Thursday, July 1, 2010

Predictions are shaky, but journalism isn’t

There was little useful forecasting in Bill Gates’ 1995 book The Road Ahead; he didn’t even seem to have an accurate roadmap of his own back then. But there were plenty of insights. One has stuck with me ever since: Everybody tends to over-estimate what technology can accomplish in the short-run, but they underestimate what it will do over time.

Given the acceleration of change and innovation since then, we could now say something like “overestimate next week, but underestimate the week after.”

I started working full time on internet publishing that same year (1995), doing strategic planning at McClatchy back when some major publishers were still choosing the closed AT&T Interchange system over the then-new World Wide Web. We made plenty of mistakes, both in strategy and execution, but we had the basic direction right: follow the internet.

We didn’t think a company our size (especially back then) could expect to influence the technology very much. Instead, we aimed to be “hyper vigilant and flexible” — keeping a close watch on trends and success stories and moving quickly to extend in those directions. We figured from the start that our role would center on local community and conversations. We saw lavishly funded competition in those realms from AOL and Microsoft emerge and die. We faced unstoppable disruption from competitors like craigslist and learned (painfully) to deal with the revenue reset that resulted. We watched our gatekeeper role in journalism evaporate as countless new voices joined the chorus and learned — often haltingly — to come to grips with that, as well.

In all the years I watched it, those who forecast specific trends, outcomes or inevitabilities about web publishing were almost always wrong — sometimes by a little, often by a lot. The internet is hard on prophets.

Through a maelstrom of economic dislocation — a huge recession coupled with disruptive new competition — McClatchy and many other news companies emerged with larger audiences and still-profitable operations. Not all of the companies who were challenging in 1995 can say that.

Pretty much since the first prediction that newspaper companies were sure to die, I’ve been looking for some pundit to put his money where his mouth was. A smart bettor could have taken my money, because I’d have bet against the depth and damage of destruction that followed. But I wouldn’t have bet against survival and I’d have won any flat live/die bets. (Feeling lucky? I’m still ready to cover bets.)

News companies still have value to add to the civic sphere. Honorable traditions of integrity and fairness (even if sometimes observed in breach as well as practice) remain indispensable. The practical skills and disciplines demanded by deep public service reporting can be transported to new mediums but cannot be replaced. Today’s potent new online investigative sites are peopled with journalists who made their bones at newspapers.

Yes, non-professional journalists can and do add considerably to society’s net news product. Their contributions are important now and will become more so. But the very best of their public service journalism wouldn’t make my Top Ten list of significant public service journalism projects in the last 10 years.

Sadly, news companies generally have been unable or unwilling to abandon the hubris that remains one of their greatest liabilities. I realized “the press” had a problem a long time ago, when I shared the stage at a university symposium in the late 1970s with Ben Bradlee, then in his heyday as editor of the Watergate-era Washington Post.

A citizen stood up during the question and answer period and asked simply, “Mr. Bradlee, what is news?”

He leaned back and literally looked down on the audience as he replied, “Madam, at the Washington Post, news is what I say it is.”

Of course, that was technically and contextually accurate. He did have that authority, as I did at the Anchorage Daily News. But I can honestly say I never believed (or, I hope, acted like) that was mine by devine right. 

A Daily News columnist once scolded legislators by reminding them, “The only reason we elect representatives is that we can’t all fit in one room.” In exactly the same way, our newsrooms were just surrogates for news audiences that didn’t have the time or resources to report everything themselves, and we tried to act like that.

That relationship is vastly different today. The people formerly known as the audience are now co-creators, sometime competitors. All traditional editors have been humbled by this reality; the difference is that some of them know it, and some don’t.

Stories that once were polished and perfected before being released now begin as fragmentary blog posts that evolve through audience participation into fuller, better stories later on. That’s sometimes a clumsy process, and I’ve seen well known commentators and professors embarrassed when they leapt to conclusions that weren’t really there, but I believe an iterative, shared process will generally yield better results than the old hierarchies. 

We’ll all get better at operating in the new world with practice. For example, the Sacramento Bee now administers a network of more than 60 local blogs covering everything from politics to happy hours. As I understand their plans, information from those blogs will be semantically associated with related stories from the news staff, enriching Bee coverage while providing valuable exposure to the bloggers. (Yes, the Bee splits network revenue with them).

As Bill Gates accurately observed, today’s environment far out-strips what any of us were expecting 10 or 15 years ago, and a lot of questions remain to be answered. I don’t believe they portend the end of professional journalism. Au contraire: a fair reading of what’s actually happening demonstrates what a central role it continues to play. 


Posted via email from edge & flow

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