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.

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