By Kurt Cagle
The centuries-old profession of journalism is undergoing change so cataclysmic that it may soon be unrecognizable. The journalist as hero -- Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Bob Woodward -- has become displaced by the pundit. Advertising moved to the Internet, and the ground began crumbling as a disaster waiting to happen began.
The term "journalism" conjures up powerful memories for many people. For some, it's the epic confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joe McCarthy, which ultimately led to the senator's downfall and the end of the Red Scare. For others, it's Walter Cronkite, whose stentorian tones and skill in telling the story served to chronicle the 1960s, earning him the sobriquet of the "Most Trusted Man in America." Still others can point to Bob Woodward's coverage of Watergate during the 1970s, which ultimately forced President Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace. Indeed, Woodward's role may have spawned a number of TV shows and movies over the years in which reporters and journalists are featured heavily.
Indeed, these have, in turn, created an image of the journalist as hero -- investigating mysterious deaths, corrupt politicians and battle-torn war scenes -- and contributed a fair share of hoary tropes, from the spinning newspaper used to showcase some public "scoop" to the hoards of microphone-laden reporters converging on the villain as he's perp-walked into the courtroom.
For all that, the vast bulk of journalism was far more mundane: hours upon hours of research; even more hours of waiting for or arranging interviews; sitting in on public meetings and taking notes; long hours on the road traveling; and, of course, spending a great deal of time writing. With a few exceptions, journalism tended to be a career with comparatively little personal recognition or pay at all but the highest levels, especially as newscasters -- talking heads -- increasingly become the ones to speak the words the journalists wrote.
Despite all of that, many journalists have been happy with their jobs -- even with the stress, the long hours and the comparatively low pay. However, several factors are now pushing the journalism profession, as it exists today, into extinction.
Rise of Big Journalism
Modern journalism exists due to a curious convergence of factors that trace their origins back to the beginning of the last century. Newspapers have been around for a long time. When The Boston News-Letter, the first regular North American publication, went to press in 1704, Europeans had already had newspapers for nearly a century.
Benjamin Franklin got an early start in journalism as a regular contributor to his brother's newspaper, The New England Courant; later, he purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1728 and proceeded to make it one of the most successful newspaper of the 18th century, changing its name to the Philadelphia Evening Post in the 1780s (to become one of the first daily papers) and then, after a change of ownership, to the Saturday Evening Post in 1821, which survived, aside for a few short interruptions, to the present day.
Until the late 1800s, most newspapers were paid for by subscription, donations, and the occasional support of local governments. Stories were typically gathered by reporters who would either cover local events or wait by ports or near gatehouse taverns in order to get stories from incoming travelers, sea captains, or other "reliable witnesses."
They would write up these stories in their "journals" (from the French word for "daily") and then sell them to local printers, who would produce broadsides. As papers began to develop more prestige, it became increasingly common for world adventurers to keep regular journals of their wanderings and then sell the stories to news-magazines when they returned home to help recoup costs.
With the invention of considerably more sophisticated printing technology (photogravure) in the 1870s, it became possible to create photographic images for reproduction in newspapers and magazines. This period also, not coincidentally, marked the rise of the advertising industry -- as such a process made possible the easy reproduction of advertising graphics -- and the rise of photojournalism. The additional income from advertising made it possible for formal news organizations to arise, both for local coverage and, increasingly, for foreign coverage.
Printing presses are expensive pieces of equipment and, as such, represent a significant barrier to entry, particularly for a newspaper. Magazines can be printed in runs with other jobs, but newspaper presses are highly specialized machines that can't really be suborned to other tasks, even if there should be time to run them. This has kept the number of newspapers down to a few for all but the largest cities, with many of the secondary papers serving a specific language demographic. This meant that as newspapers grew, so did their advertising sales departments, which often developed in tandem with one or two specific agencies that frequently were themselves acquired by the newspapers.
Papers survived the arrival of the radio -- and later, television -- because they offered a medium that complemented rather than competed with the other media. Specifically, with newspapers, a reader wasn't constrained by the schedule of the broadcaster. Moreover, newspapers could provide a low-cost alternative for many small-scale advertisements -- job listings, real estate and automobile listings, want ads and personal ads -- and they could also distribute coupons and other tangibles that could be shipped with the papers, something neither radio nor TV could do.
