At a Confab in Phoenix, Lamenting (and Inventing) the Future of News

What do we mean by “the news”? As recently as 20 years ago, the answer was pretty clear—it was whatever the media establishment was telling us. There were well-worn models for packaging news (in printed newspapers or half-hour broadcasts) and paying for it (through advertising and, to a lesser extent, subscriptions). There were sharply defined classes of news makers, news reporters, and news consumers. Now all of that is in flux. News comes to us in many more formats, via a huge variety of technical means; it’s supported—if it’s paid for at all—through mechanisms that are either old and failing or novel and unreliable; and the gates have been flung open, so that almost anybody who has something to say can be heard.

So what does the future look like for people like me who call themselves professional journalists? Will we have coherent audiences? How can we get paid for our work? What will happen to serious journalism if advertisers continue to flee and more outlets choose to pander to the search engines by prioritizing speed and quantity over quality and thoughtfulness? How does a society govern itself when news is delivered in 140-character chunks?

Those were the kinds of questions on the minds of people at News Foo last weekend. The two-day gathering at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix was an “unconference” organized by O’Reilly Media, the Sebastopol, CA-based technology publishing and events company, with support from Google and the Knight Foundation. The 150 hand-picked attendees created their own meeting agenda on the fly, organizing dozens of parallel sessions with titles like “Who Is a Publisher?,” “Upgrade the Audience,” “Imagining Life Without the New York Times,” “Build the Perfect Tablet News App,” “Networked/Social Reading,” “Open Data Journalism,” “What is Happening to Our Attention?,” and “Collaborate or Die.”

It was a powerhouse crowd, mixing executives from traditional media outlets like CBS, NPR, PBS, and the UK’s Guardian newspaper with j-school professors and founders of content-driven startups like Flipboard, Intersect, My6Sense, OneSpot, Pictory, and Storify. I felt very fortunate to be included, and I took the opportunity to organize one session of my own—“Business Models for Journalist-Entrepreneurs”—and to co-organize another called “Will Long-Form Journalism Survive?” with Steven Levy of Wired and Bill Jensen of Village Voice Media.

So, what did this group of distinguished thinkers divine about the future of news? Nothing specific. This meeting was more about starting conversations then finishing them—Tim O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media and the conference’s presiding spirit, said at an opening session that the main point of all Foo gatherings (the name stands for “Friends of O’Reilly”) is “to connect people who ought to know one another.” Still, I thought I could detect a few themes and lessons emerging from the rapid shuffle of sessions, meals, and networking, and I’m going to spend a few minutes describing them here. These are just my initial, personal takeaways—I’m still digesting a lot of what I heard at News Foo, and people who attended different sessions may have come away with a totally different set of impressions.

There’s a growing tension between “more” and “less.” Even some of the self-avowed news junkies at the conference admitted feeling sometimes that it’s all too much: that there are just too many news outlets producing too many articles to read, too many smart people to follow on social media, et cetera. Jody Brannon, director of the News21 Project of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, organized a whole session around her plea for better filtration tools to help combat information overload. Yet at the same time, other conference participants were focusing on ways to use the Web to provide readers with even more information—for example, the context, history, and background relevant to major news stories. Tristan Harris, for example, talked about Apture, his San Francisco startup, which makes software that turns every word in a news story into a potential search query linking to Web pages, images, and videos. Now that the congenitally curious have so many more ways to explore whatever interests them, the only way to keep the slightly-less-curious from falling catastrophically behind is to lower the barriers to exploration even farther, Harris argued.

I’m not sure how to fix information overload. My own feeling is that journalism is all about “more”—otherwise we wouldn’t get up every morning to write yet more copy. But online journalists probably do need to work harder to provide useful and succinct context, beyond the “topic pages” that amount to a discouragingly huge wall of links to our own previous articles.

