Falling sales and profits augur badly for serious news. Two leading US experts ask if an online renaissance is in the makingby Steven Johnson / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
YES: Steven Johnson
NO: Paul Starr
Dear Paul 6th April 2009
Let’s start with the places where we are likely to agree. First, newspapers have historically supplied civic and public goods that are essential to a healthy democratic culture. Second, newspapers themselves are in a dire financial state, thanks to long-term changes wrought largely by the internet, the (hopefully) short-term economic crisis and, for some papers, the reckless financial decisions of their owners. Whatever the? underlying causes, though, I think you and I will agree that the newspaper business—and thus its editorial product—is going to look fundamentally different five or ten years from now.
The question is whether a new model will emerge to provide the public goods that the newspapers previously supported through their high-margin local monopolies (at least in the US). I think there is good reason to believe that the news system that is currently evolving online will actually be an improvement on the newspaper model that we’ve been living with for the past century.
One way to think about that transformation is to think of the media as an ecosystem. In the way it circulates information today’s media is, in fact, much closer to an ecosystem than the old industrial, centralised models of mass media. The new world is more diverse and interconnected, a system in which information flows more freely. This complexity makes it interesting, but also hard to predict what it will look like in five or ten years.
Instead of starting with the future, I propose that we look to the past. When ecologists research natural ecosystems, they seek out the oldest forests, where nature has had longest to?evolve. They don’t study rainforests by looking at a field cleared two years ago. By analogy, we should examine the most evolved parts of online news.
One such field is reporting about technology itself. This has been growing and diversifying for decades, making it an old-growth forest for internet news. By any measure it is vastly more informative than when I? first started following technology issues, as a college student in the late 1980s. The web doesn’t have some kind of intrinsic aptitude for covering technology; it just has a tendency to cover technology first, because the first people who used the web were more interested in the subject. But that has changed and is continuing to change. The transformation from the desert…