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Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson

Posted: March 16, 2009 12:06 PM

Editor's Note: Join Steven Johnson back here on the Huffington Post this Thursday (March 19th) at 2pm EST for a live discussion on science and the Obama administration, and other themes from his new book, The Invention of Air.


The following is a speech Steven gave last week at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin.

I

If you happened to be hanging out in front of the old College Hill Bookstore in Providence Rhode Island in 1987, on the third week of every month you would have seen a skinny 19-year-old in baggy pants, sporting a vaguely Morrissey-like haircut, walking into the bookstore several times a day.

That kid was me. I wish I could tell you that I was making those compulsive return visits out of a passionate love of books. While I do, in fact, have a passionate love of books, and bought plenty of them during my college years, I was making those tactical strikes on the College Hill Bookstore for another reason.

I was looking for the latest issue of MacWorld.

I had learned from experience that new issues of the monthly magazine devoted to all things Macintosh arrived at College Hill reliably in the third week of the month. Yes, you could subscribe, but for some reason, subscription copies tended to arrive a few days later than the copies in the College Hill bookstore. And so when that time of the month rolled around, I'd organize my week around regular check-ins at College Hill to see if a shipment of MacWorlds had landed on their magazine rack.

This was obsessive behavior, I admit, but not entirely irrational. It was the result of a kind of imbalance: not a chemical imbalance, an information imbalance. To understand what I want to say about the future of the news ecosystem, it's essential that we travel back to my holding pattern outside the College Hill Bookstore -- which continued unabated, by the way, for three years. It's essential to travel back because we're in the middle of an epic conversation about the potentially devastating effect that the web is having on our news institutions. And so if we're going to have a responsible conversation about the future of news, we need to start by talking about the past.

We need to be reminded of what life was like before the web.

I made my monthly pilgrimages to College Hill because I was interested in the Mac, which was, it should be said, a niche interest in 1987, though not that much of a niche. Apple was one of the world's largest creators of personal computers, and by far the most innovative. But if you wanted to find out news about the Mac -- new machines from Apple, the latest word on the upcoming System 7 or HyperCard, or any new releases from the thousands of software developers or peripheral manufacturers -- if you wanted to keep up with any of this, there was just about one channel available to you, as a college student in Providence, Rhode Island. You read MacWorld.

And even then, even if you staked out the College Hill Bookstore waiting for issues hot off the press, you were still getting the news a month or two late, given the long-lead times of a print magazine back then. Yes, if Apple had a major product announcement, or fired Steve Jobs, it would make it into the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal the next day. And you could occasionally steal a few nuggets of news by hanging around the University computer store. But that was pretty much it.

When I left college and came to New York in the early nineties, the technology channels began to widen ever so slightly. At some point in that period, I joined Compuserve, and discovered that MacWeek magazine was uploading its articles every Friday night at around six, which quickly became a kind of nerd version of appointment television for me. The information lag went from months to days. In 1993, Wired Magazine launched, and suddenly I had access not only to an amazing monthly repository of technology news, but also a new kind of in-depth analysis that had never appeared in the pages of MacWorld.

Within a few years, the web arrived, and soon after I was reading a site called Macintouch, which featured daily updates and commentary on everything from new printer driver releases to the future of the Mac clone business. Tech critics like Scott Rosenberg and Andrew Leonard at Salon wrote tens of thousands of words on the latest developments at Apple. (I wrote a few thousand myself at FEED.) Sometime around then, Apple launched its first official web site; now I could get breaking news about the company directly from them, the second they announced it.

We all know where this is headed, but let me spell it out just for the record. If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology -- the iPhones and MacBook Airs -- but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like Jon Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari's new tab design.) The traditional newspapers have improved their coverage as well: think of David Pogue's reviews, or Walt Mossberg's Personal Technology site. And that's not even mentioning the rumor blogs.

And of course, MacWorld is still around as a print magazine, but they also now have a web site. Yesterday alone, they published twenty-six different articles on Apple-related topics.

