The month the news broke

It may be that we’ll look back at March 2009 as a pivotal time in the erratic but inexorable transition from print to digital news. In some ways it’s very much a slow-motion revolution, beginning perhaps as long ago as 1981, and far from over. But this month has been striking both for the destruction in the newspaper industry and the hum of activity focused on the digital future.

breakingnewsIt’s the latter that matters more. NYU media maven Jay Rosen has pulled together an essential roundup for anyone interested in diving deep into the discussion. Rosen credits a March 13 essay by Clay Shirky with triggering a flurry of writing; he summarizes a dozen recent pieces that build out the picture. I haven’t read them all yet, but in addition to Shirky’s piece I highly recommend Steven Berlin Johnson’s Old Growth Media and the Future of News, which he presented at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. His use of ecosystems as a metaphor for the digital transformation is enlightening in multiple ways, while smartly avoiding utopianism:

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 a long 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?

Indeed, as Johnson suggests, information consumers may yet crave the guidance of authoritative institutions, including… newspapers. Some of which now command some of the largest online audiences. But many of them have been failing in the vision department, as Alan Mutter pointed out early this month:

As a direct consequence of the breakdown in the traditional media business model, publishers today are cutting the quality and quantity of the content they produce at the very moment they should be investing more aggressively than ever … As the most challenged of all the distressed media companies, newspapers are so strapped today that they are producing ever less original reporting … This is not merely a step in the wrong direction. It is a leap into the abyss.

As the fresh experiment with The P-I in Seattle seems to indicate so far, taking a newspaper all-digital while cutting its news gathering capacity by roughly 80 percent is not a great way to proceed.

While there is still plenty of handwringing going on, in my view the essays gathered by Rosen evoke daybreak far more than twilight. And March 2009 is ending on a bright note, at least symbolically. Ever since its election-year rise, the opinion-laden Huffington Post has been touted as a model for future journalism — never mind that it doesn’t pay most contributors and produces almost zero original reporting. Late yesterday the publication announced a new turn: the launch of a $1.75 million investigative reporting initiative.

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