Why everyone thinks someone else should rebuild journalism

by · December 1, 2014

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the fate of journalism, and the ability to monetize content more broadly, for quite some time — and naturally so. The means of production have been democratized; the powers of direct communication have been bestowed upon the masses; and the Big Bang of voluminous content production all shook the web around the same time during the “2.0" era.

It was a heady time — Caterina would actually comment on your Flickr photos and Stewart Butterfield was 10 years away from beating VCs away from Slack with a stick. We could all sign up for Blogger or TypePad and have an always-on podium at our disposal for a song — or we could go a little further down the rabbit hole and teach ourselves a little HTML, maybe some CSS, and figure out how to register a domain name and set up a website. For a time you could even find a domain name — it was heaven! (Noting the thankful renaissance / real estate explosion with the offering of many new Top Level Domain (TLD) extensions) We commented on each other’s blogs back then — we were so naive. Today blog comments are a place not to be caught in after dark, like Skid Row.

And since those heady days the product side of blogging has, if we’re being honest, languished in service of the business around blogging. To our detriment, for borne of the monoculture is a greater difficulty pivoting to understand and leverage the brave new world of interactive storytelling. There’s also the ever-ongoing debate about journalism vs. shall we say, #journotainment? And the frequent scratching of heads over why no one is rushing out to reinvent journalism and save the “content business."

The answer is, essentially, bystander effect: no one feels responsible — so no one acts.

  • Why management doesn’t do it: they’re in the throes of a long-suffering decline facing ever-increasing pressures to meet quarterly numbers. Many of them have earned fortunes already or are close enough to retirement that reinventing the wheel doesn’t seem like a logical choice to them personally or professionally.
  • Why news organizations don’t do it: innovation is very difficult. Much more difficult than milking out an existing cash cow. Most newsrooms have the opposite culture — one of conservatism, and of desperately trying to replicate existing/former productions rates under slashed budgets and skeleton crew staffing levels. Transcendent new models aren’t generally born out of collective fear and desperation.
  • Why journalists don’t do it: Most have spent years training and apprenticing and crafting the skills of journalism as handed down by existing wisdom. Many have hard-earned titles and salaries, along with families and mortgages and community commitments they don’t wish to toss aside in favor of a “life pivot" to gain product development competency. Without competency it’s difficult to even see the possibilities, much less advocate for a more technology-oriented approach to the newsroom. And without advocacy, the even fatter cats in upper management — who are even less incentivized to inconvenience themselves personally with the project of fomenting change — are even less likely to pursue an integrated product approach to newsmaking.
  • Why markets don’t do it: There’s almost no alignment between what media audiences want and the resources required to make that happen. Most blue chip media outlets are subject to corporate ownership by large public conglomerate companies — adding an additional dizzying, high-powered layer of additional conservatism and entitlement — in which for the most part, no one from the C-suite to the board to the shareholders has the slightest interest in bearing new risk. In the classic Silicon Valley startup model, it’s far easier for the fresh-faced hoodie-clad coder to radically disrupt an industry because a rich cadre of venture capitalists ultimately assumes (most of) the risk. Who — other than already outsized media figures like Jeff Bezos — is willing to bear the significant amount of risk required to reboot journalism and a sustainable new model(s) for content economics? Surely we’re not expecting Emily Bell to take on this burden herself, right?

There’s also another notable problem in marrying the conservativism of established old media with the tech world’s endless fetishization of new buzzwords: culture clash.

As much as there’s too much “woe is me" hand-wringing on the journo side of this dilapidated house, there’s an equal part attribution error-induced blindness from the technologist contingent.