Teaching Examples

Open your eyes, see what works
December 19, 2006, 3:06 pm
Filed under: business, future, journalism, newspapers, participation

The days of “throw it at the wall and see whether it sticks” must come to an end in the newspaper business.

What works on the Web? YouTube, Craigslist, MySpace, etc. Why? Because we get to do stuff. We can play. We can contribute. Never mind that only 1 percent actually do contribute — that’s okay if you have enough people in there. The ones who are just lurking like the idea that they could contribute if they really felt like doing so.

With few exceptions, the media businesses thriving on the Web either are low-cost blog-like efforts or follow a many-to-many model, in which communities create, share, and consume content. Publishing an article on the Web gets you one click; getting your users to write the article for you gets you a thousand clicks, and costs less to boot. In other words, turning your users into contributors increases their engagement with your site — each click is, after all, also an “ad impression” — while simultaneously generating more content that you in turn can sell to advertisers.

That, I’d venture, is how you start rethinking the newspaper business.

That’s from Michael Hirschorn, an executive vice president at VH1, writing in The Atlantic this month (via Jacob Sloan).

The first page of Hirschorn’s essay is all about EPIC 2015, which all of my readers have probably enjoyed many times since Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson first launched it into the mediaverse in 2004. So skip straight to page 2, where Hirschorn really starts talking.

Erasing the boundaries between “us” and “them”

Many of the so-called citizen journalism efforts by established news organizations are actually pathetic little ghettos on the outskirts of the “real” newspaper. A true revitalization (or transformation) of this business requires more:

… the craft of journalism will evolve to include far more aggregation and organization [than it] has in the past. Editors will assemble their reports from a vast library of resources located across the Internet. Some information will come from paid staff writers, others from freelancers and still more from reports and opinions published by independent third parties and even competitors. Editors will still have a critical role, but their value will increasingly be in assembling and organizing information for readers who don’t have the time to sort through the vast Web.

(Sounds like what I’m doing in this post!) That’s from a blog post by Paul Gillin, a consultant based in Massachusetts (thanks, Chris!). He goes on to describe a practice that I know full well would horrify a large number of journalists:

Reporters will file copy directly to the Web, often without a review by an editor. Readers will be a central part of the process, correcting and comment[ing] upon articles as they are taking shape. Reporting will become, in effect, a community process.

As Tank said to Neo on his first day of training, “Damn! It’s a very exciting time!”

Rather than quote further from Hirschorn and Gillin, I’m going to treat you to something I read Sunday night in one of the all-time great works of media theory, a slender book of essays by the late James W. Carey. This is not to impress you with my scholarly chops but rather to try to provide a useful thinking tool.

Talking “at” vs. talking “with”

Carey draws a neat distinction between the “transmission” view of communication and the “ritual” view of communication. The transmission view is what we spend most of our time assuming communication is — we send messages back and forth to each other. We transmit signals. We send data, information, facts and maybe, sometimes, knowledge (but in fact knowledge probably cannot be transmitted). “We” might mean two humans, a newspaper and its audience, a teacher and a roomful of dozing students, or four friends in Starbucks.

The ritual view is different, but not hard to understand. A group of people praying or chanting (or even singing) together in a religious practice can illustrate this view of communication. They might be “sending a signal” to God, but then ask yourself, why are they doing it together, and out loud?

And after you wrap your mind around that, you can re-examine your mental picture of the two humans, a newspaper and its audience, a teacher and a roomful of dozing students, or four friends in Starbucks. You can apply a ritual view to them too.

A ritual view of communication, Carey wrote, is:

… directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs (1988 [1992], p. 18).

Before you argue that the newspaper business has no connections to a ritual view of communication, please read one more pearl from Professor Carey:

News reading, and writing, is a ritual act and moreover a dramatic one. What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world…. The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces … (pp. 20-21; emphasis mine).

I would like to echo and reinforce Michael Hirschorn now: That is how you start rethinking the newspaper business.

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2 Comments so far
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Good post.

Comment by Howard Owens

Thanks for a perceptive post and for quoting my essay on the rebirth of journalism. To some people, it’s a pretty horrifying idea that news could be published without a closed-loop editorial system, but that open, group-editing process is going on right on in social media communities around the world. We have to change our thinking and accept that it is possible to create a new and better kind of journalism using the new tools that are in place. Not all journalism will be done this way, but who’s to say there can’t be many kinds of journalism?

If anyone would like to download a PDF of my essay, “How the coming newspaper industry collapse will reinvigorate journalism,” it’s available at http://www.gillin.com/Collapse_of_newspapers.pdf.

Comment by Paul Gillin

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