This meant that journalism itself became "Big Journalism," with journalists deployed throughout the country and the world. Syndication also helped, as it helped the largest papers establish brand name columnists with various specialities, while giving smaller papers the appearance of being far more heavily staffed than they actually were.
Rise of the Pundit
It can be argued that newspaper journalism reached its apex in the 1970s, and that it has, in fact, been in decline ever since. One factor was the diminishing costs of video production, which, when combined with the growth of cable TV, made the creation of specialized news, analysis and entertainment channels feasible. This not only siphoned off advertising dollars, but also proved a powerful allure to young reporters who saw TV news as being more visible, lucrative and satisfying than print. A similar phenomenon occurred with radio in the 1930s and '40s.
The second factor was an increasingly fractured and factionalized market, which made it harder to sustain the illusion of objective journalism -- an illusion that was only really made possible by the presumption of a monolithic culture that held sway in the 1950s and '60s. A newly politicized journalism had an overall corrosive effect upon the perceived authority of the journalist, and good investigative journalism gave way to the rise of the pundit, an opinion maker who did little to report news and everything to shape it.
The mania for mergers in the 1990s and early 2000s was the third factor responsible for the demise of big journalism. During that period, many previously independent newspapers, radio and TV stations were purchased by large news consortia such as Gannett, McClatchy, and Knight-Ridder (itself purchased by McClatchy in 2006). Newspapers have traditionally been extraordinarily profitable, and a common strategy has been to use the papers themselves as collateral for purchasing the papers -- a process facilitated by the use of low-grade (i.e., junk) bonds. Once purchased, editorial operations were often evaluated, and editorial departments downsized in order to get the maximum possible profit.
Advertising had been undergoing its own large-scale consolidation that mirrored the newspaper publishing industry. Large advertising concerns bought up smaller, newer ad agencies, which, in general, pushed them to supporting large clients such as automotive manufacturers, pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, and so on -- typically pushing the cost of advertising out of the reach of smaller producers, who increasingly moved to the Internet. This dependency upon high dollar accounts was a disaster waiting to happen.
In a world where everyone can be a reporter and everyone can sell advertising, and where search-engine powered aggregators can gather fat bundles of related news content from sources scattered across the globe, is it possible for a branded news organization to survive?
The economy came crashing down in September 2008 as the credit markets seized up, a massive dislocation which is now, tsunami-like, causing huge damage to the economy. This has significantly reduced the amount of credit available for businesses, and has put publishers, consortia and advertisers -- many highly leveraged -- into a situation that forces them to liquidate parts of their businesses and lay off large numbers of workers just to make the ballooning payments on their bonds.
Many news organizations -- made vulnerable by media competition, the rapid drying-up of advertising dollars, fragmenting markets and the Internet -- are being forced to close their doors, and it is very likely that many cities' alternate papers, and in some cases their primary papers, will cease production this year.
The advertising market has collapsed. Automobile manufacturers are now either in or near bankruptcy. Financial services are, of course, in disarray. Real estate is facing its worst markets since the mid-1930s, and luxury goods advertising is disappearing as conspicuous displays of wealth make people targets.
With 5 million jobs lost in the last year and countless others facing reduction in hours or pay, consumer spending has given way to consumer saving. Advertising hasn't completely disappeared, but its place as the engine driving journalism most certainly has been significantly diminished. In many places, advertising itself is being rethought as the Web continues to become more pervasive in our lives.
The Web's Devastating Effect
During the 1930s, a number of newspapers that had survived for decades finally succumbed to the ravages of the Great Depression, but once the economy started to recover in the late 1930s and early 1940s -- and especially as World War II created an insatiable demand for news -- the newspapers in general came back, and many new ones were started, incorporating new technologies in order to be far more competitive.
Eventually, the current crisis will end as well, but it's likely this time around that newspapers will not recover with the rest of the economy. A big part of the reason for this is the Web -- more specifically, the rise of search engines, social media and semantics, known as the "Triple S Threat." Taken together, these technologies give a significant competitive edge to the newest generation of publishers: everybody.
