Thursday, February 21, 2008

Foundations of 21st century journalism

Up to this point, I've been talking about some of the concepts that shape my thinking about media and journalism: Quality; epistemology; the cultural flaws that warp these discussions; the ideas that I think will lead us around those obstacles to answers. But I haven't really offered any answers of my own.

One reason: What use are they? They're not scholarly. They're not researched and footnoted. By the standards that I respect, my answers are little more than jackleg bullshit.

So to put the proper value on these answers, understand that each comes with endless caveats and a deep sense of humility. The future isn't known, everything can (and will) change in unexpected ways, and the odds of me being right on more than half of these statements is absurdly low. I accept that.

But if you'll take these ideas in that spirit -- not as confident proclamations, but as working insights and imagination gained through hard experience, reading and conversation -- then perhaps you'll find their intrinsic value. If they turn out to be predictively true -- great. If they wind up having no value of their own, but spark your thinking toward something great, then I'm OK with that, too.

Human intelligence is based on prediction. We shouldn't be afraid to predict, just as we shouldn't perpetually tie our egos to being correct.

Here goes:

Modern media is in transition from the monoculture monopolies of the 20th century to the diverse explosion of expression that represents the 21st century future. Think of the past as a wood-pulp tree farm; think of the future as a rainforest. To outsiders, a tree farm appears orderly and logical while a rainforest appears impassible, chaotic and dangerous. To residents, however, a rainforest is a vibrant, living ecosystem, and a tree farm is artificial and sterile.

We are moving into a media ecosystem of multiple niches and processes. No single niche dominates, and despite constant competition within and between niches, the resulting chaos is externally stable because of its healthy inner dynamism. All the ideas expressed here are to be conceived as existing within the new media ecosystem. To those who fear the thought of a news media that is not controlled by trained elites, here's your lesson for the day: Control doesn't scale.

The No. 1 functional shift, from a future media historian's perspective, will be the change from the current "document" mindset to the future "database" mindset. Modern journalists see themselves as people who report facts and write stories and cannot grasp that the act of turning information into narrative instantly limits its usefulness and accuracy. News writers will continue to create narratives, because the human brain sorts and stores data by narrative mnemonics. In fact, the bulk of the information we consume will continue to be structured into narrative.

But the primary function of newsgathering organizations will be to create and curate semi-structured databases of interesting/significant information. This, by the way, is the reason that the expansion of The Semantic Web matters right now.

Narrative doesn't scale to a global information economy. Personal insight about a candidate doesn't scale to a national campaign. A fair and balanced examination of a two-sided story doesn't scale to a topic like global climate disruption. News media will shift from an artificial one-size-fits-all system (based on front pages, production schedules, newshole, broadcast formats, standard server/bandwidth configuration, etc.) to one that expands and contracts depending on situations. This will require new tools and conventions. Many of these solutions will be social.

Proprietary, compiled information tools and repositories will fail to keep pace with their open source competitors. Ultimately, all first-class news platforms will be based on open-source principles, and all commonly held information will be structurally compatible.

Informatics is the study of the structure of information. "Discovery Informatics" uses sophisticated software agents to detect and explore patterns in enormous streams and vast pools of data. Since all major news organizations will have comparable news databases, much 21st century newsmedia competition will consist of duels over user-tools. The news company with the "best" informatics tools stands a good chance of being the commercial winner.

Artificial distinctions between information types will be blurred and then forgotten. The new challenge will be getting the right information to the right user at the proper time, rather than maintaining firewalls or winnowing out things that "aren't news anymore." In the future, it's all about the end-user's needs and experience. This means that something other than artificial firewalls will have to stand as a credibility marker between types of content.

Human intelligence doesn't scale to the flow of global information. Informatics tools that represent the interests and intentions of individual human beings will serve as the adaptation that scales human intent to the scope and pace of the new information economy. The ultimate result of a system that incorporates multiple intelligent agents acting on behalf of each individual and organization will be something I've called The Construct, and understanding what is being expressed within The Construct in real time will replace polling, focus groups and market research.

Modern media profits are based on paid content and -- to a far greater extent -- advertising, with an emphasis on display advertising. Future media operations will collect revenue in multiple ways, often receiving a percentage of a transaction whenever its "free" user tools connect buyer and seller. Most advertising will be performance-based and connected to the expressed intent of the user (whether by search or some other function). Traditional display advertising will be a high-end niche for major brands and a low-end function of small-scaled media.

Other news operations will operate as non-profits, receiving no traditional advertising. Some may be run as foundations, or even as informational utilities, governed by boards and bylaws. Much media will be created by individuals and groups that depend on pledge drives to cover their costs, but some of it may be produced by "for-profit social ventures" that blend the power of supply and demand with the intentions of non-profit organizations.

One news organization model will rely solely on paid premium subscriptions: News agencies that base their credibility on predictive accuracy (outcome) rather than on "fair and balanced" coverage (process). These services, which treat users as executives to be briefed and prepared, will cost more and will appeal to users who work in highly competitive industries or individuals who make informational awareness a lifestyle choice.

