Earlier this week I attended an off-the-record meeting (i.e., no blogging about the details of who was there and exactly what was said by whom) with a group of executives from various news and media organizations to discuss the future of news. These news organizations are all trying to figure out how to rethink pretty much everything: the way they report and deliver the news, how they interact with their audiences, how they interface and collaborate with citizens' media, PLUS re-invent their business models - so that they can find a way to pay the salaries of quality journalists and newsgathering operations. Put it this way: assuming that reliable, factually accurate and thorough journalism that informs the public discourse on important issues is something that society values - how do you provide it to the public it in a way that can be monetized, and how do you pay to support the kind of journalistic work that is difficult, dangerous, time consuming and expensive?
The fact that nobody has found any good answers - at least not for the American newspaper industry - was demonstrated on Thursday when Los Angeles Times Publisher Jeffrey Johnson was forced out of his job by the Tribune Co. As the L.A. Times itself reported, his ouster came "a little more than a month after he defied the media conglomerate's demands for staff cuts that he suggested could damage the newspaper." After reporting the circumstances of Johnson's ouster, the L.A. Times describes the larger context: "The turmoil at Tribune's largest property comes at a time of marked uncertainty for many media companies, which have seen their audiences and advertising revenues declining with competition from the Internet and other news outlets."
Doc Searls believes newspapers are in crisis because they "are resolutely clueless about how to adapt to a world that is increasingly networked and self-informing. And Wall Street knows that." He then offers ten recommendations for how newspapers might turn themselves around. There is a lot of sound advice in there - much of which was discussed at the above-mentioned meeting (which he didn't attend though I wish he had). Click here to read all his recommendations at length. His ninth recommendation emphasizes an issue that many news execs are just becoming aware of: with a few notable exceptions, most news media websites are struggling to evolve from the "old Static Web" of the 1990's to today's "Live Web." This "Live Web" - or Web 2.0 as techies and venture capitalists like to call it - just happens to be the natural habitat of blogs, wikis, YouTube, and MySpace. As Doc writes:
Ninth, get hip to the Live Web. That's the one with verbs such as write, read, update, post, author, subscribe, syndicate, feed and link. This is the part of the Web that's growing on top of the old Static Web of nouns such as site, address, location, traffic, architecure and construction. Nothing wrong with any of those static verbs. They're the foundation, the bedrock. They are necessary but insufficient for what's needed on the Live Web, which is where your paper needs to live and grow and become more valuable to its communities (as well as Wall Street).
Lemme unpack that a bit. The Static Web is what holds still long enough for Google and Yahoo to send out spiders to the entire universe and index what they find. The Live Web is is what's happening right now. It's dynamic. (Thank you, Virginia.) It includes all the stuff that's syndicated through RSS and searched by Google Blogsearch, IceRocket and Technorati. What I post here, and what others post about this post, will be found and indexed by Live Web search engines in a matter of minutes. For those who subscribe to feeds of this blog, and of other blogs, the notification is truly live. Your daily paper has pages, not sites. The difference is not "just semantic". It's fundamental. It's how you reclaim, and assert, your souls in the connected world. ...
Dan Gillmor, who was at the same meeting I attended earlier this week, made a great point during the discussions about how news organizations are compounding their inability to innovate by slashing their staffs and investing little or nothing in research and development - the kind of "R&D" investment that's obligatory for any technology company. Blogging later from the J-Lab's Citizens' Media Summit, Dan expanded on this idea, pointing out that much of the most ground-breaking technology innovations in the news media field are coming from small citizens' media startups:
One thing they have in common: they all developed their own software to run their sites — and now they’re selling that software. The social networking software developed for Bakotopia — which goes beyond letting users blog and add photos and gives them MySpace-like profile pages, and the ability to add other users to “friend lists” is now for sale. Morris Digital now sells the mdSPOTTED photo gallery software that enables reader-participants of Bluffton Today to upload photos to the site. And YourHub, a community platform in a box for newspapers, is now licensed in nearly a dozen markets.
Dan also sees an exciting opportunity for journalism schools and journalism students:
My sense is that journalism is becoming a high-tech profession — not just in using the net as a distribution mechanism but developing new software. Which brings me to another point: J-schools should start thinking about technology transfer. Tech schools often make quite a bit of money licensing technologies developed in university labs. J-schools should start creating the next-generation technology platforms — and fund new innovations from licensing revenues.
This is a great idea. As I wrote in a blog post here last December, technology has now evolved to the point at which the most interesting innovations are happening at the edges: users are experimenting with open-source software and creating "hacks" that enable them do what they want. You don't need a huge corporate budget and casts of thousands behind you to innovate in media anymore - in fact having a large organization to manage (and shareholders to answer to when things don't pan out) increasingly looks like an impediment to experimentation and creative thinking. I've had conversations with people who work in the web departments of news organizations whose understanding of RSS, tagging and other standard features of the read-write web (or semantic web or Live Web, or Web 2.0 or whatever you want to call it) pale in comparison with that of many self-taught bloggers who learned by playing around with the free and/or inexpensive software tools. Dan's right, there's no reason why journalism students couldn't be the source of some of the next big innovations in news - if journalism schools would do more to support and encourage them in doing so.