A Reasonable View of Tomorrow

April 25, 2008

As the disruption to the mass media business models of traditional media becomes more acute, more and more veteran journalists are beginning to ask how the business of news will be funded. Of course, this question comes from a belief that professional news — that which is funded by advertising — is a permanent institutional structure, and this is problematic at best. Now that advertisers are voting with their money, journalists are crying "foul" and desperately seeking another model to sustain what increasingly comes off as a sense of entitlement.

There was even a call for the licensing of reporters who do "real" journalism a few months ago by the deans of major journalism schools in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. Presumably, such a license would separate "real" journalists into a class that would somehow command financial reward.

This view of seeking governmental help of some sort is similar to that currently espoused by the record industry, whose suggestion of a music tax is as absurd as journalism's demand for a government-recognized status of some sort. Ethan Kaplan of Warner Records wrote that the concept of art (music is an "art") is "fundamental to our identity as humans and our place in the world."

Itís my opinion that before we start down the path of "how do you value digital artifacts" and "how do you value music," we also need to evaluate how we as a society value art. How do we as a government, a democratic society support artists to the point where the value of experience is enough to support the act of creation? How do (we) remove the fear-politics and the pro-ignorance in the US society to the point where art gains intrinsic value as a societal force?

Kaplan and others in the industry want to tax everybody to support music. This might be interpreted as interesting were it not so transparently self-serving. Music and artists don't need a tax, but the record industry does.

Journalists face the same kind of problem, because — like our brethren in the music industry — we want our place in the culture preserved, regardless of behavior that contributed to the audience problems that led to revenue declines in the first place. Make no mistake about it; traditional media has an audience problem, not a revenue problem. Money follows eyeballs, and we seem incapable of understanding why the eyeballs are fleeing.

The people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) have been saying for years that they don't trust us, yet we have continued to operate as if they were just, well, wrong. And if we did accept that "some" media outlets were turning people away, we pointed our fingers at them instead of examining our own practices. Just as Jimmy Carter ranted against the American people in his infamous malaise speech, we chastise our former captives for their nerve in running away.

Like the record industry, which has gotten away with peddling garbage in the name of "art" for decades, journalists now find themselves racing at full-speed-ahead toward an ominous iceberg, and a collision is inevitable.

And while we watch the institutions of modernity struggle like this, culture continues to advance in a different direction. The disruption feeds itself, drawing sustenance from the lack of attention by institutional players, who'd rather fight for what they used to have than explore opportunities from within the disruption.

So let's take a trip down the path that traditional journalism refuses to explore and see what might be waiting, and we'll begin with that bane of the professionals — bloggers. Andrew Keen and his colonialist views of knowledge would have us believe that bloggers (a.k.a. "amateurs") are destroying the very fiber of our culture. Perhaps it is destroying Keen's view of culture, but it's far too early to tell if that isn't something that needs destroying anyway. Like King George III during the late 18th century, Keen and his crowd believe that the colonies/people are incapable of self-governance. This form of contempt bars any willingness to explore either the energy behind the blog revolution or its technological fruits, and this is a fatal tactical blunder by professional journalism.

Such contempt does not exist here, so the future begins with a fundamental belief that journalists, professional or otherwise, will be independent contractors, building individual brands based on the quality — and popularity — of their work. Already, established journalists are leaving their posts to become independent, and this will escalate for two reasons. One, smart, independent journalists can grab online niches not currently being served and eventually support themselves by aggressively pursuing local advertisers and perhaps entering into agreements with local media companies as independent contractors. Two, as bottom line pressure continues on local media companies, it'll become easier to justify paying independent contractors than employees, and this is especially viable in an increasingly commodified news environment.

This may not be good for all traditional media companies, but it's hard to argue that it would not be good for journalism. More independent voices — even those with opinions — would be a refreshing change in a world currently dominated by what many are now calling the "press-sphere," that united and established voice that determines and defines "the news" on any given day.

So let's make the leap and pose the obvious question: In a world of many independent voices, how will the public know what's important, if the press doesn't sort and stack it for them? The development of this paradigm is already well underway, thanks to the technology employed by, you guessed it, bloggers.

Techmeme is a website well-known by the technology media community, which includes a blend of professionals and amateurs. It's a remarkable aggregator of technology-related journalism, but the vast majority of "real" journalists have never heard of it. During a typical day, the algorithms of Techmeme search out the writings of its secret sauce "list" and group those offerings according to themes, or "memes," as the technology community calls them. Usually, the article that was posted first on any topic is given top billing, with all others grouped under a "discussion" heading. The remarkable thing about Techmeme is that a quick glance gives the reader an instant view of what's important at that moment in the world of technology writers. The software provides a seamless, constant editing of its sources to provide a very satisfying user experience.

With Techmeme, you don't need "the press;" you need only the writers. Tech media defies the rules of traditional media. It is as self-policing a postmodern non-organization as you'll find anywhere. Vetting is done by the group — and publicly, which is a refreshing change of pace from traditional media.