Finding readers is about search engine optimization. Get used to it. Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land, led a heavily attended session on journalism and search. (Other journalists love Danny because he’s a really nice guy and a world expert on the search industry, and he doesn’t charge for his advice.) These days it’s easy for writers—and their bosses–to gauge the impact of each article just by looking at the traffic statistics. So it’s dumb to leave potential page views on the table by failing to do a few simple things to help your articles show up higher on search result pages, Sullivan argued. One is avoiding puns and allusions in headlines. While these may add spice to the writing process, they just make articles harder to find for readers. Another is checking Google Trends or the keyword search tool at Google Adwords to see what popular words or phrases come up in relation to your topic, then putting those words into your headline or lede paragraph.

Obviously, it’s possible to overdo this, and companies like Demand Media have created vast assembly lines to churn out articles that exist solely to pander to the search engines (as former Demand Media executive Sam Jones admitted at News Foo). But organic (i.e. non-sponsored) search results are such a huge source of traffic for most news sites, Xconomy included, that SEO should be seen as a natural part of the business—no different from the old process at print newspapers of rewriting headlines until all the type fit within the available space. If that makes us all less “creative,” so be it.

The Internet erases geography; paradoxically, it may save local news. I was impressed by the number of people on hand at News Foo from online operations that are all about serving audiences at a “hyperlocal” level. Xconomy is one of these—we focus on high-tech entrepreneurship within specific innovation clusters like Boston and the Bay Area, on the theory that this is where the really interesting and instructive interactions happen. Other examples included Windy Citizen (Chicago), (Washington, DC), Technically Philly (Philadelphia), Everyblock (localized news feeds for 16 cities), Intersect (place-based storytelling), LocalWiki (expanding from Davis, CA, to many more places) and (“community-powered reporting” in a variety of locations).

What’s happening here, in part, is that the Web lowers communication costs, making it possible for journalists to talk to smaller groups of people than the old newspaper business models would have permitted. But it’s also allowing citizens to talk to each other and share their knowledge about local resources and local issues, down to the level of the potholes and leaky fire hydrants that need fixing and the best farmers’ markets to visit this weekend. (“I go to other cities, and I’m like, ‘Where’s the wiki?” exclaims one DavisWiki user in a video at the LocalWiki home page.) I’m amazed and encouraged by the number of experiments going on in hyperlocal Web journalism, and by the passion of the experimenters.

Tablets will rescue long-form journalism on the Web. No, they won’t. There’s an acronym frequently used in Web discussion forums when someone drones on at stultifying length: TLDR, for “Too long, didn’t read.” Whether they admit it or not, many online readers have this reaction to any article that looks like it’s going to take more than a couple minutes to digest. And who can blame them? The Web is a cornucopia of competing distractions. As I write this paragraph, I have to focus hard to avoid the temptation to check Twitter or my e-mail inbox. Don’t ask me to explain why, under those circumstances, I regularly write articles like this one that exceed 1,500 or 2,000 words. My only excuse is that I was brought up reading, and writing for, print magazines. (On a serious note, I think that when you’re writing about entrepreneurs testing new technologies and new business models, it really can take that long to say something informative.)

The problem is that my readers are just as distracted and pressed for time as everyone else. We can see it in our page view statistics, when only 60 or 70 percent of the people who read page 1 of an article click through to page 2, and when only 60 percent of those readers click through to page 3. Could the new popularity of tablet computers and reading devices like the iPad and the Kindle provide an antidote? That was the hope of several participants in a News Foo session on the future of long-form journalism.

One name that came up again and again at the session was Instapaper. It’s a tool that makes it easy to save a full Web article so that you can read it later, in stripped-down, text-only form, on your iPad or Kindle or smartphone. I love Instapaper myself because it extracts articles from the noisy Web, upping the chances that I’ll make it through to the end of each piece. But most participants were skeptical about Instapaper or similar tools as long-term fixes for the attention-deficit problem. Louis Gray, a long-form blogger who works at My6Sense, a startup that helps readers create personalized Twitter and RSS streams, argued that journalists and their employers need to make peace with the idea that most long articles have small audiences, and that the payback for publishing compelling long-form content might come only over a period of months or years. “If you have thousands of readers to be effective, that’s a problem,” Gray said. “We have to find a way to reward people who do things right.”

