Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Part II: Wired's Chris Anderson - A New Model For Journalism

Posted by Tom Foremski - September 15, 2011

Part II of an interview with Wired magazine's Chris Anderson... Photo credit

By Matthew Buckland

Matthew Buckland: A while back you made some startling pronouncements on Der Spiegel Online about journalism and media, implying that journalism in the future would be a mere "hobby". Do you still hold these views... is journalism as a craft dead and dying?

CA: Did I say that?

MB: I think you did, I think you said there was no such word as a journalist... you didn't understand what the word was anymore. You thought journalism would become more of a hobby than a craft. Did they misquote you or am I paraphrasing it wrong?

CA: I don't remember saying that; I don't know whether you're paraphrasing wrong... I don't have a problem with journalism. I have a problem with our vocabulary. I think the vocabulary of media, news and journalism was created over a hundred years ago and it hasn't evolved. I think we need new words, I don't think we need new professions. My issue is entirely semantic. I think these words are losing the crispness of their definitions, I don't know what the new words are. This is a question that is dear to the hearts of journalists. Obviously I run a media organization as it is traditionally defined. I employ journalists as traditionally defined. I don't have a problem with the profession, but I do think that if we are to restrict ourselves to the 20th century definitions of these words we will limit our success and our range.

MB: Does the word "citizen journalist" make any sense in today's society?

CA: No that doesn't work for me at all. The word "citizen" is only meaningful within a political context. What does "news" mean? Right now on Facebook I am hearing that my son's ultimate Frisbee team is going to be playing next weekend and who they are playing against... that's important news to me. If my daughter skins her knee on the playground or was pushed, that's important news to me. It's not going to be reported by the New York Times and it doesn't count as news in the traditional definition, but it's more relevant to me than an earthquake in Siberia. So social media is a way of putting small-end news in the same medium, that is the internet, as big end news. This has challenged the definition of what news is.

MB: But don't the old words still hold? What you're describing is what has been happening for years. We have always communicated our news to each other; we've been doing that even before the arrival of social networks. Journalists had a specific function in society and that was to communicate news on a macro or national level...

CA: Really? That's news to me. So you don't have local newspapers that cover PTAs or parent meetings? I think what you're not acknowledging here is that hyper-local, the news of your neighborhood, has always been news. It's always been of interest. There is no reason someone can't use journalistic principles to address it. We just haven't had a business model for it.

The only business model is obviously local news at town level. But the only business model for news, which is a privileged model, is news that reaches the largest possible audience, which tends to be national news. The reason newspapers only cover national news is not that it's the only thing we're interested in, but it's the only thing we can make money out of.

The rise of the internet means you don't need an expensive publishing operation to distribute local news or even hyper-local news -- and furthermore the fact that even person-to-person communication is happening in exactly the same medium as broadcast communications, which is to say the web, means the two now compete with each other in a way they never did before.

So I run a website focused on robotics where there is a lot of news. None of it is written by journalists, but just written by members of the community. We have a global audience, we do a million plus page views a month, we compete with media not for money but for people's time, and yet none of it is written by journalists -- so what are we doing?

MB: Do you not think there is a place for journalists? Journalists undergo training, there is a strong subscription to ethics, and there is professionalization of a craft. So I guess when a "journalist" reports the news there is a high degree of credibility and trust?

CA: ...sure. I'm not sure why you are asking the question. I have already told you that I employ journalists and that I believe strongly in it and I have never said otherwise. Can you please explain question better? What about what I said tells you that "I don't believe in everything you just said"?

MB: I am trying to understand the environment you're sketching... obviously we know the traditional notion of a "journalist". I am trying to understand how the craft or profession of journalism would change to mirror the new world you are describing?

CA: I do think the craft of journalism will evolve. I don't think the old model is broken but I do think there is an opportunity for a new model. I do think that all the qualities you describe: accuracy, style, coherence, editing, the pyramid structure... all that stuff is really good and universal. It reflects centuries of understanding of how people like to receive their information.

My suspicion is that the ranks of people creating news is going to grow hugely, including many people who are doing it for non-commercial reasons, the local example I gave earlier being one. As we shift from a traditional "we publish, you read" model to a more "community-social" model, one of the roles of journalists may be to be community managers or editors, or even coaches to help communities do a better job of telling their own stories. Our skill is as important as ever, but we're not the only ones capable of deploying them.

MB: Should media companies offer their online content for free or paywall it, or opt for a paywall where there is free content that lures users into paying for more in-depth content?

CA: Yes, all the paywalls I know are using freemium -- which is to say there is a free tier. Certain stories are free, others aren't. Sometimes there are a number of stories per month that are free. Sometimes sections are free; sometimes the first half is free. So everybody I know of uses freemium, which is to say a carefully calculated balance between free and paid by which people can engage at no cost, but the most appropriate consumers are encouraged to upgrade to a superior paid experience.

MB: Is Wired considering a paywall?

CA: Over time we would like to offer a premium experience. I certainly don't think we want to take anything that's currently free and put it behind a paywall. We offer a freemium experience on tablets and we obviously offer a paid experience in print. We'd like to be able to offer a premium experience for advertisers that's a superior experience across all platforms but that isn't to say we will take what is currently free and close it down. It will be more that we would add.

MB: What will the media company of future look like?

CA: Well, when you say media company, it's hard to know where to draw the line. Is Facebook a media company? Is Google a media company? I don't know. I think media companies won't define themselves as solely a "media company". I think they will think of themselves as a brand company, they have brands and those brands have many manifestations: There will be traditional media, there will community, there may be e-commerce, there may be events, there could be product development. I think the media company of the future won't constrain itself by thinking of itself only as a "media company".

