A Must Read Report

I was at a dinner party last week and was chatting with a former high ranking official in the Clinton White House (anonymous, naturally). We got talking about what I teach and he launched into the singular worry: Who will produce the news in the  future? In the 90s, the White House merely collected clips from a handful of national news outlets, and pretty much got a handle on the mediated conversation that was taking place nationally. It is a pointed question, and one with no simple answer and a lot of speculation.  But what I should do is direct him to the new Tow Center report Post Industrial Journalism by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky.

This is an important document at an important juncture for journalism. It lays out a cogent, carefully considered argument about journalism that scales from the specifically concrete (CMS systems hindering innovation) to the conceptual broad (what journalism in the future will have to do).

My main reason to recommend this report is that it does something rather magical: It avoids the extremes of gleefully stomping on the ghosts of print or ruefully waxing nostalgia for the good old days. In a word, this report is realistic. Advertising is not coming back (nor is there ready replacement), and digital formats are not going to just pick up the slack (not for years, anyway). It is sober, basing its argument on the need for hard news in a way that connects with the concerns expressed above by the former White House official.

Another attribute I really enjoyed was the authors’ comfort with an argument I have been making lately: we are moving from a homogenous news environment in which newspapers, television, and magazines basically coalesced each into a standard format with similar output, shared norms, and the like, to a heterogenous media ecosystem (to use the report’s language) in which we will have a variety of formats with different types of journalists following different rules and making money in different ways. This is hard to grasp really.  We are so comfortable with “the press” or “journalism” standing for something cohesive. In a section titled “The End of Solidarity,” the authors note:

Perhaps the most salient change in the next seven years will be the continued
weakening of the very idea of what constitutes news, and thus what constitutes
a news organization (p. 116).

They make the point elsewhere:

Journalism is instead moving from one to many, from a set of roles whose description and daily patterns were coherent enough to merit one label to one where the gap between what makes Nate Silver a journalist and what makes Kevin Sites a journalist continues to widen. (p. 110)

There are many problems confronting journalism right now–and rightly many opportunities. But this very disintegration of how we think of journalism as a unified field–the shift identified in the report’s title as “post-industrial” journalism demands our attention as it unfolds around us. Now, go read the report.

About Matt Carlson

Associate Professor of Communication Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication University of Minnesota
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