As newspapers go away, our shared community is dispersing

It’s been quite a week for viral postings on the future of traditional media and of newspapers in particular. Several have gotten a lot of attention as they made the rounds, including this one by Web theorist Clay Shirky, which has been cited on dozens of media blogs and Web sites.

Shirky’s bottom line: Newspapers are dead, their business model irretrievably broken. So, what’s next? He doesn’t know. Sites like MinnPost are part of the answer, but by no means all of it.

As one of my former bosses liked to say: “Bring me solutions, not problems.” That’s why, of all the scores of media ruminations and predictions I’ve read in the last couple of years, I like this piece by blogger Dan Conover.

Conover lays out more potential scenarios than I could possibly imagine: from non-daily publishing and local media cooperatives on the simple end of the spectrum, to informatics and predictive intelligence on the more complex end.

The point is, the news business as we’ve known it for generations is changing and will continue to change in ways we can’t possibly imagine now.

I accept that and even embrace it. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but wonder how we can recover what is almost certain to be lost in this revolution: a sense of shared knowledge of our communities.

New communities forming
Over the past 200 years, newspapers have given us a starting point for our society’s discussions. Now that sense of an ongoing, shared community tale is atomizing, dispersed into millions of blogs, Web sites, Twitter feeds and social networks.

New communities are forming in these areas, to be sure. If you’re someone who’s intensely interested in politics, sites like Daily Kos or RedState connect you to people around the nation — even the world — who share your interests. There’s real value in that.

No matter what your occupation, hobby or obsession, the Web connects you in ways you couldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago.

But the volume of information is growing beyond our ability to process it. I’ve heard many people lately mention that they’re getting overwhelmed keeping up with all their Facebook friends’ comments and updates. Twitter, which I adopted relatively early, is a torrent that requires constant attention. The phenomenon of too many RSS feeds to keep up with is old news by now.

All of the recent advances in information technology, it seems to me, have been aimed at increasing the amount of information available to us. I think we’re reaching the point when we need some technology that helps us filter, sort and make sense of the river of data that we swim in every day.

There used to be something like that. It was called a newspaper.

I have, with great sadness, accepted the idea that newspapers as we’ve known them may not be with us much longer. I’d love to be proven wrong.

But I believe people still want what newspapers have provided: a sense of being presented with important, useful and enjoyable information, culled from many sources and thoughtfully organized.

Like Clay Shirky, I don’t know what online form that might take. And given the economics of the Web, it may be that nobody can make a living producing it.

As is so often the case in a revolution, the only thing certain is that nothing is certain.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 03/23/2009 - 09:50 am.

    It’s not only newspapers, though. More and more I get the sense that extremism will be the end-result because we will no longer have to “share” opposing points of view via a mass medium. Instead of congregating at the local diner, we’ll be staking out a street corner for our particular point of view from which to harangue and abuse passersby.

    I’m of the belief, though, that it’s any mediums’ inherent fault. Institutional investors have no idea how to run a business or grow it in a creative fashion. What’s happening to newspapers started happening with radio a decade ago, too. Bean-counters are good for much of anything except bean counting.

    P.S. I’m still astounded that something like the final M*A*S*H episode could draw 120 million viewers together. Back in the day when a “hit” TV show needed 30-40 million to rank #1, today’s current 20-million threshold would’ve meant being a mid-season cancellation.

  2. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 03/23/2009 - 10:15 am.

    Oops. Have to correct a couple of typos:

    1. I’m of the belief, though, that it’s NOT any mediums’ inherent fault.

    2. Bean-counters AREN’T good for much of anything except bean counting.

    I blame it being Monday and all.

  3. Submitted by Ross Williams on 03/23/2009 - 10:41 am.

    “a sense of shared knowledge of our communities.”

    The problem of course is that often that shared knowledge often turned out to be wrong and self-serving of those had the power to “create” it. Journalists not only deliver the conventional wisdom, but the conventional wisdom of people in power. And that conventional wisdom is largely established on television, not in newspapers.

