By Andrew Gibson
I’ve heard the question too many times: “Why are you going into journalism?”
It usually comes from people not in the profession who hear about the decline of print newspapers or conclude that online news is an impossible business model. However, I read a post Sunday from a journalism insider. Dave Winer, who “pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software,” according to his website Scripting News, posted this Friday:
“Journalism itself is becoming obsolete. I know the reporters don’t want to hear this, and they’re likely to blast me, even try to get me “fired” (it’s happened before) because at least for the next few months I hang my hat at a J-school. I happen to think journalism was a response to publishing being expensive. It cost a lot of money to push bits around the net before there was a net. They had to have huge capital-intensive printing plants, fleets of trucks and delivery boys with paper routes. Now we can hear directly from the sources and build our own news networks. It’s still early days for this, and it wasn’t that long ago that we depended on journalists for the news. But in a generation or two we won’t be employing people to gather news for us. It’ll work differently.”
I don’t think Winer wrote the post to upset anyone. He’s an “investor in web media companies,” according to his website, meaning he likely wants to see online journalism succeed. But I think it’s unfair, or at least too early, to say “journalism itself” is on the path to oblivion. There’s no easy way to define the practice, but I think of journalism as the process of verifying and disseminating information that makes people better able to make informed decisions. Newspapers are struggling, but I don’t see any widespread appetite for false information.
In other words, journalism as a business model that depends on subscriptions and advertising might be falling apart, but journalism as a practice is not. The following is a screen shot of the most popular news websites as of Sept. 4. It’s from Alexa, a website that gathers Web-traffic data from people who use its toolbar.
Winer’s point that “journalism was a response to publishing being expensive” seems fair. Today, as people abandon ink for pixels, newspaper and magazine executives worldwide are scratching their heads trying to find new ways to make money. The New York Times’ paywall has exceeded some expectations, but it’s too early to call it a viable revenue source. However, these are all issues related to business models, not the desire for verified information. Many people learned of Osama bin Laden’s death on Twitter, but they looked to official sources afterward for confirmation, according to a Mediabistro article:
“The New York Times‘ web traffic jumped 62% from 10PM to 11:59PM compared to previous Sundays. The Wall Street Journal‘s web traffic jumped 81% during the 11 PM hour over past weeks. Time magazine page views were up 290 percent from the daily average.
And CNN, which had a traffic explosion, saw a 217 percent gain in page views from Sunday night to 1PM on Monday. Moreover, CNN reported that Monday was one of their 10 biggest days in history.”
Maybe it’s true that, in the words of Winer, “We won’t be employing people to gather news for us” in a few generations. But that doesn’t mean the end of journalism. Instead of hiring people to gather news, we’ll hire them to curate it from social networks, crowd source opinions and spawn conversation based on verified facts.
I’m not the only one in the journalism community with a strong reaction to Winer’s post. Below is what Mathew Ingram wrote for the tech-news website GigaOM. He references Andy Carvin, an NPR social media expert who uses Twitter to curate information about Middle Eastern revolts.
Photo at the top of the post courtesy of Alex Barth.