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Tech Titans: Look for Community, Not Customers, to Transform Journalism

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Tech titans will find that "sales" won't transform journalism -- fellowship will.

In The New York Times, the Media Equation columnist David Carr nicely sums up the move of technology titans into the world of journalism: "For all their differences, the news and technology businesses share a kind of utopianism, an idealistic belief that the work of human hands can make life better for other humans."

Truth. But the levers of commerce that deliver for journalism are the intangibles that deliver fellowship to community life. Although tech titans like Amazon's Jeff Bezos and eBay's Pierre Omidyar deal in intangibles every day, they still have lots to discover about how information moves a community.

This much we know: The value of journalism comes from high ethics, credibility and intentional engagement, according to findings by thinkers at the Knight Foundation, Reynolds Journalism Institute and elsewhere in the next-news business.

"News" is forking into various camps. We have investigative and accountability journalism that examines balance and responsiveness of power structures in the political, commercial and other domains. Support for these largely NPO newsrooms has been coming from the foundation, government and crowd-sourced public -- think public media.

We also have an emerging sphere of local independent online newsrooms, seeking sustainability from local juice. Michele McLellan has been documenting these newsrooms on her site, Michele's List, while the newsrooms themselves have developed their own trade association, LION Publishers. McLellan nails the lessons learned when she speaks to news leaders and advises them that they are no longer in the news business, they are in the information business. Here, here! If journalism is to survive, that is.

Another camp is verticals -- entertainment, food, lifestyle -- that used to bring in the advertising dollars for metro newspapers. That arena is in free-fall and the technologists and bloggers have been winning recent rounds. Because ethical issues are plentiful in this sector on the Web, journalism has to look at new ways of expressing its higher ground. Newsrooms have to look at using new tools, such as cmp.ly and others that I have written about, to differentiate content created independently from content created because of to a material exchange between a news room and a brand. The place for that flavor of journalism in the next-news world is being redefined.

What the next-news thinkers have researched and discovered for sure is that the bottom line of good journalism is quality of information and its ability to move people to act. To get started thinking about this, take a look at Joy Mayer's research on community engagement.

In this way, from its most idealistic self-definition, journalism is an act of community development. High-quality news and information move the community to act on its own behalf to make a place be what the people of the place, the community, want it to be.

We are seeing this dynamic at play in the OpenGov world. I've written about Chicago's here in this space and for Knight Digital Media Center. Coders have learned that it is not about the data. It is instead about the problems that the public wants to see solved. It's taken a while to connect the dots. But now that they have been connected it is exciting to think about what solutions will emerge. Some ask, "Is this journalism?" I think it is.

It's also true that operating without the legacy constraints of old line media is useful but I see that the tech titans themselves will have to excavate their own "legacy" assumptions. Carr writes:

"It does not take an M.B.A. to understand that the ability to capture consumers' attention and move them around a platform, all the while extracting value, might come in handy in the media business. ITunes used cheap, uniformly priced content to animate the sales of devices like the iPod; Amazon used cheap devices like the Kindle to push lucrative content sales. EBay reduced the friction and suspicion between buyers and sellers of all kinds of goods."

From my long observation I'd guess that any attempt will fail to extract value, to animate the sales, to push... sales in large enough sums to power a newsroom. Only in eBay do we touch on potential activating levers for the news and information world -- reduced the friction and suspicion between buyers and sellers, in essence, build trust.

To my thinking building trust is the key to sustainability of the emerging news and information sphere. Good news and information add value; they do not extract value. As we are discovering anew from Kickstarter and other sites that allow us to crowdsource our passions, we find it exciting to participate in the birthing of something from the spark of an idea.

Speaking of sales, Carr writes: "Reverse-engineering those skills into the production of news could have a big impact, as publishing companies turn toward consumers for revenue, pivoting from passive delivery of news to a deeper relationship with customers."

The deeper relationship is this: In the future, the work of a journalistic enterprise will be to impart a seal of approval on the quality of information on the Web. The "newsroom" will have developed this seal through online and real world exchanges and events that bring value to the community by fostering a greater sense of fellowship. Perhaps the kernel for this idea resides in the L3C Newsroom, which I began writing about in 2009.

As Jennifer Towery, then-president of the Peoria Newspaper Guild and an editor at the Peoria Journal Star, said to me then, "One of the bright spots is that [newspapers] have lost so much value that it is now feasible for communities to buy their newspapers."

If tech titans can create tools for communities to better create their own essential information streams, their work to transform journalism will be well on its way.