II

The metaphors we use to think about changes in media have a lot to tell us about the particular moment we're in. McLuhan talked about media as an extension of our central nervous system, and we spent forty years trying to figure out how media was re-wiring our brains. The metaphor you hear now is different, more E.O. Wilson than McLuhan: the ecosystem. I happen to think that this is a useful way of thinking about what's happening to us now: today's media is in fact much closer to a real-world ecosystem in the way it circulates information than it is like the old industrial, top-down models of mass media. It's a much more diverse and interconnected world, a system of flows and feeds -- completely different from an assembly line. That complexity is what makes it so interesting, of course, but also what makes it so hard to predict what it's going to look like in five or ten years. So instead of starting with the future, I propose that we look to the past.

To use that ecosystem metaphor: the state of Mac news in 1987 was a barren desert. Today, it is a thriving rain forest. By almost every important standard, the state of Mac news has vastly improved since 1987: there is more volume, diversity, timeliness, and depth.

I think that steady transformation from desert to jungle may be the single most important trend we should be looking at when we talk about the future of news. Not the future of the news industry, or the print newspaper business: the future of news itself. Because there are really two worst case scenarios that we're concerned about right now, and it's important to distinguish between them. There is panic that newspapers are going to disappear as businesses. And then there's panic that crucial information is going to disappear with them, that we're going to suffer as culture because newspapers will no long be able to afford to generate the information we've relied on for so many years.

When you hear people sound alarms about the future of news, they often gravitate to two key endangered species: war reporters and investigative journalists. Will the bloggers get out of their pajamas and head up the Baghdad bureau? Will they do the kind of relentless shoe-leather detective work that made Woodward and Bernstein household names? These are genuinely important questions, and I think we have good reason to be optimistic about their answers. But you can't see the reasons for that optimism by looking at the current state of investigative journalism in the blogosphere, because the new ecosystem of investigative journalism is in its infancy. There are dozens of interesting projects being spearheaded by very smart people, some of them nonprofits, some for-profit. But they are seedlings.

I think it's much more instructive to anticipate the future of investigative journalism by looking at the past of technology journalism. When ecologists go into the field to research natural ecosystems, they seek out the old-growth forests, the places where nature has had the longest amount of time to evolve and diversify and interconnect. They don't study the Brazilian rain forest by looking at a field that was clear cut two years ago.

That's why the ecosystem of technology news is so crucial. It is the old-growth forest of the web. It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve. The web doesn't have some kind intrinsic aptitude for covering technology better than other fields. It just has an intrinsic tendency to cover technology first, because the first people that used the web were far more interested in technology than they were in, say, school board meetings or the NFL. But that has changed, and is continuing to change. The transformation from the desert of Macworld to the rich diversity of today's tech coverage is happening in all areas of news. Like William Gibson's future, it's just not evenly distributed yet.

III

Consider another -- slightly less nerdy -- case study: politics. The first Presidential election that I followed in an obsessive way was the 1992 election that Clinton won. I was as compulsive a news junkie about that campaign as I was about the Mac in college: every day the Times would have a handful of stories about the campaign stops or debates or latest polls. Every night I would dutifully tune into Crossfire to hear what the punditocracy had to say about the day's events. I read Newsweek and Time and the New Republic, and scoured the New Yorker for its occasional political pieces. When the debates aired, I'd watch religiously and stay up late soaking in the commentary from the assembled experts.

That was hardly a desert, to be sure. But compare it to the information channels that were available to me following the 2008 election. Everything I relied on in 1992 was still around of course -- except for the late, lamented Crossfire -- but it was now part of a vast new forest of news, data, opinion, satire -- and perhaps most importantly, direct experience. Sites like Talking Points Memo and Politico did extensive direct reporting. Daily Kos provided in-depth surveys and field reports on state races that the Times would never have had the ink to cover. Individual bloggers like Andrew Sullivan responded to each twist in the news cycle; HuffPo culled the most provocative opinion pieces from the rest of the blogosphere. Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com did meta-analysis of polling that blew away anything William Schneider dreamed of doing on CNN in 1992. When the economy imploded in September, I followed economist bloggers like Brad DeLong to get their expert take the candidates' responses to the crisis. (Yochai Benchler talks about this phenomenon of academics engaging with the news cycle in a smart response here.) I watched the debates with a thousand virtual friends live-Twittering alongside me on the couch. All this was filtered and remixed through the extraordinary political satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, which I watched via viral clips on the web as much as I watched on TV.

