AUSTIN, Texas--The future of news is not breadlines for journalists, a lack of reporting on politicians' scandals, and a dearth of coverage of what's really going on behind the lines of wars around the world.
In fact, a surprisingly optimistic author Steven Johnson said Friday during his talk, "The Ecosystem of News," at the South by Southwest Interactive festival (SXSWi), there's actually a bright future for news and the best hope for a vibrant, effective, and worthwhile news-gathering community is to look back at the model set over the last decade or so in technology journalism.
These days, there's no shortage of signs that the news business is collapsing in on itself, unable to develop a modern business model, and confused by how to tackle the threats posed by online classified sites like Craigslist and amateur bloggers posting news items obsessively and continuously.
And where many see these signs pessimistically as proof that the news business as we know it is dead, Johnson, whose books include "The Invention of Air" and "Emergence," sees the same fate as a good thing. After all, he suggested, why cling to failed systems when new ones that are rising to meet the needs of the future are emerging all on their own?
Johnson began his talk by framing what he called "old growth media," the traditional combination of newspapers, magazines, and television news. He recalled how, when he was in college in the late 1980s, he used to stalk his local bookstore around the same time every month, eager for the latest issue of Macworld.
Back in those days, he said, the best way to get the most recent news about what Apple was up to was to read periodicals like Macworld. Yet, with the long lead times of monthly magazines, that latest news was always several months late, Johnson said. Later, when things like CompuServe came along, he was able to compress the timeframe for getting the most up-to-date Apple news to a few days by downloading the most recent issue of Macweek.
And then along came the Web, and sites like MacInTouch.com, Apple's first site, rumor blogs, and fan sites, Johnson said, which made it finally possible to get the latest Mac news in near real-time. "Now the lag is seconds," Johnson said, "thanks to people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Steve Jobs speech."
Today, he said, many people are panicking as newspapers fail left and right, and as they see the likelihood that as a result, the crucial newsgathering role played by professional journalists will disappear with their dying employers. Yet the example set in technology journalism should give such pessimists something to feel good about, Johnson said.
And just because the impressive advances in newsgathering on the Web were seen first in technology journalism doesn't mean they won't spread to more mainstream--read: important--topics like local government, crime, and so forth.
"The Web...just has a tendency to cover technology first," Johnson said, "because the first people to use the Web were much more interested in technology than" things like school board meetings.
The point? That the model is established, and that for consumers of news, the example set in technology news should be cause for optimism, even if not for the health of the traditional news business. And the proof? Johnson pointed to politics, and the coverage of presidential campaigns.
He said that the first campaign he followed closely was in 1992. His main sources for the most up-to-date news were TV shows like CNN's "Crossfire" and magazines like Newsweek, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. At the same time, he said he watched each of that year's debates religiously and stayed up late to devour the post-game analysis on networks like CNN.
And while all of those outlets still existed during the 2008 election (except "Crossfire"), someone sticking to them last fall would have been hopelessly out of the loop compared to the millions of people who were obsessively glued to the Internet, which was delivering an unbelievable amount of coverage of all kinds about the election.
Johnson talked about how blogs like TalkingPointsMemo.com, HuffingtonPost.com, FiveThirtyEight.com, DailyKos, and Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish--one could determine his political bent by the sites he mentioned--served up a steady flow of breaking news and in-depth analysis never before possible during a presidential election. Add that to the fact that he could watch the debates with "a thousand virtual friends Twittering away with me" and the fact that as many as 8 million people watched President Obama's famous race speech on YouTube, and it's obvious that the political news ecosystem, like that of technology, has found a way to move past the antiquated models of just a few years ago.
"What's happening with technology and politics is happening elsewhere as well," Johnson said, "just on a different timetable."
Local news, once the lifeblood of newspapers, is unlikely to be so in the future. Papers like The New York Times can no longer afford to cover neighborhood stories that interest a small subsection of a much larger readership. Yet, it's those very issues that are of most interest to the people in those neighborhoods, Johnson said.
"Most of what we care about in our local lives is in the long tail," he said, referring to the ability of the Web to bring news about the smallest events to those who want it. And, of course, even the Times itself is now starting to cover neighborhoods with blogs.
"Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half-mile of my house," Johnson said, "and I don't get an e-mail alert about it within half an hour, it'll be a sign that something is broken."
And as more and more of this long tail-type of news is covered by those other than professional journalists, Johnson argued, it might well free up those professionals to work on the very kinds of stories that people worry they won't be able to do in the future: war coverage, investigations, and the like.
The key, then, will be for the traditional publications to serve the role of public gatekeepers, or filterers of the flood of information coming in from the amateur Web. And that, Johnson suggested, would be a natural task for the editors of institutions known for their authority: newspapers and TV news networks. And while the readership of physical newspapers has plummeted, the numbers for those publications' online sites has risen dramatically, proving that the audience is still there.
In the end, however, it will be the entire ecosystem of news that will bring the full value to news consumers. It will be social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, which can serve as link circulators, as well as large group filters like Digg and, yes, professional journalists and editors. All together, the news will get covered, Johnson said.
The problem is that what should have been a 10-year ecosystem evolution for the news business has been forced into a much more compressed timeframe by today's financial exigencies. And this sense of panic has caused us, as a society, to lose sight of what, in Johnson's view, is a very positive long-term change.
"We need to remind ourselves that there's a lot of value" in this ecosystem and what it will become in the future," Johnson said. But "it's tough to live through transformations."