Note:  On September 1, 2013, I embarked on an eight-month journey as a Reynolds Fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri, which houses the nation’s oldest and perhaps finest journalism school.  Over the next eight months, I will investigate the impact of emerging technology on traditional news media and develop tools to empower digital media consumers.  I’ll be documenting that journey and my time in Columbia, Mo (CoMo, as the kids on campus say) in posts on this blog and on RJI Online, an amazing resource for anyone considering the issues facing professional journalism today.

For nearly 30 years, I have, in one way or another, documented what my friend Mark Zawaki calls the “disruption business.”  In Mark’s thesis, startups and Silicon Valley are not about innovation so much as they are about

disruption, although I have a difficult time parsing the two.  Still, he’s right.  For decades, new technologies developed by new companies have emerged from seemingly thin air to topple venerable corporations and entire industries.  We see a parade of examples in the technology industry itself.  PCs on desktops replaced mainframe and mini computers in  glass offices, taking with them Wang Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corp, Data General, Apollo Computer, among others.  These giants of the technology industry held fast to their core businesses while then-upstart Dell and dozens of other hardware and software companies created a new industry.  Ironically, these disrupters are now themselves being disrupted by shifts away from desktop computing and toward mobile and cloud-based technologies.

The technology industry is not unique.  With technology innovation as a weapon, forward-looking entrepreneurs and business people have had their way with traditional retailing, the book and music publishing business, the hospitality industry, among many others.

All the while, journalists have reported the stories.

They’ve gathered their facts, interviewed sources, wrote their lines and rolled their cameras, even as they marched to the
front lines of disruption themselves. Certainly, these journalists understood the impact of digital media on the business of journalism.  With sites like Craigslist stealing classified ad revenue from print publications, many smaller newspapers folded or consolidated.  As department stores were gut kicked by e-commerce, these one-time dependable display advertisers found efficiency in consolidation, and consequently cut their ad spend in metro dailies because they were no longer competing with each other for the same customers.

And journalists have reported the stories.

Yet while newspapers have gotten thinner and newsrooms less populated, it seems that many journalists are missing something of the bigger picture.  Journalists have focused on the changes to the business of journalism without fully embracing the changes to the act of journalism.

In an August 10, 2013 column in which he pins his hopes for the future of journalism on Jeff Bezos and his purchase of The Washington Post, The Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote “papers are in trouble neither because watchdog journalism ceased to be critical, nor because people stopped reading or needing it. Truth is, we have more readers than ever.  Unfortunately, most of  them pay nothing for the privilege because they read online and we have failed to figure out how to leverage that popularity to support our (very expensive) operations.”

“Perhaps,” Pitts continues, Bezos “has ideas those of us born and raised in the world of news on paper are incapable of having. Perhaps he can help [us] …. more effectively monetize our product. Perhaps he can show us how to save journalism.”

What Pitts seems to overlook is that readers never have paid for news.  They purchased a newspaper, sure, yet the revenues from newsstand and subscription sales never came close to covering the costs of a news-gathering organization. Advertising has paid for news.

Indeed, the shift to online news consumption has shined a light on the economics of the news business, a business where the act of chasing leads, talking to sources, collecting and validating facts, then putting words to paper is subsidized by an army of marketers who want their messages placed on that same paper in hopes that a reader’s eye might wander from the news and fall upon the advertisement.

In a world rich with digital media, advertisers have found new ways to reach potential customer.  Worse, though, is that as news content moved online, it was liberated from the constraints of print and print distribution channels. News consumers and news aggregators could not only read news at no cost, they could easily collect, curate, re-package and re-distribute that content, again at no cost.  Pitts likens these news consumers as school yard bullies stealing the lunch money of the nerdy journalists.  “One gets tired of providing the boots with which someone else kicks one’s backside,” he writes.

This “blame the reader” mentality is understandable, but it’s wrong.  The business of news has been disrupted by more efficient means of distribution and consumption, disruption that traditional media have been slow to accept, let alone to adapt. More dangerous, though, is the mindset that inseparably links journalism to a specific medium, print or otherwise.

Journalism doesn’t depend on paper. Or broadcast. Or the Web, for that matter. While surely influenced by it, the act of journalism must now be separated from the media that deliver it.   It is quite possible, in fact, that the medium is no longer the message.  This understanding is critical because the wave of disruption by digital media is only beginning to affect the act of journalism itself. Anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter account can participate in the act of journalism. And that, my friends, is a disruption much larger than the exodus of advertising from print pages.  Professional journalists will have no choice but to reinvent their role in the news reporting and delivery value chain.

Just how is subject for future posts.  For now, it’s simply worth nothing that whatever Bezos motivation for buying The Washington Post, saving journalism will be up to the journalists.

The View from CoMo: On Disruption and the Act of Journalism

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3 thoughts on “The View from CoMo: On Disruption and the Act of Journalism

  1. I am really looking forward to your thoughts coming out of your time at the University over the next 8 months. What will this mean for all kinds of content creators who don’t want to always do it for free? Good frame up: “Journalists have focused on the changes to the business of journalism without fully embracing the changes to the act of journalism.”

  2. Peter Meng says:

    So the message is returning what it always should have been? A message? Every medium is at one time or another a disruptor. Time to disrupt the disruptors – with our messages.

  3. […] notion, which first took hold early in my Fellowship, became more evident in February, when a lone freelance aviation journalist broke and reported what […]

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