"Mainstream media" today are in decline, with "the people formerly known as the audience" fragmented. Future media will separate into market-driven grades of information. The "mainstream" will become a smaller subset of the total media flow, generally associated with less-sophisticated technology and users who: 1. Produce little content; 2. Profit only marginally from higher grades of information; and 3. Choose a passive lifestyle. Mainstream media will not dominate, but will represent the most significant media plurality.

Higher-end information users will largely reject 20th century-style mass media, which will remind future users of Stalinesque architecture from the old USSR. These higher-end users will select and manage their personal mediascapes, and media companies will work to connect to these users by identifying and serving many individual niches.

The current mediascape is built around a recognizable meda "voice" that was established during a period of information scarcity. It is animated by a sense of lingua franca continuity that stretches across newspapers, magazines, TV channels and the academy. The new mediascape will arise from the spirit of unlimited bandwidth and will be fundamentally infused with a limitless diversity of voice, tone and topic. While it will seem a cacophony to older users, new tools and conventions will allow us to experience it on a human scale. From the many will flow a single "media gestalt" -- that we'll experience in many ways.

Bias warriors have reduced media criticism to an endless ferreting-out of journalistic hostility toward victimized partisans. In the future, subjective, analog bias hunting will be replaced by a variety of data-driven credibility grades, "best-practices" quality assurances (think ISO 9000 for professional news media organizations), and outside observers. Who is watching The Watchmen? We are. With computers.

Not all corrections are created equal. Not all lies are as damaging. Stupidity in one sphere doesn't prove stupidity in general. These are the common arguments against the notion that a database approach to credibility grading as a practical application. Yet our current analog system -- based entirely on "the human factor" -- has failed to make useful distinctions on these questions. The reason? Without a system of standards, a human-mediated system cannot respond quickly enough to counter its manipulation by outside parties (Swiftboating). Again: Control doesn't scale.

For credibility to scale to a global information glut, future news media must develop: 1. Systems of publicly grading the "confidence level" of developing information; 2. "Sticky" credibility grades on factual outcomes, both for news organizations AND for news sources; 3. A reputation economy for multiple levels of information users; 4. Transparent processes; 5. Standards-based archiving.

The human element is not endangered, and will account for applying these evolving systems. But future generations will find our fondness for seat-of-the-pants epistemology quaint... if more than a little disturbing.

While metro newspaper publishers tend to frame the industry's current financial situation as a crisis brought on by declining circulation, the loss of old revenue streams (classifieds) and structural changes in the economy (Big Box retailers vs. locally owed businesses), these statements -- while true -- obscure the obvious. News markets that we once ruled are fracturing into numerous competitors, making it impossible for us to dictate monopoly pricing to advertisers. Newspapers remain profitable, but their profit margins are declining.

The current crisis is a crisis of expectations more than it is a crisis of fundamentals (which are, nonetheless, shakey). Shareholders have come to expect 20 to 30 percent profits from their media holdings, and that simply cannot continue in a diverse 21st century mediascape.

The future of our industry will be based on companies that return profits similar to those experienced in the retail sector. Smaller companies may return higher percentages, but big media will have to learn to get along on single-digit margins.

In a monopoly environment, falling profits mean quality cutbacks. In a competitive environment, companies that choose not to compete for quality choose to die. The winners in the 21st century will be those media companies that make this transition gracefully, fund quality journalism, and learn to be pleased with 8 percent returns.

Before video games, electronic entertainment was passive and learning was something that we delivered to young people in ways we determined to be good for them. Not anymore. Today's information users were weened on games that allowed them to explore their environments, and nobody under the age of 60 reads the entire user's manual before diving into a new game. Game concepts -- from user interfaces on news sites to reputation economies on comment threads -- will drive the development of 21st century media. All significant information will be interactive and two-way.

Social technology extends from the passive (LinkedIn) to the transitory (Twitter), from the
networked (Facebook) to the experiential (Second Life). Social technology can be the delivery platform for news (BREAKING NEWS ALERTS on Twitter), the organizing force behind original reporting (NewAssignment.Net) or the system that sorts and shapes the information stream (Digg). Social technology that incorporates each of these functions will play significant roles in news media within the coming decade for one reason: Social technologies are scalable.

Earlier this decade I annoyed people by asking this question during high-level discussions of news strategy: Is the Internet local? No one ever said yes.

I meant this question as a challenge to the "local-local-local" insanity that has gripped the newspaper industry, but also as a challenge to think about community in non-geographic terms. And I think I've been proven right: the Internet (and more specifically, the Web) is local, at least in terms of the way people experience their lives.

I've lived in North Central Charleston, S.C., since 2001 and have never attended a neighborhood association meeting. On the other hand, last night I spent hours helping promote the Draft Lessig movement, then donated $50 to a potential candidate for the California 12th congressional district. Why? Because I am more fundamentally a member of the virtual community of values represented by Lessig than I am a member of the North Central neighborhood. I could move to another neighborhood tomorrow, but I would still be the same person once I unpacked.