During the 1990s, as the World Wide Web first began taking shape, designers were torn about which medium the Web was most like. Was it more like a magazine, a newspaper, radio or television? In fact, it was like all of them ... and none of them. The Web could mimic the characteristics of other media, from the telegraph and telephone to 3-D worlds. Moreover, it could make it possible to combine these media in ways that no one could have imagined when the first Web browsers appeared. This fluidity of media became the first, most obvious, threat to existing media organizations.
However, the Web proved to be devastating in more subtle and insidious ways. Most Web pages can be thought of as content liberally sprinkled with hyperlinks to other content. These hyperlinks create alternative pathways to content that often bypasses branding (and the corresponding gates), and what's more, they make the content searchable.
Search engines like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) have changed the dynamics of the Web completely. Instead of locating content on the basis of a brand -- in this case, embodied in the server address -- they make it possible to find content by using keywords, in ways that frequently render useless the carefully designed front-page portals that companies often spend millions to develop.
Further, search results generally are sorted by relevancy, and freshness plays a big part. Because they search across news sites, the search engines themselves are very quickly fulfilling the timeliness aspect of contemporary journalism.
Everyone's an Advertiser
This aspect of the collision of journalism and search engines flared recently when the Associated Press threatened to sue aggregators of its news content. Google has a formal aggregation agreement with AP, but Google CEO Eric Schmidt nevertheless warned it -- and related organizations -- that they risked angering users of news aggregation services at their peril.
The Google chief executive called on the newspaper bosses to engage with readers more thoroughly.
"These are consumer businesses, and if you piss off enough of them you will not have them anymore," he said. He also condemned many of the newspaper publishers' Web sites for the poor quality of their technology. "I think the sites are slow, they are slower than reading the paper. That can be worked on, on a technological basis."
In this context, it's also worth nothing that Google has very quickly usurped the role of the advertising broker from Madison Avenue. Indeed, in many ways it is better to think of companies such as Google or Yahoo less as search engines and more as advertisers.
Because they control such a critical part of the Web browsing pipeline, they are able to pull together semantic information about users based upon internal profiles, and thus are much better able to target these users at a level that most ad agencies a couple of decades ago would have found impossible to achieve. Not surprisingly, those seeking to advertise are attracted to this -- even more so given the comparatively low cost of such advertisements.
Yet there's another thing tearing away at the advertising firmament. Programs such as AdSense make Web site owners into ad space sellers, even if the Web site in question is a single-person shop operating a blog.
This approach takes advantage of the distributed nature of the Web to make the "long tail" profitable, and it serves to further weaken one of they key benefits that traditional media have had: the ability to sell advertising space in a broadcast fashion.
Social media arose in a scattershot fashion as experiments in online collaboration. In the beginning, they were all fun and games. As blogs, podcasts, social networks and Twitter feeds developed, however, amazing possibilities began to unfold. For one, anyone could be a reporter -- and, in some ways, tech-savvy bloggers could arguably be better reporters than traditional journalists.
The shift from highly centralized corporations to distributed, networked "clouds" of micro-businesses is a hallmark of the Internet age, and it finds its expression most clearly in the rise of social media.
Social media services can best be thought of as ad hoc organizations of contributors providing media content of some sort over the Web. The variety of such services is stunning: blogging, for editorial content; Flickr, for photographic postings; YouTube and similar services for video; Blip.fm for sharing of musical tracks; Twitter (more about the Twitter phenomenon below); DeviantArt for sharing graphical art; eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) for buying and selling; Craigslist for advertising just about anything, including job listings; LinkedIn for business profiles; MySpace for music profiles; Facebook for general profiles; Wikipedia for encyclopedia entries; and so on.
This short list doesn't even begin to consider the universe of related applications that provide value-add to a primary social media service.
The T-Blogger as the New Journalist
Blogging represents one of the most immediate threats to traditional journalism, to the extent of likely supplanting it completely within the next decade. A blog consists of a do-it-yourself article published on the Web by means of easy-to-use content management tools. What makes a blog so devastating, however, is that once it's posted, that blog content is syndicated through specialized news feeds, which means that anyone who has subscribed to it will be notified (in one way or another) of every new post.
