The Communalist Revolution

macheteFor those who have a vested interest in decently compensated professional journalism, a sentimental fondness for it, or a core belief that what it contributes to democracy is essential, a recent OJR post by Robert Niles is important, if severely depressing, reading. I’d recommend  the whole piece, but the killer paragraph comes at the end, after he establishes that there is no real hope for replacing income lost to newsrooms forever:

“It’s time to … find a publishing and production model that allows a news publication to live within its current income means. That’s where the real change will happen in news publishing – the expensive, labor-intensive, manual newsroom model will give way to new, distributed, communal reporting and editing models, ones that are now being forged by journalist entrepreneurs. I wish that news businesses, foundations and journalism schools spending resources on searching for new funding models would abandon those futile efforts, and instead redirect that funding toward cultivating and studying innovation in news gathering and production. And in doing that, I wish that industry would quit looking to print editors and broadcast station managers for leadership and instead look toward online publishers and editors who are making nascent efforts work.

“Unfortunately, too many print and broadcast veterans don’t want to change their production model. So they instead devote their time and energy toward getting someone to fund another doomed quest to look for their revenue model Holy Grail.”

I think he’s nailed an inconvenient truth here. But he’s also glossing over what to me is the most troubling implication. By “distributed, communal reporting and editing models” he means some variation on “citizen journalists” and Wikipedia-type open source editing; newsrooms consisting of thousands of individuals with their laptops more or less volunteering their time, plus  whatever automated data dumps, gee-gaws and hoo-has can be innovated.

Anyone who has ever tried to produce high-quality, groundbreaking, earth-moving journalism — the kind that often requires individuals to ignore all other aspects of their lives, including family, physical health and sanity — understands just how unlikely it is that communal journalism will produce the same. It’s the equivalent of firing Shakespeare and hoping a million monkeys working together will produce Hamlet. Some journalism, and I would argue the most important kind, requires trained and experienced individuals to dig deep, break through every wall and wade through every swamp to get to the heart of  the matter — not to mention the talent and energy to make sense, and in some cases literature out of it.

Hard to volunteer for all that, without at least the solace of a decent pay day at the end of the slog.

But Niles’ point is that there’s no purpose served whining about it. And he’s dead right. An historic,even tectonic, shift is at work here. It used to be publishers had to own a printing press, a warehouse full of paper and a fleet of trucks. Now all you need is a $500 laptop. There’s no going back to the old economics that aggregated the wealth in a handful of large media companies, which in turn divvied up a portion of that to a group of carefully selected journalists.

Now those journos are increasingly on their own.

But I remain convinced that even as the new realities diminish the best kind of work the old order produced, the need and desire for that work will not diminish. At the same time, the tectonic shift that destroyed the old order makes it dramatically easier to build a new one.

To an ever increasing extent, an individual with the journalistic goods will become his/her own publisher, publicist and distributer. The cost of  finding and connecting with an audience based on interest, rather than geography, will approach zero. The economic scale will suddenly favor small operators, and make targeted, hightly motivated audiences available.

To adapt an Army rectuiting slogan, we can all become A Media Conglomerate of One.

The pathways to get there still have to be hacked out of the jungle, of course. But I recommend we all sharpen our machetes.

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