Post-Industrial Journalism

The only thing anybody really knows about the future of journalism is that there will be one. As Lisa Williams famously noted a few years ago, “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” But when experts try to go beyond that, sacred cows tend to get in the way. The best anyone can really do is follow a few of the larger cultural trends — those that we know will shape the future. To hone in on specifics is to turn our ship broadside to the waves of disruptive innovations instead of steering our ship in the direction of the sea. Sorry, but that’s the simple truth.

Three of the best minds among the world’s future-of-news thinkers — City University of New York’s C.W. Anderson, Columbia University’s Emily Bell, and New York University’s Clay Shirky — got together this year on behalf of the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and created “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” a massive, lengthy and wandering thought-journey through the past and the present in order to get to tomorrow. The document gets my strong recommendation, because it is deep, thought-provoking and echoes many of the themes covered here over the last ten years.

It’s hard to summarize a document of this scope. Besides, Emily Bell has done a fine job herself for the Columbia Journalism Review. I do want to touch on a few things that I hope will influence the next group of intellectuals who attempt such a monstrous undertaking, for there are things about the report that I would’ve done differently.

  • Postmodern vs. Post-Industrial — The report’s major weakness is that it studies the institutions and the industry rather than the culture into which it is heading. I don’t think you can get very far in a thesis on the future of journalism unless the study includes a detailed view of tomorrow’s culture. Calling the report “post-industrial” teases its identity, but the report itself left me challenging assumptions throughout.

    My essay this summer The Postmodern Journalist is an example of what I’m talking about. It offers 11 sure bets about tomorrow’s journalists based on the culture in which they’ll be living. As good as the Anderson/Bell/Shirky report is, it could have been so much better if these three thinkers had spent more time exploring the culture instead of the industry or institution.

  • Don’t be naïve — I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life studying people and the business models of news organizations, and no attempt to predict the future of the industry can produce usable fruit unless it takes a serious look at media’s business model. The business of media is audience, and that’s exactly the problem. The advertising availabilities (avails) that media sells are illusionary, because what’s really being sold is the audience. That’s because media is a stage, a sterile one at that, in an age when nobody has time for the theater. This points out, once again, that the post-industrial culture is more important for the study of journalism’s future than the practice of journalism itself. If you’d like to explore more on this subject, check out my essays Working Without a Stage, The Emerging Impotence of Mass Marketing and The Hidden Disruption.

    One day, you will know the truth of a Bob Papper quote that I’ve rewritten: The Internet didn’t hurt news organizations by taking away its readers; it hurt news organizations by taking away its money.

  • Managers and leaders are different — The assumption inferred in the report’s “Institutions” section is that the search for new processes is the quest in the creation of new institutions. This misses a broad cultural understanding that I believe is critical to reinvention in a time of change/chaos. Processes are what managers manage, and it takes a different kind of person at the helm to implement transformative change. A discussion of processes is a necessary step only after a vision has been set, not before. Tomorrow’s news consumer simply doesn’t have to care about the institution’s wants and needs, including production deadlines and other contemporary processes, so why even include them in the discussion at this point?

    It’s done to satisfy the status quo by suggesting that they will be an important part of whatever comes next, whether that’s true or not. This is the Achilles’ Heel of all industry-led attempts at understanding and reinvention.

    If you’re interested in more on this subject, read the first chapter of AR&D’s book, Live. Local. BROKEN News, which I wrote in 2008, or peruse my essay Overcoming Formula Addiction.

  • Institutions serve themselves — Institutions within a hierarchical culture are problematic in the Great Horizontal, which is another reason I believe so strongly that understanding the coming culture is more important than anything else in trying to figure out journalism’s future basics. Many institutions begin as social movements, which are built on the energy of those movements. All designed originally to serve the common good, they evolve over time to hierarchical bureaucracies that (mostly) serve only themselves. Survival, after all, is the basest of human instincts.

    What does a postmodern — or post-industrial — institution look like? How does one manage others in a culture based on a level playing field? Will there be new hierarchies? How will they function? Viewing tomorrow through today’s lens, which the title of the Columbia Journalism School project suggests (“Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present”), can be a frustrating set of handcuffs, especially with minds of those such as Shirky, Bell and Anderson.

Again, I strongly recommend reading the entire report for those interested in where everything is heading. Here it is (thanks to All Things D).

Post-Industrial Journalism: Adding to the Present