That solved one of the major problems of the Web: knowing when new material was posted to a given site. However, it also had an unintended side effect. The first large news sites on the Web were not that radically different from newspapers or magazines, in that competing effectively required a significant investment in infrastructure: servers, content management systems, customized programming and so forth. The investment in printing presses served as a barrier to entry against anyone becoming a publisher in the 1930s, and that looked to be holding increasingly true for the Web in the early 1990s, as large media corporations set up their "Web presence" with multimillion dollar Web site roll-outs.
Blogging, however, changed the dynamics of publishing on the Web completely. Anyone could set up a blog within perhaps an hour tops and at little to no cost; could post content to it as often as desired; and lay out that content in a way that appeared visually identical to what was being published by the large news organizations (or could go the other direction and make the output unique).
Early on, most blogs were, ironically, journals that recorded day to day personal experiences. Yet over time, different styles of writing emerged as people with different talents, interests and needs-to-communicate started writing.
Some bloggers began to treat their entries like news articles, reporting on local events or even on global events as their means permitted. Some began to concentrate on analysis writing -- particularly those people in areas such as financial services, who could provide their own opinions about trends in the markets; or political analysts, who performed the same service in the halls of power. Some became reviewers and critics of everything from consumer electronics to food to film and theater, and some concentrated on writing tutorials or technical articles.
The upshot of all this has been that a second area of journalism -- the creation of "news" content -- is increasingly shifting from the domain of the "professional journalist" to the "dedicated amateur." For a relatively short period of time, this arguably reduced the overall quality of news content. Certainly, that is the opinion of many dedicated professional journalists, and there's some merit in it.
Student Becomes Teacher
However, the same thing is happening now as happened back in the 1990s, when amateur designers found themselves establishing a new visual feel for Web sites. The professionals approached Web design with a certain disdain, applying the same rules that had worked so well in print ... but they didn't work terribly well on the Web.
The amateurs, starting with fewer preconceived rules, were able to establish themselves more quickly in the new media, and in many cases became the next generation of professionals, while established design firms either made the transition or faded into obsolescence.
Bloggers have been diligently producing articles -- in some cases, several articles a day -- since 2003, which means they have had six years of exploration in a completely new medium, finding out what works and what doesn't, all the while studying the works of established journalists to compare and contrast. In many cases, what it means is that these dedicated amateurs know their medium -- and know its writing styles and limitations -- far better than the supposed professionals.
Not surprisingly, many of the more forward-thinking professional journalists started blogging on the side. As a consequence, they are now far better placed than many news organizations, particularly those that are undergoing upheavals as they make the transition to "online" or "virtual" publishing.
As a side note, there's some question about how effective these "real-to-virtual" transitions really are. In general, if an organization had already established a fairly broad online presence in the earlier part of the decade (or even earlier), the issues of Web presence, infrastructure investment and the like have generally been solved.
The likelihood that a purely offline publication will survive the jump in the current environment is pretty close to zero, as a dedicated offline subscription base generally does not, in fact, translate into a dedicated online readership.
The Online Conversation
A second phenomenon that has been taking place is what might best be termed the "Online Conversation." While there have been a number of different instances of this, one of the most recent (and most popular) is Twitter. Twitter began as yet another "social nightclub" conceit, letting users post (very) short messages describing what they were doing at that moment, and letting them subscribe to their friends' feeds to see what they were doing. Like a lot of significant social media, however, Twitter evolved.
At some point, the Twitter staff decided to add the ability to embed shortened (tiny) URLS into the status messages if longer site URLs were supplied. That meant people could start pointing to articles they'd just read and pass that information to all of their "followers." This setup became the equivalent of "headline news" -- short teasers that could function as succinct reports of breaking news events in real-time, often delivered via an Internet-connected handset. They could also be linked to longer news stories, images, videos, or analyses.
The coming-out moment for such real-time journalism occurred when an observer in New York, Janis Krums, who was videotaping flights coming out of the airport, watched in disbelief as a jet took off, then emergency-landed in the Hudson River. He caught the plane's aborted flight with his cellphone camera and uploaded the shots to Flickr , sent out a running "tweet" stream as events unfolded, and was even there to cover the orderly evacuation of the plane.