What's more: the ecosystem of political news also included information coming directly from the candidates. Think about the Philadelphia race speech, arguably one of the two or three most important events in the whole campaign. Eight million people watched it on YouTube alone. Now, what would have happened to that speech had it been delivered in 1992? Would any of the networks have aired it in its entirety? Certainly not. It would have been reduced to a minute-long soundbite on the evening news. CNN probably would have aired it live, which might have meant that 500,000 people caught it. Fox News and MSNBC? They didn't exist yet. A few serious newspaper might have reprinted it in its entirety, which might have added another million to the audience. Online perhaps someone would have uploaded a transcript to Compuserve or The Well, but that's about the most we could have hoped for.

There is no question in mind my mind that the political news ecosystem of 2008 was far superior to that of 1992: I had more information about the state of the race, the tactics of both campaigns, the issues they were wrestling with, the mind of the electorate in different regions of the country. And I had more immediate access to the candidates themselves: their speeches and unscripted exchanges; their body language and position papers.

The old line on this new diversity was that it was fundamentally parasitic: bloggers were interesting, sure, but if the traditional news organizations went away, the bloggers would have nothing to write about, since most of what they did was link to professionally reported stories. Let me be clear: traditional news organizations were an important part of the 2008 ecosystem, no doubt about it. I loved reading Frank Rich's reliably sensible responses to each passing media frenzy; and certainly Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin was every bit as important as Obama's race speech in shaping our sense of the candidates. (Though I suspect Couric's interview would have had much less impact without CBS's viral distribution of the clips on the web.) But no reasonable observer of the political news ecosystem could describe all the new species as parasites on the traditional media. Imagine how many barrels of ink were purchased to print newspaper commentary on Obama's San Francisco gaffe about people "clinging to their guns and religion." But the original reporting on that quote didn't come from the Times or the Journal; it came from a "citizen reporter" named Mayhill Fowler, part of the Off The Bus project sponsored by Jay Rosen's Newassignment.net and The Huffington Post.

I think the political web covering the 2008 campaign was so rich for precisely the same reasons that the technology web is so rich: because it's old-growth media. The first wave of blogs were tech-focused, and then for whatever reason, they turned to politics next. And so Web 2.0-style political coverage has had a decade to mature into its current state.

What's happened with technology and politics is happening elsewhere too, just on a different timetable. Sports, business, reviews of movies, books, restaurants - all the staples of the old newspaper format are proliferating online. There are more perspectives; there is more depth and more surface now. And that's the new growth. It's only started maturing.

In fact, I think in the long run, we're going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. Local news may be the best example of this. When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage. But I suspect in ten years, when we look back at traditional local coverage, it will look much more like MacWorld circa 1987. I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life -- out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house; a new deli opening; a house sale; the baseball team at my kid's school winning a big game. The New York Times can't cover those things in a print paper not because of some journalistic failing on their part, but rather because the economics are all wrong: there are only a few thousand people potentially interested in those news events, in a city of 8 million people. There are metro area stories that matter to everyone in a city: mayoral races, school cuts, big snowstorms. But most of what we care about in our local experience lives in the long tail. We've never thought of it as a failing of the newspaper that its metro section didn't report on a deli closing, because it wasn't even conceivable that a big centralized paper could cover an event with such a small radius of interest.

But of course, that's what the web can do. That's one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. The Times itself is now launching local Brooklyn blogs', which is great. As we get better at organizing all that content -- both by selecting the best of it, and by sorting it geographically -- our standards about what constitutes good local coverage are going to improve. We're going to go through the same evolution that I did from reading two-month-old news in MacWorld, to expecting an instantaneous liveblog of a keynote announcement. Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half mile of my house, and I don't get an email alert about it within three hours, it will be a sign that something is broken.