    “we will no longer have to “share” opposing points of view via a mass medium. ”

    There have been several studies that show this is not, in fact, what happens. People who participate in forums of one particular viewpoint actually are more exposed to opposing arguments than those who do not participate in such forums. Because there is a whole genre of people, often derided as “trolls”, who go to these forums with the express purpose of debunking the common wisdom of the people who gather there.

    It think the larger problem IS the “drinking from the firehose” nature of information today. I suspect that will change as aggregation and search tools improve.

  4. Submitted by John Wanamaker on 03/23/2009 - 02:06 pm.

    How are news organizations going to get around the fact that 99-percent of the content on the Internet is free? The New York Times tried to charge for its online edition and failed miserably. There are so few sites making an appreciable amount of money through online ads, certainly not enough to pay even a few reporters a decent wage. Beancounters, who work for investors, not employees, might be partially to blame, but as much as it pains me to say it, I agree with Shirky. The business model of most traditional media operations is outmoded at best, but more likely broken. Newspapers cut their own throats when they gave away the milk for free.

    What puzzles me is this disconnect, wherein consumers ask “Why do I need newspapers when I can get the same information on the Internet?”, seemingly unaware of who is providing this information. Do they think news falls out of the sky?

    Only a few sites approach the well-researched, multi-source pieces I read in newspapers. When I went to college, my journalism instructors wouldn’t accept a single-source story. What is a blog, but a single source?

    While we lament the passing of traditional formats like newspapers and radio, we have to ask ourselves why so many Americans dislike and/or distrust mainstream media, and turn to other sources like blogs? I’ve been reading Glenn Greenwald’s media critiques on, and he’s on the mark most of the time.

  5. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/23/2009 - 03:40 pm.

    You want to get really depressed? Read this article in Ad Age by Bob Garfield, their highest-profile and best-known writer.

    Garfield goes nuclear, basically saying that every conceivable form of media — new as well as old — is in the toilet and swirling ’round the bowl.

  6. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/23/2009 - 03:50 pm.

    Thanks for saying this, which needs to be repeated again and again. The web news blackout dystopia that awaits us will be a very entertaining hall of mirrors. Blade Runner time.

    To those who would merrily throw out the baby with the bath water, yes, newspapers have often reflected the conventional wisdom, but just wait until everyone is getting their news from 50 million highly specialized, extremely narrow news opinion sources — or TV.

    A story like the leaked torture study by the Red Cross, published to millions of readers in the New York Times last week, albeit four years late, but in time to call the parties to justice, will be available only to the five thousand or so smarty pants who read Glenn Greenwald.
    (No diss intended).

  7. Submitted by Karen Schell on 03/23/2009 - 05:22 pm.

    “we will no longer have to “share” opposing points of view via a mass medium. ”

    There have been several studies that show this is not, in fact, what happens. People who participate in forums of one particular viewpoint actually are more exposed to opposing arguments than those who do not participate in such forums. – Ross Williams

    Good point. Also, it would be accurate to note the way it is-has been is that people already don’t ‘share opposing points of view’ when it comes to the current/old media, due the mackup and/or nature of existing media. e.g. the print media is overwhelmingly liberal, talk radio media is overwhelmingly conservative. People keep their personal preferences and just transfer them to the “new media” where, as you’ve pointed out, they are not only exposed to differing views but are challenged in regard to their own.

  8. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/23/2009 - 08:33 pm.

    I don’t want to discredit the “well-researched, multi-source pieces” which my friend above cites, but frankly I have not seen enough of it in the local newspapers over the years. I wish there were more.

    What I have seen enough of is promotion masquerading as opinion; slanted reporting; advertising; and the lazy newspaperman’s idea of news – wire service feeds (the latter chock full of artful propaganda).

    I’d value the local newspapers a whole lot more if the quality of journalism were better.

    So I have to hunt and peck to get a cupful of good quality, timely information from a bathtubful of information on the web? That’s OK. I’ve had plenty of practice doing the same thing with the local newspapers for years.

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