Techmeme was created originally as Memeorandum in 2005 by Gabe Rivera, a high-level geek (smile when you say that) with no prior web start-up experience. The simple brilliance of Rivera's software is its ability to detect patterns from the writers in its database via link-based algorithms, and this quickly raises "top stories" to the forefront. Much of it is based on the slippery and subjective term, "importance."

Rivera defined his idea of "importance" in an article in search engine land last year.

Importance is determined by a number of factors. Citations can increase importance, so a post that accumulates inbound links can rise. Time is a factor as well. A headline that's appeared on the page for most of the day loses importance. Headlines usually fall off the page when the time component swamps all other factors. That's how old news gives way to newer news.

The software driving Techmeme has applications far beyond tech media, and Rivera has already launched aggregators for baseball, politics, and gossip. They're all excellent, and their RSS feeds are second-to-none in terms of keeping up with each niche vertical. Ballbug aggregates baseball news. WeSmirch handles gossip and celebrity news. And Memeorandum is a political news aggregator. He recently agreed to answer a few questions for us, with a specific eye towards the future adoption of his algorithms at the local media level.

  1. What's YOUR definition of a meme (I think what I'm really asking is if it would be possible to substitute the word "issue" for meme in subsequent iterations of the concept — see question #2)?

    Rivera: What's a meme? First, a detour: The good news is that Techmeme's "value proposition" is familiar: news. Techmeme is a news site, albeit one adapted to today's technology news realities. I originally used the term "meme" because that label is often used for news stories (and other things) that spread across the web. Since I describe Techmeme in terms of news and not memes, I'm free not to define it!

  2. The grouping of aggregated items to identify and follow a "meme" is the breakthrough of Techmeme and, frankly, what gives it its power. In layman's terms, how do you do that and could this be accomplished with, for example, issues in a local community?

    Rivera: Techmeme's groupings are indeed key. The rationale: for many stories there are complementary points of view readily available on the web, so offering just one reporter's take shortchanges the reader. On the evening of February 3, for instance, Techmeme linked directly to Google's legal objection to Microsoft's Yahoo bid and Microsoft's response to this alongside the usual media reports. Since all of these were giving shape to the story, a proper telling demanded direct quotes from and links to these sources.

  3. Local media companies use people — in the form of editors and producers — to aggregate and stack the community stories and issues, whereas you use technology to stack and sort based on what the tech community itself is saying. What's your view of mixing the two? Do we really need editors anymore?

    Rivera: Human editors will always be needed. They even determine Techmeme's coverage, because Techmeme is just an automated process that rearranges content human editors have created and composed. Moreover, Techmeme relies on operating in the tech news space, a domain where certain technical characteristics of the online coverage (specifically, dense hyperlinking and temporal closeness of related stories) enable an automated process in the first place. Techmeme won't work at the local level.

  4. Authoritative writers in the tech space — those with substantial followings (TechCrunch, Scoble, etc.) — often drift to the "lead" position within any specific meme. Is that because they're actually creating the meme or because your software defaults to those with a big audience? What I'm asking, I guess, is how democratic is the system? Can anybody be the center of a meme?

    Rivera: I'm not sure what a democratic news site is, but Techmeme's probably not it. It's difficult to offer a compelling view of news that gives everybody an equal voice, for many reasons. First, only so many writers have early access to much of the information that defines the news. And second, some people can tell a story far better than others. Neither will change any time soon. What makes Techmeme *more* open or dynamic or "democratic" is that it's nonetheless easier for new sources to make their way onto the page. The voice of a newspaper that introduces no new reporters will stagnate over the years. Techmeme is like a newspaper that hires a new staff reporter every month and offers daily columns from new outsiders.

  5. From your place at the cutting edge, what's the greatest error you see traditional media companies making during this stunning revolution in communications? What would YOU do, if you ran your local newspaper?

    Rivera: I get the sense that instead of looking around the web to understand and internalize what's worked for others, far too many media companies have just applied a webby veneer to their existing product. More "rethink" and less "repurpose" is needed. Perhaps every local media operation should start by hiring at least one person intimately familiar with the dynamics of a very successful contemporary media site.

    So, like I said in #3, I can't help local media sites much. At least not for a few years anyway.

Rivera's belief that there aren't enough voices at the local level to provide the scale needed to drive his algorithms doesn't mean that a similar model can't or won't develop in the near future. Independent voices are already springing forth everywhere, nurtured in the fertile ground of dissatisfaction expressed by the people formerly known as the audience, so the scale to which he refers may be closer than anybody thinks.

And while all of this is taking place, traditional media companies are still arguing about how best to hang onto the old model, one that quarterly reports indicate is unable to sustain so-called "real" journalism anymore. A reasonable view of tomorrow suggests that life for journalism — just as it always has — will find a way, and in fact, it is already taking place outside the view of those who have the most to lose by clinging to yesterday.