What’s next for press? They don’t know, either.
As a backwards look at how the contraction of the legacy media business has affected – and will continue to impact – journalism, the essay makes for worthy reading. But it comes up short in terms of providing actionable recommendations for those of us who are worried about what will happen to our democracy in the absence of news organizations that adhere to the generally accepted professional standards of rigorous reporting and fair-minded presentation*.
C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, who authored the essay called “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” can be excused for not solving the problem of who will pay for journalism when we don’t have newspapers or the other legacy news media to kick around any longer. With journalism turned into a free-for-all where anyone with a video camera or an iPhone can hijack the news, we are facing, if not always bravely, a new world that is utterly uncharted.
Inasmuch as we can learn a lot from history, the most valuable part of the essay (free, here) is its exploration of why nearly all of the immensely powerful and stunningly profitable legacy media companies failed to appreciate and respond to the changes in the media landscape wrought by the Internet and the myriad publishing platforms and formats it has spawned.
In a word, the reason the traditional media institutions are faltering – and they are faltering and will continue to falter – is inertia. The companies now sagging under the digital onslaught were organized in the eras when their printing presses and broadcast licenses gave them highly defensible and superbly profitable advantages over any would-be competitors. These companies were – and, understandably, continue to be – focused on extracting the greatest possible profits from those advantages.
The legacy companies had every reason to disdain – and no incentive to embrace – the power that digital publishing has conferred on every wired consumer to get and give news in the time, place and fashion she wants. Rather than adapt, the legacy institutions doubled down on the business models that leveraged their monopoly and near-monopoly status to charge premium prices for advertising to the largest audiences they could assemble. This unfortunately puts the legacy media distinctly at odds with modern marketers, who want to spend the least money possible on putting the right message in front of the right consumer at precisely the right place and time.
The legacy media are not failing to adapt for want of money, say the Columbia trio in the essay published last week. “The presence of [institutional] process is a bigger obstacle to change than the absence of money,” they concluded. “This conundrum isn’t surprising…. [T]he entire purpose of institutional arrangements is actually to ingrain and rationalize standardized patterns of behavior – in other words, to make change hard.”
The challenge of change is underscored by the essay’s lack of big ideas about how to transition journalism to a solid footing as the legacy institutions implode. After several hundred words describing the enormity of the challenges facing the legacy media, the essay provides rather modest recommendations for editors and publishers, such as improving transparency in news-gathering; upgrading content-management systems, and publishing data and other raw source materials – not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.
The authors make a strong, repeated and welcome case that legacy media should partner with individual citizen journalists and next-generation journalistic enterprises to provide fuller and more inclusive reporting. “Give up on trying to keep brand imprimatur while hollowing out product,” the authors wisely advise.
As luck would have it, Jan Schaffer of the J-Lab at American University in Maryland, published immediately after the release of the Columbia report an excellent, must-read study (free, here) of the successes and failures of nine projects where legacy media companies attempted to partner with various nascent journalistic ventures in their markets. Funded three years ago with $500,000 from the Knight Foundation, the J-Lab effort produced “five wins, two hits and two losses,” said Schaffer, who ran the program.
The successful projects, which include a local news network put together by the Seattle Times, are inspiring. By far, the most creative idea was Pipeline, a collaboration orchestrated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to pull together community sources information relating to the hydraulic-fracturing oil boom in the region. One of the fails was a local network attempted by the Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times, which faltered, said Schaffer, “amid considerable upheaval in this Gannett newsroom." (See also the previous discussion on institutional dysfunction.)
Commenting on the fluid nature of even the successful networks, Schaffer observed that “partners come and they go,” adding: ”Some divorce the network, some die in an emerging news ecosystem that is still quite fragile. Indeed, only two of the projects still have the identical partners they launched with.”
The path forward for journalism, she concluded constructively, is “iterative.” But the Columbia team was a bit more blunt: “There is no solution to the present crisis…. [T]here is no stable state coming to the practice of news any time soon.”
Looks like we have more work to do.
* Yes, I know there are many who feel that the media are as corrupt as any other institution, but all the journalists I know take their missions and responsibilities seriously, acting ethically in the public interest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
For all the flaws of traditional journalism over the years – and there are plenty, ranging from racism and sexism to the Jayson Blair scandal and the WMD fiasco – the republic never has gone without a press powerful enough to pry into official misconduct or peer into the problems of society. Absent a financially strong and independent press, I fear the conversation will be taken over by crackpots, commercial interests and political partisans.
Those rooting for the demise of the professional media ought to be careful what they wish for. It won’t be pretty.