I was recently looking for information on the decline of newspapers in the US when a Google search turned up a piece by Russell Baker from the 16 August 2007 edition of the New York Review of Books.
A quick scan revealed that it didn’t contain the information I was looking for but a comment caught my eye. The author made the following assertion. “How the internet might replace the newspaper as a source of information is never explained by those who assure you it will”. The author then went on to say that “the internet is basically an electronic version of the ten year old boy on a bicycle who used to toss the newspaper at the front porch: an ingenious circulation device”. He then went on to raise the oft-used (especially by journalists) response to blogging that’s its only value might lie in the fact that there are so many bloggers that inevitably a few “may eventually produce something original, arresting and refreshing” – an equivalent of the probability based scenario of the infinite number of monkeys producing the works of Shakespeare.
Russell it seemed to me, was falling for one of the classic mistakes that many, especially journalists, make when looking at social media – taking the rules that apply to traditional media and seeking to apply or impose them on social media without recognising that social media is fundamentally different in the way it works. This difference is that traditional media is about institutions and social media is about process. Russell can be forgiven for making this mistake because traditional media has been institutionalised ever since it came into being 500 years ago and, as a journalist, he has a vested interest in clinging onto this form.
His mistake produced a flawed assumption, which was implicit in both his question about what will replace newspapers as well as his inability to see where the answer lay and his dismissal of the internet and blogging. This assumption was that he was expecting one form of institutionalised access to information (i.e. a newspaper) to be replaced by another institutionalised form of access to information. His desire to see the answer to his question also framed within the terms of this assumption made him blind to a broader understanding of what will actually replace a newspaper (or to be more precise, what current functions of a newspaper will be replaced, and by what).
He had also fallen into one of the other common traps of assuming that information and its means of distribution are one and the same thing – not recognising that there are two components to a newspaper, its content, but also the basic mechanics of how that content is represented and distributed, being in this instance the form of widely available daily printed sheets of paper and that this distribution component also fundamentally affects the nature of much of the content that is in it.
When you look at his question with an understanding of social media and the shift from institutionalised to process based ways of accessing information the answer becomes easier to define. It is that actually newspapers won’t be replaced, they will simply loose a significant (distribution dependant) component of the content they currently carry and instead will refocus their content on that which is more exclusively adapted to the form in which newspapers are distributed. The content component they will loose will be replaced by a process of individualised news gathering and assessment and while this may be facilitated by institutionalised forms we are not going to have individual sources promoting themselves as being the one-and-only place for news, in the way that newspapers currently do. People will not rely on single sources, they will form their own opinion about the world based on ease of access to a wide range of information sources, combined with tools and processes that will help then determine the accuracy and provenance of the information they consume.
Gastronomy comes in as a good analogy to explain this. Suppose we had a way of obtaining nourishment without actually eating, would we still actually bother to eat? The answer is that yes we would, because eating has more to it than the simple gaining of nourishment – although much of the roots of the social and sensual pleasures we derive from eating lie in its role as a provider of nourishment. However, we almost certainly would not eat three times a day – eating would become a treat activity. Something we would plan, look forward to, spend a lot more money on, ritualise and revere even. We would all become gastronomes.
The relevance of this as an analogy is that the ability to obtain information without newspapers is the same as receiving nourishment without eating. It is possible for this to happen without spelling the end of newspapers (or eating). Viewed in this way, his question becomes something like, “In a world where I don’t need to eat, what will replace my spoon?” Clearly such a question has limited practical relevance, although it does start to stray into the realms of the philosophical.
It is also a useful analogy because it helps understand that the future of newspapers lies in understanding newspapers as a form of distribution, not a form of content, and therefore (hopefully) a re-discovery the almost sensual pleasures of newsprint in terms of its form and the occasions relevant to its ‘consumption’. These are things that the digitally based forms of social media will struggle to capture and thus replace. Thus, to return to the analogy, newspapers are going to be things we get perhaps once a week, maybe once a month. They will probably be far more visually rich than they currently are and the ‘consumption occasions’ they will seek to exploit or re-inforce will be the leisurely weekend breakfast or the armchair after Sunday lunch. They will also be far more expensive because they will not be able to use the function of daily news dissemination to subsidise the costs of the expensive distribution technology any more.
But perhaps the real value of the gastronomy analogy is that it helps people understand two critical things: first, we are entering a new media world with different systems and rules (i.e. a world where we don’t need to eat) and second, we need to separate content based functions from distribution based functions and recognise that traditional media is essentially a distribution dependant feature, not a content dependant feature as many would like to think that it is (i.e. the recognition that eating actually has two functions – nourishment and pleasure).