Krums, an amateur blogger/twitterer, managed to report the critical breaking news in its entirety before the first "professional" journalist could even arrive.
What's significant here is not Twitter in and of itself, but the integration of the various social media, first in an ad hoc way, but increasingly in formalized ways. Someone can Twitter a given online blog posting or event, which, if its interesting, will get picked up and spread around so that others can also determine its import. Among them, someone will follow up on the story (possibly via Skype or a similar electronic phone system), check it out, post a video to YouTube and photos to Flickr; then either write up another article or do a podcast, linking it back to Twitter or Facebook. The posted article, once published, will then appear on a news feed that can get pulled in by subscribers, and possibly get posted as part of an electronic newsletter sent via email.
Notice that despite the fact that the information involved may be newsworthy, there's no mention of publishers, editors, printers, graphic designers, or even newsboys delivering the paper from a basket on their bicycle. The whole process, from the actual event to a notice landing in your email in-box, might take place within the space of an hour. Where the event happens is not really a factor. The blogosphere and twittersphere were essentially tracking a recent Obama/G20 meeting in real-time, with aides on the scene capturing events as they were taking place at a locale that, for many "observers," was half a world away at a level of access that was very exclusive.
Facebook has recently made it possible to embed tweets into the Facebook stream, while Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) indicated that it was in discussions to acquire Twitter and integrate it into its own increasingly sophisticated news system. Whether or not the latter will happen, the reality is that new media are already talking to one another, and will likely serve only to accelerate the demise of the traditional media institutions.
The Web has changed the concept of community. "Community" no longer only means the people in your geographical vicinity. It also means the people who share your interests, regardless of where they are. As Web users in any given community are able to more actively create and self-select the news that interests them the most, traditional channels of journalism are swept aside.
Ask someone about the future of journalism, and it's likely that most people will point to something like E-Ink or perhaps the Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) Kindle -- high-fidelity readers that use millions of embedded, magnetically sensitive spheres which can show a black, white or in-between state to create dynamically refreshing text content. Such readers no doubt have a great deal of potential (along with a number of other display technologies), but while it's entirely possible that future newspapers will be displayed on such readers, they will also be displayed on laptops and netbooks, on cellphones, on car heads-up displays, the refrigerator, specialized glasses, and ultimately even our shirt-sleeves.
This highlights the real future of journalism -- it is increasingly ubiquitous, increasingly participatory, and increasingly germane. Ubiquity is a function of search; participatory is a function of social media; while increasingly germane has to do with a relatively new concept that's been of largely academic interest in the last few years, but is increasingly entering into common usage -- the semantic Web.
What Is Community?
Semantics is one of the more obscure (and philosophical) branches of linguistics, and in the acaddemic sense, semantics is largely preoccupied with the concepts of meaningfulness and relevancy. As such, it tends to be seen as too technical or abstract to be of use to most people. However, in point of fact, semantics (and especially computational semantics) is going to become increasingly central to the way that people work with information systems of all sorts, and most especially news.
One of the most profound changes that the Internet has introduced is the idea that we are transitioning from communities of place to communities of interest. A community of place is geographical -- your house, your neighborhood, your city, your region, your state or province, your country, your continent, your hemisphere, your world. For most of recorded history, the degree of relevance of any given thing was inversely proportional to the distance away that thing was. Not surprisingly, your allegiances likewise followed the same relationship. The king may have had more overall power, but in most cases the local lord had far more power over you, and in a struggle between your lord and your king, there was seldom any question of where your true loyalty lay.
Newspapers are very much artifacts of this idea of community of place. A paper is typically associated with a city, or in many cases, with a specific community within that city. A newspaper's National section may contain news about the country, but in most cases even that news is cherry picked for those pieces of information that may affect the newspaper's region. The Sports, Business and Lifestyle sections focused on the most proximate sports teams, the doings of the businesses that had a presence in the region, and human interest stories that dealt primarily with the local culture or environment. There are a few exceptions (USA Today comes to mind) but even here its notable that most of their content is still segmented by geography -- the USA Today that you pick up in Seattle will have very different news beyond the front page content than the same issue in Atlanta.
