The death of the newspaper

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”          Charles Darwin

I am reminded of this obvious, and perhaps overused, quote from Darwin as I review the readings that have examined the current state of Journalism and News Media. Adaptation is the key to survival for any species – or institution. There are no exceptions – full stop. Print media is a prime example of an institution that failed to manage change in the face of an evolving enterprise. It wasn’t enough to know the internet would change the face of the industry. It wasn’t enough to move Dave Winer’s cardboard box around from place to place – it still contained the same content, generating the same level of interest, regardless of the format.

When thinking about the inevitable extinction of the newspaper, I think back to how many friends I had growing up who actually had a paper route. While that was the 1980’s, some thirty plus years later, and I cannot recall seeing anyone deliver a newspaper in person. While that is partly a result of the changing business model, and perhaps the deconstruction of traditional neighborhoods in lieu of social networks, the reality is the industry did not evolve with this change in society. It is simply not enough to integrate new technology – according to Anderson, Bell and Shirky in “Post-Industrial Journalism,” you must also change your processes. The only question left is whether or not journalism will follow the newspaper to the grave?

In “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” Clay Shirky argues that “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” Moreover, he feels we should untie newspapers and journalism from one another, and worry about strengthening journalism. I tend to agree. I cannot recall the last time I read an actual newspaper; however, I cannot reconcile with Shirky’s notion of strengthening journalism when the internet and the networked individual have effectively eliminated the professional boundaries of a journalist. Making information public is no longer done by professionals or institutions. As professionalism disappears, the expansive network of engaged amateurs fills the void, making anyone with a camera phone, blog or Twitter account a voice to be heard.

In the age of the all-powerful social network, even small publications can succeed if they change their processes. The Tow Center Report discusses the concept of “Super Distribution” as the forwarding of media through social networks, and “that tiny publications with an important article can reach a big audience quickly, at no additional cost.” The elimination of these distribution barriers is a familiar theme. I referenced this concept in my first blog post, citing a coworker’s tween fiction novel. A further example that resonates with me is the ease in which former Boston Herald reporter Dave Wedge published a book on the Boston Marathon Bombings entitled “Boston Strong”.   As Dave Winer might angrily point out, Wedge was merely one of a thousand “witnesses” to the week’s events. Fortunately for Wedge, he was the first across the finish line with a published accounting of the tragedy, and now Hollywood celebrities like Casey Affleck are lining up to star in the movie.

Dean Starkman, in Confidence Game, describes a collection of thinkers, some I have quoted here, as the Future of News (FON) consensus. He says that the FON favors “iterative journalism”, or reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way. Dave Wedge was a seasoned journalist collecting stories and information from the Marathon events, but what about all of the other witnesses that were there? The tendency toward iterative journalism led to CNN to confirm that an arrest had been made in the case without confirmation. This type of journalism also put lives in jeopardy when an institution like the New York Post attempted to confirm the photo identities of the two suspects, wrongly targeting two young kids.

It is dangerous when institutions try to mimic the flexibility of their usership’s social network, and engage in this on the fly journalism. They not only jeopardize their reputation for accuracy and reliability, but they allow other more malleable forms to enter the conversation and establish themselves as the authority on an issue. As CNN raced to inaccurately report that the Supreme Court had rejected the individual mandate, they open the door for SCOTUSblog to enter the conversation and establish themselves as a new authority.

I find myself landing somewhere in between Shirky and the members of the FON, and Starkman on the role of these traditional journalism institutions. I believe these institutions, as Shirky puts it, do the heavy lifting by covering all angles of a story, and that this creates a benefit that everyone can capitalize on – especially for new media sources that do not possess the “slack” to shift surplus reporters and resources to a breaking news story.

Having spent years of my life in Government dealing with investigative reporters, I can honestly say that without the backing of an old media institution, the bureaucrats will simply wait you out. If you do not have the power and reputation to reinforce your efforts, you will not be taken seriously. This accountability is critical, and would simply be non-existent without these formal institutions. While I am certain the newspaper is dead, I am hopeful that journalism will survive – and survive in a way that contemplates the legitimacy of these storied institutions, or I fear the FON will be proven right and large scale corruption will spread across government on all levels.

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