IV

So this is what the old-growth forests tell us: there is going to be more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches covered. You can see the process happening already in most of the major sections of the paper: tech, politics, finance, sports. Now I suppose it's possible that somehow investigative or international reporting won't thrive on its own in this new ecosystem, that we'll look back in ten years and realize that most everything improved except for those two areas. But I think it's just as possible that all this innovation elsewhere will free up the traditional media to focus on things like war reporting because they won't need to pay for all the other content they've historically had to produce. This is Jeff Jarvis' motto: do what you do best, and link to the rest. My guess is that the venerable tradition of the muckraking journalist will be alive and well ten years from: partially supported by newspapers and magazines, partially by non-profit foundations and innovative programs like Newassignment.net, and partially by enterprising bloggers who make a name for themselves by breaking important stories.

Now there's one objection to this ecosystems view of news that I take very seriously. It is far more complicated to navigate this new world than it is to sit down with your morning paper. There are vastly more options to choose from, and of course, there's more noise now. For every Ars Technica there are a dozen lame rumor sites that just make things up with no accountability whatsoever. I'm confident that I get far more useful information from the new ecosystem than I did from traditional media along fifteen years ago, but I pride myself on being a very savvy information navigator. Can we expect the general public to navigate the new ecosystem with the same skill and discretion?

Let's say for the sake of argument that we can't. Let's say it's just too overwhelming for the average consumer to sort through all the new voices available online, to separate fact from fiction, reporting from rumor-mongering. Let's say they need some kind of authoritative guide, to help them find all the useful information that's proliferating out there in the wild.

If only there were some institution that had a reputation for journalistic integrity that had a staff of trained editors and a growing audience arriving at its web site every day seeking quality information. If only...

Of course, we have thousands of these institutions. They're called newspapers.

The funny thing about newspapers today is that their audience is growing at a remarkable clip. Their underlying business model is being attacked by multiple forces, but their online audience is growing faster than their print audience is shrinking. As of January, print circulation had declined from 62 million to 49 million since my days at the College Hill Bookstore. But their online audience has grown from zero to 75 million over that period. Measured by pure audience interest, newspapers have never been more relevant. If they embrace this role as an authoritative guide to the entire ecosystem of news, if they stop paying for content that the web is already generating on its own, I suspect in the long run they will be as sustainable and as vital as they have ever been. The implied motto of every paper in the country should be: all the news that's fit to link.

This is what I think the ecosystem will ultimately look like:

Newsecosystem

2009-03-16-6a00d8345166f269e2011279688e6728a4500wi.jpg


Will this system be perfect? Of course not. But I think we have every reason to believe that it will be an improvement on the paradigm that we've been living with for the past century.

Let me say one final thing. I am bullish on the future of news, as you can tell. But I am not bullish on what is happening right now in the newspaper industry. It is ugly, and it is going to get uglier. Great journalists and editors are going to lose their jobs, and cities are going to lose their papers. There should have been a ten-year evolutionary process: the ecosystem steadily diversifying and establishing its complex relationships, the new business models evolving, the papers slowly transferring from print to digital, along with the advertisers. Instead, the financial meltdown - and some related over-leveraging by the newspaper companies themselves - has taken what should have been a decade-long process and crammed it down into a year or two. That is bad news for two reasons. First because it is going to inflict a lot of stress on people inside the industry who do great things, and who provide an important social good with their work. But it's also bad news because it's going to distract us from the long-term view; we're going to spend so much time trying to figure out how to keep the old model on life support that we won't be able to help invent a new model that actually might work better for everyone. The old growth forest won't just magically grow on its own, of course, and no doubt there will be false starts and complications along the way. But in times like these, when all that is solid is melting into air, as Marx said of another equally turbulent era, it's important that we try to imagine how we'd like the future to turn out and set our sights on that, and not just struggle to keep the past alive for a few more years.

So that's why I wanted to take us back to the College Hill bookstore in 1987: to remind us that the emerging news ecosystem is already around us, and already doing wonderful things. Most of us in this room, I suspect, are already living in the old-growth forests now. It's up to us to remind everyone else how promising those ecosystems really are -- or, even better, to help them live up to that promise.


This piece can also be found atstevenberlinjohnson.com.