Culture Clash on the Future of News

by on May 15, 2008 · 13 comments

One of the striking things about the Future of News conference is the culture clash between newspaper people on the one hand and technology people on the other. The former was exemplified by the second panel, which included representatives of the Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune and a journalism professor. The latter is exemplified by the panel that’s going on right now, which includes people from Microsoft, Princeton’s computer science department, and a blogger affiliated with the Guardian. The former were quite pessimistic. All three of them tried to put a brave face on things and suggest strategies newspapers could use to adapt to the changing world, but all three seemed to feel that the future of news was pretty grim—that blogs and other online news sources wouldn’t be able to pick up the slack from thousands of journalists laid off from mainstream newspapers.

In contrast, the technologists’ perspective was that there was an unprecedented abundance of content available online, and that the real challenge is in filtering it all. The technologists didn’t seem to feel there was anything grim about the media environment.

Fundamentally, I think what’s going on here is that people tend to over-estimate the importance of their own profession. Newspapers in particular are used to regarding themselves as the center of the universe, so as the center of gravity in the news business shifts away from the newspaper, and monolithic “mainstream media” outlets more generally, they tend to regard this as the decline of news in general rather than a decline of a particular news format.

I’m sure the newspaper peoples’ response would be that the technologists are guilty of the same crime, over-estimating the importance of technology and taking for granted the resources required to do high-quality reporting. There’s probably some truth to this, but I think the technologists have a better sense than the newspaper folks of the diversity of new news-gathering techniques that are being developed. It’s not the case that newspapers are being replaced with nothing. They’re being replaced with things that look very different, but serve many of the same purposes as the newspaper do.

  • jbbuena

    Personally, I think what worry journalists of “monolithic ‘mainstream media’” isn’t necessarily the transformative impact of technology on the integrity of their professions and the digitalization of newsprint so much as losing their professions altogether when technology assumes journalistic roles in the future.

    Because as you say so yourself, “technologists have a better sense than the newspaper folks of the diversity of new news-gathering techniques that are being developed;” and I think they are themselves aware of that.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Speaking as a technologist, I agree with the newspaper people 1/2 :-).

    One problem is that there’s very little support for technologists to voice a non-evangelistic view. If you say “YAY! GO GO GO Net/Blogs/RSS/etc!!!””, there’s attention and money for that. The opposite view isn’t supported, except by reactionaries (see Andrew K33n).

    It’s market failure :-(. Sort of recursive proof.

  • jbbuena

    Personally, I think what worry journalists of “monolithic ‘mainstream media’” isn’t necessarily the transformative impact of technology on the integrity of their professions and the digitalization of newsprint so much as losing their professions altogether when technology assumes journalistic roles in the future.

    Because as you say so yourself, “technologists have a better sense than the newspaper folks of the diversity of new news-gathering techniques that are being developed;” and I think they are themselves aware of that.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Speaking as a technologist, I agree with the newspaper people 1/2 :-).

    One problem is that there’s very little support for technologists to voice a non-evangelistic view. If you say “YAY! GO GO GO Net/Blogs/RSS/etc!!!””, there’s attention and money for that. The opposite view isn’t supported, except by reactionaries (see Andrew K33n).

    It’s market failure :-(. Sort of recursive proof.

  • http://www.davidmcelroy.org/ David McElroy

    The newspaper industry is very stubborn and slow to change. I used to be a newspaper editor, but I’ve been out of it 15 years, so I have a different perspective than those who are still in it. With that said, I think that technologists fail to understand the primary value that newspapers bring to media distribution — and that’s the power of editorial judgment. Software doesn’t have that same judgment, and it never will. As human editorial judgment is replaced with software to sift the junk online in order to find the good stuff, the results aren’t going to be pretty. No matter how good the code is, it can’t see connections and make judgments that editors can.

    I say this as someone who’s one of the biggest critics around of the state of modern newspapers. They’re getting worse, in many respects, not better. I can’t even remember the last time I bought a physical copy of a newspaper, because I get all my news online. Despite that, I still know that the best and most trustworthy news still TENDS to come from those trained in the newspaper editorial tradition. If we can take those same skills and put them into the people who are editing news web sites, newspapers (in the traditional sense) won’t matter. But to think that some combination of blogs and RSS feeds of a billion web sites is going to reasonably take their place seems insane. You’ll end up with the equivalent of sites such as Digg and Slashdot, which are both interesting (and I use both), but are places where the loudest opinions prevail.

  • http://www.davidmcelroy.org/ David McElroy

    The newspaper industry is very stubborn and slow to change. I used to be a newspaper editor, but I’ve been out of it 15 years, so I have a different perspective than those who are still in it. With that said, I think that technologists fail to understand the primary value that newspapers bring to media distribution — and that’s the power of editorial judgment. Software doesn’t have that same judgment, and it never will. As human editorial judgment is replaced with software to sift the junk online in order to find the good stuff, the results aren’t going to be pretty. No matter how good the code is, it can’t see connections and make judgments that editors can.

    I say this as someone who’s one of the biggest critics around of the state of modern newspapers. They’re getting worse, in many respects, not better. I can’t even remember the last time I bought a physical copy of a newspaper, because I get all my news online. Despite that, I still know that the best and most trustworthy news still TENDS to come from those trained in the newspaper editorial tradition. If we can take those same skills and put them into the people who are editing news web sites, newspapers (in the traditional sense) won’t matter. But to think that some combination of blogs and RSS feeds of a billion web sites is going to reasonably take their place seems insane. You’ll end up with the equivalent of sites such as Digg and Slashdot, which are both interesting (and I use both), but are places where the loudest opinions prevail.

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