The Crowd in the Cloud and other new realities
With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. - Clay Shirky
At the Minot Daily News something like 15 years ago, a major car dealer pulled his full-page ads because he didn’t like the way we were covering a story. The editor, Mike Burbach (who has been at several papers since and whom I tracked down via LinkedIn), and I couldn’t remember what the fight was about, but his response at the time is one I’ve kept in my treasure trove of kick-ass things to say: “They don’t advertise with us because they like us. They do it because it works.”
So much has changed so radically that a post-modern deconstruction of that sentence would keep a soon-to-be unemployed journalism graduate student busy for at least a year.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the will of journalists to stand up to this kind of pressure, though their will is being sorely tested by, for instance, mega do-gooders like the Gates Foundation. (See the great writing on this topic by Tom Paulson at Humanosphere, here.) Speaking of do-gooders, this navel-gazing has been brought to you by my good friends at the Post-Globe who could use a buck.
But what got me to thinking about the complex matrix of ads, funding and journalism is this barely noted historical shift: For the first time in history, more money was spent buying ads online than in print — “Online Ad Spend Surpasses Newspapers.” In fact, the complete shift from print to Web is so thoroughly underway that only the end of civilization as we know it would reverse the trend. So journalists, after years of browbeating, are adjusting, see here, here (about halfway in), here and here.
What will happen will happen, but I think the way this open season on information or “distributed journalism” gets talked about is poorly imagined: The model is talked about like a person just walks in and chips off pieces of chocolate from one bar. It keeps being divided until there isn’t anything meaningful left — a billion blogs just barely scratching the surface. But, I don’t actually think that’s what’s happening.
Instead, the opportunity here is to understand that journalism is a limited resource, and the future of the crowd and the power of social media, new media, Web 2.0 etc. is to gather around trusted journalism. The authority of the crowd is its influence, its ability to empower journalism, to feed it material, insights and correction. But journalism itself will remain in the hands of those who give their professional lives to it; hell, their whole lives.
Once journalists regain the confidence brought on by this new understanding, they will use social media, Web 2.0 to increase the reach and effectiveness of their work with glee. Once the crowd understands its role in that relationship, it will remember that it is okay to discriminate against junk and then loosen up its wallet and pay for subscriptions.
We are all stumbling around in the social rubble brought about by the new disruptive technology, but this isn’t the end of the change or the “new norm.” We are only just beginning to see the effects of the change and it is a change in distribution and interaction, not a wholesale re-visioning of values.
Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.
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