Stijn Debrouwere has – as usual – a provocative, interesting and just smart post at his blog about the future of journalism. Or more precisely, a post about the present of non-journalism (or near-journalism) and what that means for the future of journalism. It’s scary in many ways, but is important in helping frame how we rethink our profession/industry.
A quick summary:
There are organizations and websites everywhere that are taking over newspapers’ role as tastemaker and watchdog and forum. These disruptors don’t replace investigative reporting, but they replace the other 95% of what made professional news organizations important.
In other words, non-journalism outlets (Quora, Wikipedia, etc) are increasingly fulfilling some of the needs that news organizations used to fill. You can argue about their quality, or whether it’s a good thing, but the fact is it’s happening – and that has real implications for how news organizations adapt to the digital world. The beauty of the post is that it inverts the usual (capitalized) discussion about the Future of Journalism to one about the Future of the How People Get Informed. And, as Clay Shirky noted in Cognitive Surplus, that discussion should be less about what we’re trying to do and more about what customers are hiring us to do.
So read Stjin’s post: It’s very good.
But back to the question that both Stijn and Clay pose: What are people hiring us to do, at least in terms of “journalistic news”? I suspect the way people access news is still evolving – and it’s not like anyone really knows the answer now anyway – but I might argue that there are a couple of discrete user behaviors/needs: News, search, context and serendipity. News meaning simply getting people the latest updates on important stuff (who won the French election?); search meaning fulfilling specific information needs when people want it (how many people died when the Titanic went down?); context meaning helping people understand issues, whether about news or broader topics (so what is climate change and how does it affect me?); and serendipity meaning telling people things they might need to know but don’t know they need to know (end of the world next Tuesday!)
News organizations have been organized mostly around news, and if anything, the digital age has increased that focus (not necessarily in a good way). But in the other areas, we’ve just been much less effective or innovative. As Stijn points out – and I agree wholeheartedly – the last major innovation in storytelling was at Politifact. (Which is why I keep pushing the notion of structured journalism).
We have all been so focused on the quality issue: the fact that we’re still doing journalism like we used to do it fifty years ago, that there haven’t been any exciting new news formats since PolitiFact, that there’s a ridiculous lack of context for news stories online, which together with the fragmentation of readership is a disaster.
And on the other side of the question, it’s worth asking: What is our competitive advantage in any of this? It’s one thing to acknowledge how people are now approaching information; it’s another to know if we can do it better (or cheaper, or more regularly, or whatever) than others. Some might argue that journalists bring more objectivity, or rigor, or trust, than crowd-sourced or non-professional information, and there’s probably a case to be made on both sides of that question. I’d argue that one key thing we do bring is consistency and discipline; and that’s not a small thing. Meaning that we can offer a level of dependability that we’ll consistently cover the local school board meeting, or whatever. But that means fulfilling that promise, and not doing it whenever we feel there’s a story that we want to write.
I’m not sure this is necessarily all that appealing a future for journalism; or even that these ideas are generally right. But I do believe it’s important to keep the perspective of the audience we’re supposed to be serving in mind when we debate the future of our industry. Because ultimately it isn’t about us; it’s about them, and the needs of society. (Although we’d all like to stay employed as well.)