In communities of interest, on the other hand, the basis for the community is a particular theme, topic or cause -- such as the community surrounding a given computer language, sports team or political ideology. Such communities of interest have, of course, been around for some time, but the difficulty in coordinating communication between members of a given community has typically kept the size of such organizations small and its influence limited. With the rise of the Internet, this is changing.
An interesting case in point is an organization such as Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners. As the name would imply, the Mariners are located in Seattle, and as such its fan base tends to be drawn largely from the Puget Sound -- with one notable exception. Because the team features two very popular Japanese ball players (Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima) and the first Asian American coach (Don Wakamatsu), the Mariners have a large and vibrant fan base in Japan, despite appearing only once a year for exhibition games. This latter community is one of interest.
The Web has accelerated a shift that has been underway for a while: As it has become easier for people to communicate with one another across different social media, it has also made it easier for people to find others who have similar interests, coordinate activities, share information, and often to buy and sell within interest-based markets, regardless of where on Earth these people may actually live.
Most social media sites are built around the concept of community interest. Facebook , MySpace , LinkedIn and countless others provide a centralized place for a person to project a particular representation of themselves (an avatar) to the rest of the world, while at the same time acting as windows into interest groups of one form or another. Over time, the more a person becomes involved in a particular media space, the more they invest of themselves in that space, and the more that they shape their particular information sphere.
This filtering process was formerly one of the functions that a news editor performed, determining which particular content would be passed to the readers or viewers within that particular community. The editor as generalist is disappearing; instead, they are being replaced by moderators who act primarily to insure that the inbound content from contributors does not stray too radically from the role of the interest group.
It can be argued that even that function is disappearing, as users of many media services are increasingly able to enable or disable particular channels or news providers. This is the filtering mechanism that is core to Twitter , for instance. You can choose to follow people who other people in your interest circle recommend, and you can also choose to "unfollow" people who provide comparatively little value of interest to you personally. The effect of this over time is the development of a filter "envelope" that provides references to content that is most interesting to you, with comparatively little noise (i.e., the signal-to-noise ratio goes up dramatically). While this may have been an unintended side effect of the original architecture, it is surprisingly effectively.
Put another way, such services let you create your own "newspaper" incrementally, without necessarily choosing to explicitly choose given interest groups or categorizations. This process of increasingly transparent categorization is one of the hallmarks of the current age of journalism; the categorization becomes a function of the likes and dislikes of the reader rather than the editor. Add into this the fact that the reader also is able to effectively "vote" on their favorite news provider (where this information is increasingly at the level of a given writer rather than of an entire news organization), and what emerges is a powerful medium for shaping the news in ways appropriate to the user.
One argument that's been raised about this particular filtering and categorization mechanism is that over time, it tends to lock a person into a narrow view of the world, one where alternate ideas are not presented as often and majority viewpoints become self-reinforcing. There's some validity in that criticism, though it can also be argued that having a human editor in the question provides no guarantee that the content involved will be any more free of bias toward a particular mindset or viewpoint.
Yet consider the counterpoint to this: As such self-filtering becomes the norm, the reader needs to take on more responsibility in seeking out alternate viewpoints. Indeed, this raises the concept of the "responsible information consumer," in which the information profiles that a person sets up (either directly or indirectly) reflect a more thoughtful approach to understanding the world.
The amount of information on the Internet is reaching a point of inconceivability -- the information space is growing faster than any one person, even a voracious reader of this information, could ever take in. It is this fact as much as any that is causing the profession of journalism to collapse -- once you remove the requirement that only "formally recognized" journalists can produce content and only "formally recognized" editors can determine what constitutes news, then the amount of content can grow without limit. Through social media tools like Twitter, through blogs, through other similar media, the editorial function becomes a preferential one -- "this link is interesting to me ... if you have a similar profile to mine, you will likely find the content at the other end of this link interesting too."
Most of these filters act at the document level, but current developments in Semantic Web technology are likely to start performing a fair amount of the analysis at the sub-document level. Document enrichment, encoding terms, people, events, places and things within documents through the use of specialized markup, makes it possible to analyze a document and determine what it's "about" even if the document doesn't necessarily use specific terms in that topic.
