Yesterday, Steven Berlin Johnson spoke at SXSW about the information ecosystem and the future of news. Fortunately, for those of us playing at home, he blogged a transcript.
Johnson adds international and war reporting to investigative reporting as the areas at risk due to the implosion of news funding. Johnson envisions a bright future in other areas, citing a well-developed information ecosystem in technology, and comparing coverage of the 2008 and 1992 U.S. Presidential elections.
Extending his ecosystem metaphor, Johnson introduces technology journalism as the “old-growth forest” of web journalism. Ecologists use (real-world) old growth “to research natural ecosystems”, so by extension, Johnson says, “it’s much more instructive to anticipate the future of investigative journalism by looking at the past of technology journalism”. While this argument holds no water, it’s certainly suggestive.
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. … 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. … 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.
As Johnson envisions, “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.”.
This is all by way of introduction to his new company, outside.in, which provides geographic search and alerting.
Johnson concludes, in part, by examining the filtering problem, and turning it into an opportunity:
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?
Johnson expects (future) newspapers to function as filters, aiding the public in getting the news:
Information Ecosystem, as envisioned by Steven Berlin Johnson
Johnson does not address who’s going to pay for the filtering. He’s ready for a new model, but leaves that to the industry to discover for itself. “Measured by pure audience interest, newspapers have never been more relevant.” When he acknowledges the short-term pain of the newspaper industry today, he worries:
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.
The entire transcript is well worth a read.
Via Steven Johnson on twitter.