And why should we disparage online identities relative to meatspace identities? There are more Americans who play World of Warcraft than there are American farmers. If you're trying to be relevant to people's lives, why aren't you covering the kid who made Level 70 in The Burning Crusade with the same degree of interest that you apply to reporting on the kid who won a 4H Award?

Is the Web local? Yes, if by local we mean "of highest personal priority."

Geographically local community coverage will continue to be -- as it is now -- an expensive, high-priority product with a market value capped by geography. Virtual community coverage is also expensive and high-priority -- but its value is limited only by the size and interest of each virtual community. Where would you rather put your money?

The old idea of "media convergence" meant that newspapers and TV stations would -- in one way or another -- become similar entities on the Web, and news organizations spent plenty of money in the 1990s trying to figure out how to collect 30 percent profits off that idea. The new idea of converged media begins with open-source, structured/semi-structured data streams and flows out to every imaginable form of media, from newspaper to "news games" to virtual worlds to cell phones, via every established 20th century medium (text, still image, audio, video, tabular data, game).

The art of 21st century journalism editing will come in understanding how individual ideas or events are best communicated to target audiences. True convergence isn't about capturing the online video market: It's about learning to surf the wave of constantly churning social and technological change.

Example: YouTube revolutionized Web video in 2005 by offering free hosting for user-created content, plus an essential yet counter-intuitive feature: HTML embed codes. Three years later, most mainstream media have yet to catch up to that advancement because they can't figure out how to think about video within the context of their news operations. That's because they see video as a "thing," just as they see a news story as a "thing." Meanwhile, the video-sharing market is rapidly fracturing into dozens of competing platforms because video is many things. It can be raw, uneven and viral (YouTube), it can be immediate and highly personal (Qik), it can be deliberate and repeatable (BlipTV).

Hence, True Convergence isn't about adding video to your news website. It's about understanding that a breaking news clip of a robbery shot from a bystander's cell phone and a three-minute video story on crime statistics are fundamentally different things. They are only lumped together as "video" in the same way that a limerick and a technical manual may categorized as "text."

True Convergence begins with recognizing the similarities and differences between pieces of content REGARDLESS OF THE MEDIUM THAT TRANSMITS THEM.

Wikipedia gets a bad rap in traditional media, typically on the grounds that it is uncontrolled and unfiltered by traditional top-down editorial methods (Reason? Control doesn't scale). While this fundamentally misunderstands the wiki concept, it also ignores entirely the beneficial ways in which people have come to use Wikipedia: As a curated form of search, and as a non-news based method of keeping up with developing information.

Consider: If I'm suddenly interested in what's happening in Kosovo, I can read the news reports on the independence movement. These reports place the emphasis on what's new, since news reporting values novelty. But for me -- since I haven't been paying attention to Kosovo -- that news is an isolated, context-free dataset, and there's only so much context I can get from a 15-inch wire story.

I can go to a traditional, top-down information source (CIA Factbook) to find out more about Kosovo, but I'll have to guess at how current the information is. Or I can go to Wikipedia and read an article about Kosovo that has been edited to included the latest information.

Typical news organizations shun this kind of thinking as "not news. They will soon retire that attitude. Since zapping in and out of topics is the way most informed people acquire information, creating and curating not only databases but high-quality topic articles will be one of the most significant journalism jobs of the future. Again, this will not be instead of news writing, but in addition to newswriting. The best news sources (BBC) already perform this function, often in real time.

The Old Elites were economic and institutional, with the occasional popular artist thrown into the mix. While such elites will continue to influence culture, they will be forced to compete with unmediated communities that produce their own elites. Example: Boing Boing's contributors represent an informational elite that is driving culture in ways that elude the control of traditional elites. These new elites will likely appear transitory by traditional standards, but their influence will be profound.

In the current system, the two options for creative people are rock star or starving artist. In a networked era approaching The Singularity, the creation of content, knowledge and technology will be the primary work of the American economy. For this to function properly, we'll have to develop some kind of stable basis for a creative middle class. Journalists will be members of this class, and would benefit from structures that enable it (health care, new revenue relationships, etc.)

As development of our knowledge and technology accelerates toward The Singularity, it is likely that the bulk of the human species will become -- in economic terms -- surplus labor. Affordable robots are moving off the assembly line and into our homes and offices, a trend that will accelerate as nanotechnology, green energy and environmentally friendly materials replace the fundamentals of our Peak Oil economy. Media will have an enormous role in dealing with the crisis of unemployable humans, a shift so enormous that we should not fail to include it in our thinking.

Not immediately, and not because of TV and the Internet. Newspapers (as we know them) are going away because, as physical products, they are wasteful, create an enormous carbon footprint and pollute our cities. The transition from a Peak Oil economy of waste, consumerism and profitable inefficiency is rapidly moving toward an economy based on life-cycle costs. As regulations begin to require that publishers account for the disposal, cleanup and carbon-mitigation costs of their products, most newspapers will instantly lose real profitability. TMCs will shut down their print editions and switch to Web-only distribution overnight.

The future of newspapers is niche. In 20 years we'll see print newspapers as expensive, "boutique" products for the select few (and the terminally stubborn).

OK, that's what I've got. Think we'll find something to talk about?