What’s Next for News

March 25, 2009

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com. To see the original, go to http://tinyurl.com/c7bqa4.

It’s been quite a week for viral postings on the future of traditional media and of newspapers in particular. Several have gotten a lot of attention as they made the rounds, including this one by Web theorist Clay Shirky, which has been cited on dozens of media blogs and Web sites.

Shirky’s bottom line: Newspapers are dead, their business model irretrievably broken. So, what’s next? He doesn’t know. Sites like MinnPost are part of the answer, but by no means all of it.tombstones

As one of my former bosses liked to say: “Bring me solutions, not problems.” That’s why, of all the scores of media ruminations and predictions I’ve read in the last couple of years, I like this piece by blogger Dan Conover.

Conover lays out more potential scenarios than I could possibly imagine: from non-daily publishing and local media cooperatives on the simple end of the spectrum, to informatics and predictive intelligence on the more complex end.

The point is, the news business as we’ve known it for generations is changing and will continue to change in ways we can’t possibly imagine now.

I accept that and even embrace it. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but wonder how we can recover what is almost certain to be lost in this revolution: a sense of shared knowledge of our communities.

Over the past 200 years, newspapers have given us a starting point for our society’s discussions. Now that sense of an ongoing, shared community tale is atomizing, dispersed into millions of blogs, Web sites, Twitter feeds and social networks.

New communities are forming in these areas, to be sure. If you’re someone who’s intensely interested in politics, sites like Daily Kos or RedState connect you to people around the nation– even the world– who share your interests. There’s real value in that.

No matter what your occupation, hobby or obsession, the Web connects you in ways you couldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago.

But the volume of information is growing beyond our ability to process it. I’ve heard many people lately mention that they’re getting overwhelmed keeping up with all their Facebook friends’ comments and updates. Twitter, which I adopted relatively early, is a torrent that requires constant attention. The phenomenon of too many RSS feeds to keep up with is old news by now.

All of the recent advances in information technology, it seems to me, have been aimed at increasing the amount of information available to us. I think we’re reaching the point when we need some technology that helps us filter, sort and make sense of the river of data that we swim in every day.

There used to be something like that. It was called a newspaper.

I have, with great sadness, accepted the idea that newspapers as we’ve known them may not be with us much longer. I’d love to be proven wrong.

But I believe people still want what newspapers have provided: a sense of being presented with important, useful and enjoyable information, culled from many sources and thoughtfully organized.

Like Clay Shirky, I don’t know what online form that might take. And given the economics of the Web, it may be that nobody can make a living producing it.

As is so often the case in a revolution, the only thing certain is that nothing is certain.