The public gets a voice in the ‘future of news’

The media revolution has reached a new and important stage: The American public is being let in on the discussion.

In the last two weeks’ articles in the New York Times and Time Magazine have helped push the question of “whither news media” before a much bigger audience. I say it’s about time.

Of course, it’s not as if the industry’s increasingly dire business outlook has been a secret. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings of the Tribune Co. and the Minneapolis Star Tribune were plenty telling. So was the Detroit newspapers’ decision to limit home delivery to three days a week.

But in many respects the public’s understanding of the upheaval under way in the news business has been limited. And that’s a problem, because the future of news and information isn’t just an issue for the New York Times or CBS or the hometown newspaper, but for American citizens who need accurate information to keep the nation and their hometowns on track.

That’s why publication of these two articles was a step forward. The first, an op-ed in the Times by David Swenson and Michael Schmidt, financial executives at Yale, suggested that one salvation for newspapers might be wealthy philanthropists willing to endow a news staff. The second, by former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, argued that some sort of Internet payment system might be required to keep newsrooms alive. Want to read a local news story? You can, but only by paying a few cents.

Both articles were widely derided in the new-media digital world as hopelessly out of date and injurious to finding real solutions to what ails the news industry. “The printies are out in force this week chasing phantom solutions to the newspaper industry’s problems, and it’s all getting rather tiresome,” wrote Mark Potts in his blog, Recovering Journalist.

Potts and other new-media thinkers may be right that the Times‘ op-ed writers and Time‘s Isaacson didn’t hit gold with their proposed solutions. But it’s pointless to rail against the idea of new players suggesting ideas that might look shopworn or amateurish. Of course the wider public will now be much more richly involved in this vital conversation, no matter how antiquated the discussion.  This is not just inevitable. It’s valuable and essential. Americans need to understand more fully why newspapers and other legacy news organizations are threatened, and why there’s great hope but also great uncertainty about what might replace them should they fail. Further, it’s entirely predictable that their “amateur” ideas will incite real innovation that proves part of the innovation cycle. Even Potts was saying, at week’s end, that some interesting thinking was coming out of the discussion.

Well, of course. In a few days’ time, both pieces had prompted a flood of interesting thinking – new ideas for philanthropists to preserve essential reporting, new proposals for paying for news content.

This is the kind of necessary conversation that must accompany the revolution in news media. The public has too much at stake, and too much to contribute, not to be in it fully. This problem needs the best thinking of publishers, entrepreneurs and new-media theorists, but also civic organizations, City Hall politicians and ordinary Americans.

There are a couple of reasons why many people don’t realize how close newspapers are to a meltdown. First, news media executives don’t want to paint a depressing picture of the future. Not surprisingly, they’re inclined to present an optimistic and hopeful narrative that says they’ll ride out the worst and emerge even stronger. Second, so far anyway, news consumers haven’t seen anything close to the full impact of the digital revolution. True, many newspapers have significantly reduced news staffs and trimmed back on news columns; some readers have noticed and dumped their subscriptions. But mostly, the newspaper goes on as before, the news and sports and features plopping down on the doorstep every morning. Meanwhile, the same staff producing that newspaper is creating ever-more compelling information on the Web. Is this a picture of an enterprise threatened with extinction?

Actually, it is. Some of the best analysts of the newspaper businesses say a number of metropolitan dailies could cease to exist by the end of the year. Should this trend persist, it could create what one digital thinker, Vin Crosbie, has described as a likely Gray Age of information. (Crosbie says it’ll be brief.)

And what if newspapers don’t survive, or are left critically wounded? I don’t share doomsayers’ warnings that the democracy is then in trouble. There is too much in the Internet’s potential – a networked digital news landscape — to assume that. It’s entirely possible, even without old media, that the Web will ensure that citizens are informed better than ever.

It’s also possible that they won’t. For all the attacks on old media from digital experts, we are far from seeing evidence that its work would be replaced, or improved upon. The truth is no one knows what the future of news will be, whether it will have economic underpinnings and whether it will be better or worse than we have now. We just know it’s changing, and quickly.

One reason new-media enthusiasts think the future will be better than the past is that the Internet, will its ability to link the entire world, will marshal the best information and thinking of thousands and millions – a survival-of-the-fittest process that will produce results far superior to anything a single journalist or even news organization could achieve.

Let’s apply the same model to the present. In brainstorming the future of news, all hands are needed, those of the amateurs as well as the pros.