What Will Rise From Journalism’s Ashes?

Publishers and News organizations emerge from the Ashes

The Future Journalism Project often highlights opportunities that will come to journalism as digital disruption marches like Sherman through today’s media companies. While it’s sunny and optimistic to focus on opportunities when there is devastation all around, the cynic might see the immolation of major media brands – the print edition of Newsweek being only the most recent casualty to flame out – solely as a story of ruin. But the FJP likes to see the path through and beyond the charred rubble.

I come to bury journalism rather than praise it.

And though I come to bury journalism rather than praise it, I agree with optimists. Journalism, though burning down to cinders, is also embarking on an ambitious renewal as the people committed to the core principles of journalism look for ways to preserve what’s praiseworthy of the past while pursuing the logical next steps in journalism’s evolution. To see those opportunities clearly – to understand exactly what will rise from journalism’s ashes – we have to consider carefully what we mean by the word journalism.

Interestingly, journalism stems from a word that we don’t commonly use in English to refer to news or the actual media through which news is delivered. It’s not newspaperism, it’s not broadcastism, it’s not newsmagazineism. This is not merely a cheeky observation. Because buried in the word journalism is this core concept: modern journalism should be format agnostic. While the word’s root – journal – does convey a physical object, the modern use of the word does not require faith in or a commitment to any specific format.

In other languages this gets trickier, because in French, for example, the word for newspaper is actually journal, the same is true for Russian, Italian, and others. I stood in front of an audience of German media executives in 2008 and tried to explain to them how in the English language, our use of the word newspaper was entirely unique. In English we actually took pains to include the medium, the paper itself, in the word, tying us dangerously close to a concept of the medium that trapped the news – and the revenue model that supported it – in its physical form. In German, their choice of the word Zeitung for newspaper was much more fortuitous. Literally, the word means times, as if every newspaper in the German language could claim to be the paper of record for its community! This allows German journalists to understand instinctively that a newspaper is supposed to be timely as well as a medium for connecting to the times in which we live. In Spanish, whoever chose the word periódico for the newspaper was similarly focused on a benefit of the medium – it was regular or periodic.

I stood in front of an audience of German media executives and tried to explain to them how in the English language, our use of the word newspaper was entirely unique. In English we actually took pains to include the medium, the paper itself, in the word, tying us dangerously close to a concept of the medium that trapped the news – and the revenue model that supported it – in its physical form.

Those of us who came up with English are tied to the idea that a newspaper has to honor its roots in wood pulp. This is a ridiculous notion and is the first major casualty of digital disruption in the news business. The trees can now breathe a sigh of relief.

But celebrating the flames which free us from semantic shackles does nothing to help us identify what should come next, what new form or forms journalism should take. I want to propose guiding principles for whatever comes next. I do this from a position of humility because I am not a journalist myself nor do I run a media company like my friend and former colleague, Baba Shetty, the new CEO of Newsweek/Daily Beast does. But I offer my suggestions from a useful place, nonetheless, as a former academic who studied the gathering, distribution, and consumption of news, and as an analyst of that particular form of digital change called digital disruption.

The key lesson of digital disruption – as we have learned it from industries like the music business as well as completely opposite endeavors like banking and auto manufacturing – is that in a digital era, free tools and powerful digital platforms dramatically shorten the distance between an idea and its intended market. Pinterest could grow to tens of millions of users in just a few months not because it was a big idea, but because the digital infrastructure that enabled Pinterest to thrive – at unimaginably low cost, I might add – made the idea easily testable by its founders and easily accessible by consumers. Digital disruption thrives on the rapid creation and maturation of matches like this, matches between the ideas of digital disruptors and the needs of digital consumers.

Whatever journalism will look like, it will have to do that.

The key lesson of digital disruption is that in a digital era, free tools and powerful digital platforms dramatically shorten the distance between an idea and its intended market.

That’s not what journalists have historically done. Tied to physical formats, journalists have spent much of the last century building up rules of newsgathering and gatekeeping. There were deadlines, there were assignment desks, journalism ethics, inverted pyramids, and beats. True, broadcast journalism changed that a bit, and USA Today threw a wrench in some people’s concept of journalism, even before the advent of digital. But those things were quickly absorbed by the journalism establishment, which sought to preserve the formats and the practices it had so lovingly based on those formats.

No wonder media companies expended so much energy to preserve their formats once digital came along. To do otherwise would be irrational, certainly, at least until such time as it became clear that digital was going to triumph.

Those days of preserving formats and other analog conventions have come to an end. For everyone in every industry, actually, and not just the news or other media organizations that everyone clearly sees facing a cliff – or already having sailed right over it as is the case with the music business.