At a minimum, such semantic analysis makes it easier to create compelling abstracts of articles without human intervention -- a remarkably difficult task for humans to accomplish, let alone computers. Yet in conjunction with specific Semantic Web technologies such as RDF, RDFa, OWL, Sparql and other sometimes cryptic acronyms, this also makes it possible for systems to read through collections of blogs, articles and other Web content and make inferences that may not necessarily be obvious to people.
Such an inference engine opens up both possibilities and raises some disturbing issues. One benefit of such a tool is that it makes it possible to perform better prognostications and forecasts (financial and resource allocation, especially), and be able to better determine when there is questionable activity taking place in business, government or elsewhere. The danger here is in failing to recognize that user-generated content does not necessarily just represent true facts, but also contains opinions, distortions, analyses and biased content.
With the current upheaval in the news, publishing and print industries, journalists are struggling against slim opportunities and poor wages. What is changing most, however, is the vehicle for expression of journalism -- not the very real need for news, analysis, investigative reporting, deep technical knowledge and entertainment. Skilled professionals are destined to make a big comeback.
When questions about the future of journalism come up, there are generally two driving concerns: what happens to the notion of "news" in an era of ubiquitous communications; and how you, as a writer, get paid.
One of the great paradoxes of the information age is that as channels of distribution have proliferated, rates of pay for producing content for those channels have continued to fall. Part of this can be attributed to the collapse of the basic business model for many news publishers that were reliant upon advertising in order to fund their operations. Part of it can be attributed to the growing number of bloggers, who are, at least on the surface, generally publishing their content for free. Part of it can be attributed to the shift from local to global economies, which translates to a larger number of people producing content.
The bad news is that the immediate future is not likely to improve significantly. We're in a transitional era, and in such periods, the specific value of anything -- especially something as intangible as writing -- is extremely ambiguous. The good news is that when things do stabilize, they will definitely stabilize in the writer's favor.
Writing Is a Skill - Blogging Is a Tool
Writing, regardless of whether you're writing a novel, a textbook or a blog, is a skill. It takes a great deal of time to become proficient in that skill, to build up a base of fans, and to reach a stage where you are capable of producing high quality content on a regular sustained basis. It requires gaining an understanding of your audience and a time to find your own voice, and time to establish a network of publishers.
Most people have the basic tools to become writers. In this day and age, all that's required is having a computer and Internet access. However, generally speaking, few are willing to make the investment of time necessary to become proficient as a writer, regardless of the domain. It's worth noting that of the huge number of blogs that are written every month, the vast majority of them are updated perhaps once every two to three months, and most blog sites will be abandoned after no more than five posts.
The reason for this is simple. Writing is a business, like any other -- but unlike most others, it requires that you are constantly inventing, constantly creating new content. This content has to be informative, provocative, or entertaining -- and hitting all three of these is better than getting one or another.
Blogging, whether as news content or something else, is the sizzle -- it is what gets readers interested in your work. It's your calling card. It is, in essence, your own advertising. The more you blog -- and the better the quality of that blog -- the larger the following you develop, but it's highly unlikely that you will get people choosing to pay for your blog.
What that means is that writers should look upon such content as being part of their overall offerings. Many financial analysts use blogs as a way to establish their authority as an expert in the field, then make their money by taking on clients for whom they provide much more customized services. Technical writers regularly publish technical blogs that prove their authority, then translate that advantage into selling their services, or selling books that outline their take on technology in a more cohesive fashion. Fiction writers may develop themes, even publish short stories within their blogs, especially if the short stories are in support of book-length storylines.
Indeed, one of the key points about "do-it-yourself" Web publishing is that ultimately, what you are selling is your expertise in some area -- your worlds, if you are a fiction writer, or your skills in being able to fashion larger, more complex bodies of work. In a lot of cases, you can package that expertise as other products -- webinars, customization of code, training, private newsletters and so forth -- that are sent to your "patrons," your actual customer base.
Five Paths to Cash
One of the keys in all of this is to recognize that you have at least five avenues of monetization as a writer in this day and age:
* Customers. Those people (or organizations) who wish for you to customize your services and offerings for their specific needs;
* Patrons. Those people (or organizations) who want to support your efforts as a way of enhancing their personal reputation;
* Employers. Those people (or organizations) who hire you long term for your skills, including your communication skills;
* Agencies. Those people who wish to sell your works through their imprint or under their banner; and
* Advertisers. Those people who wish to use your reputation to sell their own goods.
