Old growth media and the future of news

In a speech at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Steven Johnson says that “steady transformation from desert to jungle may be the single most important trend we should be looking at when we talk about the future of news.”

This is what the old-growth forests tell us: there is going to be more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches covered. You can see the process happening already in most of the major sections of the paper: tech, politics, finance, sports. Now I suppose it’s possible that somehow investigative  or international reporting won’t thrive on its own in this new ecosystem, that we’ll look back in ten years and realize that most everything improved except for those two areas. But I think it’s just as possible that all this innovation elsewhere will free up the traditional media to focus on things like war reporting because they won’t need to pay for all the other content they’ve historically had to produce. This is Jeff Jarvis’ motto: do what you do best, and link to the rest. My guess is that the venerable tradition of the muckraking journalist will be alive and well ten years from: partially supported by newspapers and magazines, partially by non-profit foundations and innovative programs like Newassignment.net, and partially by enterprising bloggers who make a name for themselves by breaking important stories.

Now there’s one objection to this ecosystems view of news that I take very seriously. It is far more complicated to navigate this new world than it is to sit down with your morning paper. There are vastly more options to choose from, and of course, there’s more noise now. For every Ars Technica there are a dozen lame rumor sites that just make things up with no accountability whatsoever. I’m confident that I get far more useful information from the new ecosystem than I did from traditional media along fifteen years ago, but I pride myself on being a very savvy information navigator. Can we expect the general public to navigate the new ecosystem with the same skill and discretion?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that we can’t. Let’s say it’s just too overwhelming for the average consumer to sort through all the new voices available online, to separate fact from fiction, reporting from rumor-mongering. Let’s say they need some kind of authoritative guide, to help them find all the useful information that’s proliferating out there in the wild.

If only there were some institution that had a reputation for journalistic integrity that had a staff of trained editors and a growing audience arriving at its web site every day seeking quality information. If only…

Of course, we have thousands of these institutions.  They’re called newspapers.

The funny thing about newspapers today is that their audience is growing at a remarkable clip. Their underlying business model is being attacked by multiple forces, but their online audience is growing faster than their print audience is shrinking. As of January, print circulation had declined from 62 million to 49 million since my days at the College Hill Bookstore. But their online audience has grown from zero to 75 million over that period. Measured by pure audience interest, newspapers have never been more relevant. If they embrace this role as an authoritative guide to the entire ecosystem of news, if they stop paying for content that the web is already generating on its own, I suspect in the long run they will be as sustainable and as vital as they have ever been. The implied motto of every paper in the country should be: all the news that’s fit to link.