‘Post-Industrial Journalism’ Is Big Think, But Not Big Enough

November 28, 2012

It may not have been felt by all, but earlier this week the news world was hit by a resounding THUD in the form of a sharp, but well-considered screed, “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting To the Present“. Written by three distinguished thinkers on the news industry, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, the journal article published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism arrests your attention in the first paragraph by claiming, “there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.”

For those with a business-focus rather than a journalism-focus, theirs is an unremarkable statement. But these three writers, in particular Shirky, whose personal blog has made a habit of dealing body blows to conventional wisdom in the news industry, provide a long needed throwing out of old habits and modes of thinking. But it is not necessary to read the whole article, over 126 pages long, to understand the massive changes the news world is undergoing, just the 18 page introduction, which is clearly written and succinct.

The intro posits six important ideas:

  • Regardless of industry changes, readers still desire quality reporting;
  • Great reporting has always been subsided by some form of benefice;
  • The internet is destroying the traditional forms of reporting subsidies;
  • The news industry is not restructuring by choice, and it still continues to resist, to its detriment;
  • The future is not bleak for news, only different;
  • Everyone should stop using the New York Times as an example;

Left on its own, the introduction is a clear call for people in the news industry to stop complaining and to get to work adapting to the new reality. And then the article goes off the rails.

The following 150 pages are largely spent giving career advice to journalists and to providing a defense of existing news institutions. While Anderson, Bell and Shirky, all former journalists, and can be forgiven for wanting to guide their colleagues through changing times, their defense of news institutions is exasperating since they contradict their own writing at times when they cite upstart news organizations like like SCOTUSblog and Talking Points Memo.

But the most egregious oversight of Anderson et al is the arrogant assumption that so many big “J” Journalists make repeatedly: The only news that really matters is political and government news. The writers’ discussion of, “The Fourth Estate” in their article reveals the typical Journalist’s obsession with, “fighting the good fight” and getting the big government scoops, completely ignoring the very real fact that most news readers are actually interested in a great number of things other than government and politics. For my own hyperlocal news sites, I know that development, new businesses and education news are considerably more interesting to readers than local politics. For the industry, the “category-killer” news sites that sprung up at the Internet’s dawn to pull away newspaper readers were for entertainment, transportation and travel, not politics.

And here Anderson et al come close to, but ultimately fail to grasp another important, growing reality: Most readers care less about the source of their news, only that they get it at all. In today’s world, it is content that rules, not news. And it can come from any number of places, for instance:

  • Johnson & Johnson operates JohnsonsBaby.com, a complete soup-to-nuts reference guide on caring for your baby, with updated videos, reference material and how-t0 guides. J&J products are featured, but the site is really about helping the demographic that might be interested in J&J products, not shilling them.
  • Nike.com hosts “Pro Tips” regularly updated videos from NFL players with compelling “insider” stories about how they play their game, and how they defeat their competitors.
  • Coca-cola recently announced plans to remake their website, already receiving 1.5 million monthly visitors, into an entertainment site, focusing on not news about Coke, but stories related to the fun life people who drink Coke can live. While this is a very open-ended focus, it sounds like a branded entertainment news magazine to me.

Existing news organizations have no competitive advantage when it comes to content. Their primary advantages are the distribution network their brand strength affords them and the momentum their existing sales operations provide for cash flow. Without enough quality content, the sales operations will suffer, and with suffering sales operations their content will suffer. Uninterrupted, news institutions of all size are trapped in a vicious circle.

The biggest disruption is yet to come: Content consumers will continue to seek out quality content, wherever it resides, and will care less for the source as time passes. To survive, news organizations will have to adapt to distribution rather than production.