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The future of news 1: We need better foresight

Newspaper vending boxes
I attended a set of panel discussions last week on the topic “Who pays for the news?” The event was put on by the New America Foundation, a left-side policy think tank. They do a nice job of bringing interesting people into the room on the issues of the day.
As a futurist, I loosely filed this event in my mind as “the future of news”. But in fact, it wasn’t about that. The overall message of the morning was about shoring up the news business as we know it, not about the future form that business will take. There was an air of lamentation in the room, and in some cases, denial. It was standard to say “I really love my morning paper—in print!” Much of the discussion was founded on the belief that the news business, as we know it, is essential to a free society.
So what went wrong in this discussion? While everyone acknowledged that things have changed for the news business, they didn’t go the extra step of accepting that change and envisioning what’s next. They stayed in a defensive crouch. They boiled the profound change down to its financial elements—the business model no longer works. But they didn’t look with a clear eye at the other big forces at play. [A lone voice among the panelists, Maxine Teller, of MiXTMedia Strategies, did do this.]
The New America panelists were in “historic preservation” mode, they wanted to fix the system as we know it, rather than recognize profound change, and chart a new course for the news business. I see the same thing in much of the wider discussion about this that turning up online and in print.
But we don’t get to keep the system as we know it. We have to recognize that the world of news and information is being transformed. Digital technology is for the traditional media what Clayton Christensen calls a disruptive technology. That means it comes along, does some of what the old technology could do better and cheaper, and typically pushes the old ways into decline. The disruptor is rarely if ever a perfect substitute for the old technology—it won’t do everything better, and it may do some things worse. That is where our fear lies with the sweeping change hitting news and journalism.
The traditionally-minded, and I confess to being one of them, have to recognize some changes in the system, including:
  • Who discovers/edits/shapes/contextualizes our information
  • The divide (apparent or real) between commercial and non-commercial information
  • What is true, objective, etc. vs. what is shaped by an agenda, and, more importantly, what we do about that as consumers of information
  • Timing/time, when something arrives in the news, (i.e. is published) it’s supposed to be a “truth”. It’s now possible for anyone to “publish” anything. So now we have to accumulate information, weigh its validity, and/or wait for confirmation from other messages. “Published” can no longer equate to “true” (if ever it should have).
  • Coverage—how we are sure that information comes to light that should, with a question of whose “beat” is it, versus depending on “crowd-sourcing” for our news—millions of people, anywhere and everywhere, become the beat reporters, sharing information though social networks.
Those are some of the questions we need to explore much more as we look at the future of news. I will take some of them up in future “Future of news” posts here.
The news business and its key stakeholders, the public, need to take a fresh, well-rounded look at the future possibilities. Scenarios of a 10- or 20-year future, for example, could let us see some ways that news and information would get to people in the era beyond the news business as we know it. Exploring those possibilities could certainly be reassuring—and we seem to need that right now. But it will also allow public policy to shape what it needs to shape, and business to find its new pathways through the digital world and find ways to serve a need and make money too.
Image: wili_hybrid, via Flickr, creative commons license
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