You target customers with books, digital videos, software, training materials and so forth. Typically monetization here involves content that you create once then sell repeatedly, though it may involve some customization. As a writer, you should always be looking for potential things to see in what you produce.
Patrons, in general, are people who -- for some reason or another -- are willing to support you financially in your writing efforts, either because they believe in the message that you're trying to articulate or because they want to be seen as being a supporter of your career. This mode of monetization went out of style, in great part because the mechanics of patronage made it something that only the very wealthy could do (and only at a very large scale), but the Internet may change that by letting people become "micro-patrons" (via PayPal donations to sites, for instance, as well as a number of social networks that are coming online soon).
Note also that patrons may be organizations that are interested in some particular cause or focus, and are seeking writers who can clearly articulate their purpose without necessarily hiring them as employees.
Employers often represent the most-desired path to monetization: a guaranteed paycheck, benefits, potential for career growth and so on. Perhaps one of the biggest concerns for writers who have been formal journalists is that, without an employer, their careers are dead. However, it's likely that -- at least for a while -- formal employment may prove increasingly elusive for writers. Many organizations are looking for ways to cut costs; with the exception of dedicated news organizations -- most of which are disintegrating fast -- bringing on full-time writers who do nothing but content development is very low on most organizations' priorities.
This trend is exacerbated by the fact that in a buyers market (which it is, for most companies) one of the major expectations is that anyone who is hired will, in fact, take on any writing and communication responsibilities associated with the position. In the short term, this means that although full-time employment should be viewed as a potential source for monetization, it is not necessarily the most viable.
Longer term, that will change. Recesssions should be seen as periods of adaptation, as people go from one set of expectations to another. Once that equilibrium state is reached, however, you also tend to get a huge amount of innovation and entrepreneurship that tries to take advantage of the new rules. At that point, original content creators will likely be in very high demand as organizations become their own publishers, as new news organizations that have found successful funding models emerge, and as the number of available writers declines. Expect this to be the situation by 2012.
Agencies fall into a somewhat different category from other employers. They aggregate writers (or similar experts) and package them together under the agency's label or banner. In essence, each writer is a consultant or partner within the agency, producing cohesive analysis about the state of an industry, technology, financial sector, government policy or politics.
Obviously, this applies most to writers who specialize in analysis, but that encompasses a broad swath of columnists and journalists working at news organizations today. Note that this concept also covers studios in which writers (in this case fiction writers) work together to produce entertainment content in a given genre or medium.
Finally, advertisers may end up helping to fund a given writer in order to promote their own products. This will likely prove to be a somewhat contentious area, primarily because advertisers may have gone overboard with their efforts in the last couple of decades, to the extent that as a creative individual, you have to determine the balancing point between promoting your own brand and promoting the brand of some other company.
Note that there's nothing preventing these from overlapping -- this is the era of the mashup, after all -- and there may be other venues that may emerge over time. Nor should you think that the existing modes will completely disappear; people will be buying paper-based books, magazines and newspapers for the next century, in all likelihood.
However, expect for those texts to be increasingly printed in micro-lots by all-in-one presses that can go from a PDF proof manuscript to final hardbound and paperback book without ever being touched by human hands. Expect for magazines and newspapers to become anachronisms, used for "historical color," backups or archives, but far less important as vehicles for providing news content.
Embrace the Unknown
In the end, what is changing most is the vehicle for expression of journalism, not the very real need that we still have day to day for news, analysis, investigative reporting, deep technical knowledge and entertainment. The rise of interest communities, replacing geographic ones, places an upper limit on the number of people who can effectively write to the concerns of those communities, and the means for individual writers to increasingly become their own publishers, marketers and promoters gives them considerable more leverage as the economy recovers.
It is likely that as the economy shakes out, the ethics for a new form of journalism will arise, one consistent with the media and ways of thinking of a distributed, networked society. That it doesn't bear that much resemblance to the journalism of yesterday should not be surprising. We're undergoing one of the most radical transformations to society in the last half millennium, and the rules are changing as a consequence.
With change comes opportunities, if you're brave enough to take them.