Journalism: Dying by a thousand cuts, or being reinvented?

There are plenty of warning signs about the ongoing disruption in the media industry, and everyone is looking for someone to blame. But when it comes to their journalistic competition, many traditional outlets still seem to look primarily at other media players such as the Huffington Post (s aol), Buzzfeed or Politico. As information architect and web developer Stijn Debrouwere notes in a smart post about the evolution of media, however, the reality is that much of what we find competing with journalism in the digital world are things we barely even recognize as journalism. How the industry adapts to that change will be the real challenge.

Debrouwere says that when he thinks about the changes in journalism, he’s not thinking about “digital first or about blogging or about data journalism or the mobile web or the curation craze,” or any of the other aspects of democratized distribution and the social web, such as citizen journalism — all of which he notes have had a huge impact. Instead, he says we should be looking at the things that are actually replacing traditional sources of journalism in our day-to-day consumption habits.

Sites like Wikipedia and Reddit are replacing some aspects of journalism

In this category, Debrouwere mentions services such as Netflix and Amazon, as well as Spotify and Rdio — all of which feature recommendation engines, and in many cases social aspects that to some extent replace reading record reviews or concert reviews in a newspaper. Not only is there less clutter, he says, but you can listen to or watch the content right away. Other sites offer topic-specific content that is much deeper and richer than any general-interest newspaper could hope to be on a subject. And then there are sites like Reddit and Quora and Wikipedia:

Reddit’s I Am A board, with threads like “I am an astronaut, ask me anything” and “I am an Australian nightclub bouncer, ask me anything,” looks like any other internet forum, but it is also what interviews and profiles can look like in the 21st century. Wikipedia has, for pretty much everyone, replaced news organizations as the place where you go to get in-depth information about anything that didn’t happen today.

Debrouwere’s point about Reddit was reinforced during a recent “Ask me anything” discussion the site did with Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times. Although there were some typically light-hearted and irreverent questions from Reddit users, it was as illuminating an interview about Krugman’s views as I have read in any magazine or newspaper. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has also written about Reddit as a prototype for a different kind of journalism.

Is what Reddit does journalism? Is what Wikipedia does or Quora does journalism? These might be the kinds of questions that journalists like to get wrapped up in, but people looking for information probably aren’t as interested in splitting semantic hairs. All they know is whether it’s useful or not (EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty had an excellent response several years ago when someone asked him “Is data journalism?”).

Readers aren’t interested in debates about the nature of journalism

You can see this phenomenon in action whenever something new comes along that impinges on media consumption in some way, including Twitter. In just the past couple of years, the service has transformed itself from a harmless tool for wasting time into a real-time global newswire, but it wasn’t that long ago that critics were asking whether posting things to Twitter qualified as journalism. Before that, it was the question of “bloggers vs. journalists,” an issue that got debated endlessly. But I think Debrouwere is right when he says that this misses the point:

[Neither] YouTube nor Facebook or any of these other companies aim to be an alternative to journalism and much of what they facilitate or do doesn’t look like journalism at all. A good chunk of it contains written or spoken words, but sometimes not even that. It’s not journalism. But you’d be naive if you thought their services aren’t often consumed instead of news.

Debrouwere’s post is entitled “Fungible,” a term economists use to refer to commodities that are effectively interchangeable. Most journalists would probably rather not think of what they produce as being “fungible.” They would prefer to think of it as being unique, but that is rarely the case. As economists love to point out, your competition isn’t the product that is better, it’s the one that is good enough. And as media-studies professor Nikki Usher noted in a recent post at the Nieman Journalism Lab, newspapers may be convinced that everyone still wants and needs them — but they could be mistaken.

So what can traditional media entities do in this environment? Debrouwere has some suggestions, including focusing more on storytelling and personality “because those things are irreplaceable,” as well as “writing to peoples’ passion” and trying to be more entertaining in the same way that sites such as The Awl and Gawker are. But for many traditional journalists, that is going to sound pretty hollow — just as the recent suggestions by Washington Post president Steve Hills about having more slideshows seemed to strike a sour note for many writers there and elsewhere.

In the end, Debrouwere has a harsh question, but it bears thinking about:

Are we trying to get better at something that doesn’t matter anymore? Perhaps we should take the best traditions of journalism and do something entirely new with it. Whatever we are doing now is not working.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Denise Chan and See-ming Lee

We’ll be discussing these media issues and much more at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads on May 23 in NYC. Register today.