News gathering will survive as a vocation, but with a different set of patrons. For reasons that Clay Shirky and others have analyzed at great length, the audience-aggregation and advertising models that supported big-city newspapers, national magazines, and TV news don’t work as well anymore, and we’re seeing it in the closure of major papers and magazines and the dwindling audiences for nightly news shows. But there’s at least one form of advertising that still works—keyword-based search advertising—and one company that’s exploiting that fact to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year, namely Google.

To its great credit, Google professes to care about the news business and wants to see it thrive. As it should, if for no other reason than that the news media create so much searchable content for Google to sell ads against. It created Google News, which sends lots of traffic to news sites. It’s undertaken experiments like Living Stories, a collaboration with several big newspapers to gather all of an outlet’s stories on a given theme in one place. It’s hired people like Chris Gaither, a former technology reporter for the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times who’s now Google’s ambassador to the news business, and, in an important sense, the news business’s ambassador to Google. And it sponsored News Foo and sent Gaither and several of its smartest engineers and product managers to participate in the weekend’s discussions.

I’m not implying that Google should, or even can, directly underwrite the next generation of journalists and journalism. But the fact that Google is even thinking about the survival of the news business qualifies as a Very Good Thing, in my opinion. At the very least, it will mean the company will continue to tune its search algorithms to reward high-quality content and punish spam and dreck. On a larger level, it means Google will continue to add new ways to get content to readers—this week’s introduction of the Chrome Web App Store, which already includes more than a dozen news apps, being one example.

I came away from News Foo encouraged, energized, and exhausted (but in a good way—one too many games of Werewolf). I’m grateful to O’Reilly, Google, and the Knight Foundation for having the vision to organize the event—and to everyone who was there for sharing their hopes, fears, and ideas. And to you, dear reader, for sticking with me all the way to page 3.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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8 responses to “At a Confab in Phoenix, Lamenting (and Inventing) the Future of News”

  1. Henry Scott says:

    Do thinking people actually still go to Phoenix for any sort of conference? I wouldn’t be caught dead there while Jan Brewer is running her little death panels and persecuting Hispanics. Shame!

  2. OK Wade…I *sort of* read every word of this piece. Some paragraphs were skimmed (hyperlocal discussion). That’s my usual behavior with your work…I do get to the end but lose attention here and there. Blame it on Twitter. Now if you start turning every word into a link my readership is tanked.

  3. Bill Garber says:

    Another fine report on Newsfoo – Thanks Wade, and @Stevebuttry for the link to your fine blog here.

    I am interested in your approach to local, place namely. I agree. Silicon Valley is the Bay Area all right. It a kind of physical place that works for industry journalism.

    Place is what a lot of ‘hyperlocal’ aspirants are looking for, too, if they has this sense of place. It is hard to do local anything when people say they live in Chicago, LA, or Atlanta, when they really sleep in a neighborhood with its own name in most cases.

    Community journalism where I earn my living is happily dealing with people who sleep in the town they claim to be from by name.

    I’m just now reading ‘No sense of Place’ by Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) (printed just for me 08 December 2010! Ah, the magic of on-demand book publishing by old-school Oxford in this case.) The subtitle is ‘The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior’ Meyrowitz makes a solid case for media of 25 years ago already having largely disguised, even disassociated places from people, whether place in the social order or place on the surface of the globe.

    To the degree that technology can help restore both senses of place for people, the experience will be so compelling there may well be an embarrassment of riches–which is what gave rise to the golden age of journalism, was it not?

    The masses are waiting, hanging out in Facebook, skimming Google returns, or just feeding that little uneasiness in their stomach at a drive through, the persistent little uneasiness they feel when nothing feels like it is standing still and when nothing feels like their place.