MB: So a company like Facebook will practice activities similar to that of New York Times or Wired for example?

CA: Obviously they come from a different place -- I don't think Facebook wants to be creating original content. But there are some similarities as well. Facebook realizes that a social graph is important and creating a place for people to talk to each other, a platform for communication is core to their strategy.

Traditional media companies are recognizing that social is important to what they do as well. So I think there is a lot of overlap. Some companies are basically technology development companies... Google and Facebook are clearly that. Other companies are largely content-creation companies, but at the end of the day we are serving the same customers.

Customers want social and we should all be able to integrate that well. I think again to my earlier point of semantics, I think the lines are really blurring... that's why if you constrain yourself to the old words of the 20th century markets, you'll miss a trick.

I am a media company I don't do "X". If "X" is seen as software development or apps then you may find that you don't offer consumers what they want. So broadly we think moving out to say we're brands, we represent brands which have clear meaning in media context but meaning outside a media context as well is a more liberating way to think about where we should go and what we are good at.

MB: Do you foresee a range of super brands or super companies that play on all aspects of the internet, producing hardware, running social networks? Is that where you are going with this?

CA: No. I think at a certain point you have to understand the limits of your competency. We think of ourselves at Conde Nast as a brands company, but I don't see us making hardware. We're not going to try to compete with Apple with our own tablets. So sometimes you partner for those things, sometimes you do have competency in-house and you do it yourself.

I don't think everyone is going to follow the Apple model; very few companies can execute it professionally across those domains as Apple can. At a certain point you have to know your strengths and weaknesses and execute where you have strength and partner where you don't have strength. I think the number of companies who can do it all is incredibly limited.

Even Google has partnered with hardware, with Motorola being a question mark. I think you may have super brands, but you're not going to have end-to-end vertically integrated conglomerates who make everything... you just cannot manage a company successfully like that, unless you're called Apple.

MB: If social networks are diverting and competing for our attention in that they are producing content that's attracting our attention, what does that mean for journalism as a craft of profession? In 10 or 20 years times will it be as viable as it is now?

CA: I think there will be more people practicing journalism than fewer ...but I think the proportion of people paid for doing journalism will shrink as total of the whole. Don't misread that, I am saying more people will be paid for doing journalism but because the overall pool of that will rise so much more than that, the professional journalist may be a shrinking fraction of the whole. That's been true for a decade. If you define journalism as simply "passing along news," ever since discussion boards this has been true.

So there's nothing new here, this is all a semantic debate. I have often said that if one of my children were to follow in my footsteps... my business card says "editor"; I suspect that their business card would say "community manager". I manage a community but my community is a team of professional editors and writers. We set guidelines and set some directions to help them express themselves better... it's a relatively closed set.

A community manager does all that in an open set. This is not to say members of the community can't get paid and certainly not to say community managers can't get paid -- they should be paid. But they are operating with an open-ended set of contributors who gain access to your attention, not by being a credentialed journalist, but by just having something to say and being skilled at saying it. So that's the shift I think you will see over next few generations.

MB: A question on the blogosphere. Five or six years ago the blogosphere was an exciting place, there was great content be found. And then something seemed to happen. It seemed like a less compelling place, and that seemed to coincide with a greater quantity of bloggers coming onboard. It seemed harder to find good content in that space. Do you think the blogosphere has lost its shine?

CA: Well, we were the first people to write the "Kill your blog" story a few years ago and we've certainly, in a cheeky, semi-serious way, have claimed as much. I discontinued my own blog a few years ago, the Longtail. I continue to blog everyday in another format on DIY Drones -- much more narrow, shorter posts. I write a lot on things like Google+. You may not call that a blog, but it feels like a blog to me.

I think that on some level we're trying to figure out what is the natural unit of communication. Twitter says the natural unit is a 140 characters, Google+ says to me it's closer to a hundred words, Facebook says maybe the natural unit is a status update. I think we're just groping our way towards what feels right in the end, and maybe it's not the same thing for everybody.

My problem with the blog is that there was quite a high barrier to entry. I needed to write 400 smart words, I couldn't feed that beast that on a regular enough basis... just too hard. So I gravitated toward easier mediums because they weren't as intimidating. Other people felt that the problem with blogs was that they didn't aggregate conversation. They fragmented conversation. You had to go on a blog and have a conversation on that blog rather than a common platform like Facebook or Twitter. Other people felt it didn't integrate well enough with mobile as well as Twitter did. There are all sorts of arguments about this.

...I would say the word "blog" is a little constraining. It does suggest a model built around the 400-word post with a picture and comments at the bottom on a standalone site. But the idea of posting your thoughts in public is alive and well, only it's just migrating to platforms that fit in with our lives and needs better.

So the blog is dead, long live the blog.

MB: So who is going to come up with these new words that define our future?

CA: Not my job... it probably is my job and I am just failing at it. I don't know. Typically, in the history of technology, it's taken a century. The horseless carriage took decades before it turned into automobile and then turned into a car... so it does take decades for society to settle on the right language. So this is normal.

MB: Have you any suggestion for the new word for "journalist"?

CA: None at all. I am sorry.

MB: Take a stand... you must have some thoughts?

CA: I am at loss for words; I try to navigate conversations so that I don't have to come up with a noun.

Story link | Subscribe free | Categories: A Top Story, Thoughtleaders


The Holmes Report names Tom Foremski one of the top 25 Innovators of 2013.