Is the Future of Journalism a Drought or a Flood?

Journalism students may be short on jobs, but they certainly aren’t lacking reading material about their industry. In the last twelve months, there have been a number of landmark essays on journalism written by academics and journalists. In addition, at least six major textbook-sized reports on the future of American media have been released, as well as innumerable lectures, conferences and roundtables on the topic.

The list of materials produced this year could easily make up a respectable “open-source” syllabus for the aspiring journalism innovator. But until a week or two ago, this makeshift seminar wouldn’t have been complete. Just when I thought little else could be written about the future of news, a coalition of independent media outlets – The Media Consortium – has released a remarkable new report that deserves a slot in your reading list.

The Big Thaw: Charting a New Course for Journalism is refreshingly different from every other report published this year (including our own). Whereas most reports focus on what went wrong with journalism in America and consider new models and experiments currently under way, The Big Thaw delves into the future. Rather than center on how we arrived at our media juncture, it looks to where we are headed. It reads less like a report and more like a travel guide of what’s to come, giving the reader a glimpse at an exciting new landscape. Indeed, the authors themselves describe it as a toolbox, and open the report with a “how-to” guide for using the information it contains.

The report’s pragmatic nature means that there are no revelatory moments, no shocking new information. Instead, the report’s strength rests on the authors’ ability to bring remarkable clarity to the complex transitions taking place in our media, and to outline clear and achievable next steps for independent media to survive, thrive and recreate themselves for the future.

The Big Thaw is also refreshing in its optimism. At a time when so many people view the state of journalism as a drought – with advertising, newsrooms and jobs drying up – the authors celebrate the impending flood of new media, new ideas and new opportunities, while recognizing that floods can drown us or carry us along.

They write:

While changes to the news industry advanced at a glacial pace for many years, […] transition can come as quickly as the levees that broke in New Orleans. Trigger events cause sudden floods before a new system is in place to prevent it. News organizations are facing flash floods and many are in a mode akin to sudden-death, wilderness survival. Laurence Gonzalez, in his book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, explained that those people who most quickly surrender to their new circumstances, take decisive action, and believe anything is possible are the ones most likely to survive. Each independent media organization must answer two questions in order to survive, ‘What will you be standing on when the flood reaches you?’ and ‘How will you boldly move to higher ground?’

This emphasis on action pervades the entire report, and it is a welcome change of tone. It argues that it’s time to stop predicting the future of news and start creating it. This is a report that seems almost uncomfortable with its own static nature on the page. Indeed, it is best read on the screen. The authors offered the report in an Adobe format that allows readers to jump around throughout the text, following a line of thought instead of just turning pages, as though it seeks to embody the lessons it teaches.

The report’s key recommendations are:

  1. Change internally : We must rethink the fundamental structure of news organizations, and rely on “technologists, entrepreneurs and individual media-makers” to help shape or reshape our organizations and “cultivate new competencies and strategies to change the journalism field.”
  2. Increase experimentation: We need experimentation inside and outside current media organizations. The authors suggest that “rapid, low-cost innovation” must be paired with emerging technology across multiple platforms.
  3. Leverage the unique role of consortiums: The future of independent media demands a new era of partnership and creative collaboration. While competition is vital to fostering a diverse media ecosystem, sustainable journalism will require us to balance competition and cooperation for the public good.
  4. Build audiences as communities: “The product of journalism is no longer content, but community,” the report argues, adding, “Decentralized communities will have the greatest impact.”

At first glance, these recommendations – change, experimentation, collaboration and community – may not seem so different from recommendations made in other reports. But The Big Thaw excels in its ability to get beyond recommendations and actually begin to chart a course for meeting the challenges ahead. It has a decidedly tech-friendly focus that embraces the new roles geeks and gadgets can play in the news..

Unlike so many other reports, it’s not focused on how to pay for the news. While it touches on this very real issue, The Big Thaw is premised on finding strategies to do better journalism, to make journalism more relevant to people’s lives, and to foster journalism that builds community, provides accountability and empowers citizens.

If the nearly 100-page report intimidates you, the Media Consortium is blogging the report in small pieces here, and they have released a slideshow of the report’s major findings, recommendations and key illustrations. But I recommend reading the entire thing – it’s worth it.

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