This claim, that every industry is susceptible to digital disruption, is one that I wasn’t comfortable with a year ago when I began the research that has culminated in my forthcoming book, Digital Disruption. Had you made the case to me in late 2011 that some industries can’t be digitally disrupted, I might have gone along with that claim. Today I can no longer do so. Just weeks ago I interviewed a CIO of one of the world’s largest cement manufacturers. Talk about a business that can’t be digitized, or so I assumed before speaking to him. While it’s true that cement itself can’t be digitized, the entire process of finding raw materials, extracting and refining them, delivering the product to construction managers and then following up to determine whether the product met the advertised specs is an information-rich process ripe for stepwise improvement by digitizing the flow of that information across the whole process. This CIO described for me an ambitious effort to create a kind of platform. Imagine an open system for the discovery, manufacture, delivery, and use of cement that would encourage the entry of smaller, nimbler players to contribute to the process, even competing with the platform owner while also partnering with it. If you’re following the example, you can start to see that the future of cement looks a lot like the Apple App Store, with one glaring exception: The end product is cement, not digital content.

Though it may seem unlikely, it is precisely from the cement industry that journalism can learn a thing or two about the future of journalism under digital disruption. I’ll focus on three things that are concretely implied by the, er, concrete business.

  1. Platforms will set the rules by which journalism can play. Just as the cement maker wants to create a platform that will dictate the flow of concrete, digital content platforms will dictate the flow of content. In my book I wrote a whole chapter to describe the major digital platforms taking over the world – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. These platforms have placed or exploited multiple devices in consumers’ lives to ensure that we touch them every day or risk being left out of crucial personal, social and business events. The devices themselves are incidental, it is the platform experience that truly matters. 
Importantly, rather than being the walled-garden monopolists of the AOL or AT&T glory days, these platforms have chosen to be relatively open, offering partners and competitors the chance to actively deliver services on their platforms, creating wealth and customer intimacy for the company as well as the platform. Journalism will have to play by these platform’s rules. Among media companies, only those in the video business have been able to postpone acceding to the power of these platforms and their time will yet come. Every other media business has had to succumb, finding ample opportunity to deliver value over the platform, but also finding the platforms crowded with new entrants.
  2. Open platforms multiply competition. A platform for cement creation and delivery would be open to any player large or small that wants to compete to add value to the process. The same is true of content platforms. Journalists have long pointed to blogging as the technology force that has undone the larger players but blogging is a symptom of digital disruption, not a cause. Blogging tools, Twitter, news reader apps, these are all just examples of services that specific companies have created to add value to the content platforms rising up around us. And along with a host of competitors building the digital infrastructure for content delivery there is a commensurate rise in the number of people using that infrastructure to deliver content value. 
Because the cost of participating in these things is usually free, it means anyone can choose to participate, whether or not they went to journalism school, can properly use adverbs, or care about traditional journalistic values. While some wistfully hope this means there will be a pendulum swing away from these new sources of information back toward “high-quality” journalism, disruption research makes it very clear that good enough is good enough. Journalism will perish if it responds to this onslaught with an air of superiority and a good set of blinders.
  3. Platforms provide data and reward those that use it well. This third point is the one that alters journalism the most. Editorial feedback is one thing, and used as a proxy for reader interest and attention, letters to the editor have long guided newspapers and others to understand how their printed pages are being received by the reading populace. But data is a different thing. It’s a real-time view into how people spend their attention minutes, what they read intensely and what they skim. It’s a peek into the time of day that they read, whether they value the ads, and what places and devices lend themselves best to consuming news. It’s a privileged view into what they value enough to share with their friends. It’s a thousand things at once, all measurable for each individual reader. It’s also a huge mess. 
As companies in every other industry are learning, having data and knowing how to make the most of it are different things. Prior concepts of a customer database – built on subscriber lists or loyalty program membership – are completely useless in this world. But it’s not immediately clear how journalism can use this data to “sell” its wares the way a company like Amazon can. When Amazon points out that people that bought product A also enjoy product B, they are hoping for an incremental sale, a revenue-generating transaction. When the Boston Globe tells me that people who read article A also enjoy article B, it translates into deeper engagement but not necessarily deeper revenue.

As you can see, I wasn’t kidding when I said I came to bury journalism. None of these points offers an easy fix or a simple solution to journalism’s woes. But they do suggest that journalism will have to change even more than it already has, succumbing to platform power, embracing broadening competition, and learning to love – and live by – digital data trails that readers leave behind as evidence of the things they care about and will hopefully reward with time, attention, and, eventually, dollars.

Thus a new journalism – free from the constraints of analog formats and conventions – can rise from the ashes those formats and conventions leave behind to become a better, more responsive and more accessible force in people’s lives. Of that I am certain. Considerably less certain am I what role traditional media companies will have in that new journalism world if they can’t sacrifice the conventions of the past and embrace the new principles required by digital disruption.

That’s ultimately the question for each company – and each individual practitioner – of journalism today: Am I phoenix or am I ash?

Image: Detail from Fire, by Editor B. Flickr/Creative Commons.

James McQuivey

James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research where he works with media companies and others to help them face digital disruption. His new book, Digital Disruption, will be on sale February 19th, to preorder, see forr.com/DDbook.