably why consumers, technologists, marketers, investors never get mentioned.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Taylor said...

I've given up on future of news presentations because the only folks who present are the management who are responsible for the current state of the news landscape and long-standing critics with ideas that have never been implemented or tested.

That's probably why consumers, technologists, marketers, investors never get mentioned.

7:57 AM  
OpenID jmproffitt.com said...

The same can be said of public media (public broadcasting) conferences that ostensibly want to discuss the future of pubmedia. The public is never invited to discuss this, nor are funders or technologists.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Marc Matteo said...

I would go so far as to suggest that the reason news organizations formerly called newspapers are still struggling today is that they also fail to include the right people.

Get the people you listed inside the walls of the organization, in the org chart, in the culture and you don't have to worry about confabs.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

@ Marc
You can get the right people inside the walls of the organization, but they still need to be empowered to unleash their potential. Often the people who could save the organization are expected to fit into the existing framework, rather than redefine it.

8:52 AM  
Blogger E said...

Seconded. This is why I prefer confabs like NewsFoo and CivicMIT, where it's mostly technologists and builders/tinkerers teaching the small handful of us journos/content creators. Knight does a good job of bringing these folks together if you get inspired to hold a confab of your own someday...

5:33 PM  
Blogger Paul Bedient said...

After almost 30 years of attending various newspaper conferences, one thing always held true in my opinion. In many cases the "new" ideas were flowers and management were bees chasing the flowers...until it was time to invest...then it was off to another group of flowers. Subscribers had two choices, take what we gave them or subscribe to another publication. I fear the news industry has still not learned from the past.

5:57 PM  
Blogger frank h shepherd said...

Alan... you nailed the problem dead on the head... old timers are talking to and among themselves...blah blah blah blah.....I can hear them now since I spent 50 years being one of them... they need to move on(retire) or change jobs.... and let the young, tech savvy,content smart solve the issue of monetizing the digital platforms...then and only then will the future begin to unfold... not before... the print preachers preaching to themselves only stall for time... they are circling the drain and need to hit the rockers laid out on porches all across Americana...the young will figure it out if left alone... the old timers only slow thing down...and time waits for no man...

6:05 PM  
Blogger chuckl said...

I couldn't agree more, Alan. Those events always took on a time-warpish quality for me, as if nothing had changed in journalism since before the advent of the Internet, let alone social media, youtube and tablets. How can a manager or executive in print media possibly understand the implications of a different media paradigm like tablets, where success is measured not in numbers of subscribers and demographics alone, but in time and depth of engagement. The innovator's dilemma is always to disrupt its own technology before someone else does it for them, but newspapers are genetically incapable of re-imagining journalism in our digital, post print world.

6:35 PM  
Blogger eclisham said...

Among those who are not in the room are the revenue folks. I continue, five years after Newspaper Next, to be astounded by the lack of innovation that has been displayed on the revenue side. It's wonderful that journalists are trying to fill that gap (and it's not a bad thing that they know how the bills get paid), but I'm still waiting to see a comprehensive new-product strategy that puts revenue on the same footing as content. I would love to be proven wrong.

4:47 AM  
Blogger Tim Holmes said...

You missed out the invaluable contributions of media academics to these conferences.

6:20 AM  
Blogger Harrison Cochran said...

Having attended more than a few, "drinking our own Kool-Aid," confabs I concur with Frank S. and am of his vintage.
There is something just wrong about future of journalism meets conducted by past journalists invested in how important to democracy, wisdom and a better world their work was.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Brian Steffens said...

Elaine has it right. There's no end to initiatives to reinvent news or newsrooms, yet summits to ponder reinvention of revenue are nearly nonexistent. I'm not convinced journalism is broken, but I'm pretty darn sure the revenue side has experienced MUCH MORE disruption and atomization of revenue streams and opportunities.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Eric Killorin said...

Why I no longer attend "publishing" conferences and snicker at one bloggers recurring theme, "the industry that vents together stays together." Maybe that's the problem.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Eric Killorin said...

Why I no longer attend "publishing" conferences aka Mutual Admiration Societies. They want to save what cannot be saved. A conference panel made up of college students would do much to convince these Lemmings of the new world order.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Eric Killorin said...

Why I no longer attend "publishing" conferences aka Mutual Admiration Societies. They want to save what cannot be saved. A conference panel made up of college students would do much to convince these Lemmings of the new world order.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Vasily GATOV said...

Alan,

You're right. In Russia, I lead the discussion on this issue for a while. But now I try to avoid it as much as I can - while doing the one and the only thing, trying to educate media people, move the the social, technological and data knowledge to them. Lately, at Future Media Forum, we tried to broaden the perspective on how the news depend on society (we invited prof. Manuel Castels to speak on that), on technology (Ken Doctor and Andrew Heywart), on security (that was my part) and money (advetisers who's names speak nothing). Strangely, the audience was not "newspapermen" or editors, but people from creative industries, social media and academics. The problem - at least here - is not the lack of the knowledge, but full incompetence of the dialogue. Traditional media people are just not capable intellectually to maintain the requirments of the current business debate.
Hope You're well - and we could meet in SF in the fall.
Best regards
Vasily Gatov, RIA Novosti MediaLab

1:48 AM  
Blogger Robert W. said...

A truly excellent post! If I have any quibble, it is with this paragraph:

"The most important things that press vets can bring to journo-futuramas are strong advocacy for the immutable values of public-interest journalism: fair reporting, balanced presentation and effective storytelling."

Fair reporting and balanced presentation simply does not appear very often in 2012, be it in my country of Canada, or the USA, or Britain, or ....

The fact that [frequently] Left & Far Left crusaders (aka "journalists") believe they're capable of writing or speaking without bias is even more frightening.

9:46 AM  
Blogger MelTaylor said...

Alan,

Indeed....

If attendees only realized that many conferences are put together by folks looking to protect their own jobs.

We all appreciate your bluntness on this topic.

Mel Taylor

4:39 AM  

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