What’s the Future of Journalism?

It wasn’t that long ago that I knew exactly where to go for reliable information about the world, and how to stay in touch with my friends. At least I felt like I had a good system in place to help me keep up with things.

If I wanted great reporting and a healthy dose of world news, my go-to was, and often still is, The New York Times. For business news, I usually read BusinessWeek, Fortune, and Forbes. For tech it was usually C/Net, Fast Company, WIRED, and The Register, plus any number of online sites returned after a simple Google search. If I needed information about a company and wanted “the unvarnished truth,” I would go search the company’s SEC filings in the EDGAR online database.

Now I get most of my information online, including what my family and friends are up to. I still read the New York Times most days—it’s just that I do it on my Kindle. And I spend a lot of time on Flipboard and Twitter in the morning to catch up on the news and share things that I find interesting.

I think the good news is that I now have access to many more sources of information using just a few very powerful tools. In addition to all the mainstream publications, I can now get first-hand accounts of events from people all over the world, which is truly one of the great triumphs of the internet.

The downside is that much of what I track online can be somewhat predictable and self serving. Because the choices I make when I “follow” an individual or a publication can simply end up validating a point of view that  I already have. I like what they have to say because I agree with them. But let’s face it, you don’t learn a lot if you only hang out with people who agree with you all the time.

That’s why I think one of the biggest misconceptions an online publisher can make about the people I “follow” has to do with the idea that I want to read everything they do or say online. Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.

Take Flipboard for example. I absolutely love this app. It has enhanced my morning news experience by blending updates from my social media contacts with my favorite mainstream journalism pubs. So I can see Instagram pics and tweets alongside articles from the New York Times or Scientific American. And because Flipboard allows you to create your own custom magazines online using a visually stunning interface, it makes my morning news jog just that much more fun.

But when Flipboard changed its Cover Stories last January to present more content based on what I engaged with (i.e., clicked on) I ended up being a little disappointed with the change. Because when that change happened, I noticed that clicking on a tweet by an individual would cause that person to show up in my news stream every morning in a very prominent way.

I actually preferred the chaotic mix of content they used before. Now it seems like they are lining up more predictable silos of content based on what I’ve clicked on in the past, and that’s turning my newsfeed into more of a narrowband content funnel. And when it comes to news, I actually want to see all the stuff that I wasn’t looking for too.

One Size Does Not Fit All

We have so many choices today in terms of the content we consume. And even if the lines are starting to blur between news, entertainment, and advertising, there is one truth in all of this that I think will stand the test of time–one size does not fit all. People have definite preferences when it comes to how they want to get their information.

Video is by far one of the most engaging and popular mediums out there. You can just sit back and enjoy and learn a lot in the process. I love videos that add to a story, or let you watch an interesting conversation at an event that you missed. But my first choice when it comes to content is almost always to read something. And so as a reader,  I get concerned when I see content reduced to “snackables” and “click-bait.” It’s just not my thing. At least it’s not the way I want to spend my time online.

In the pursuit of traffic, outrageous headlines are starting to invade more mainstream sites too. I think it is all part of a great experiment in which online publishers are trying to figure out how to increase visitors, quantify their reach, and pay for their editorial staffs. But as Jim Bankoff, founder and CEO of Vox Media warned at the recent International Symposium of Online Journalism, “chasing page views is a race to the bottom.”

Still, I am encouraged by the dialog that is beginning to surface with some high-profile bloggers and editors. Just last week, Facebook director of product Mike Hudack stirred the pot with the rant heard ‘round the world.

“Evening newscasts are jokes, and copycat television newsmagazines have turned into tabloids — “OK” rather than Time. 60 Minutes lives on, suffering only the occasional scandal. More young Americans get their news from The Daily Show than from Brokaw’s replacement. Can you even name Brokaw’s replacement? I don’t think I can.” — Mike Hudack

It generated a lot of feedback and started a conversation that needed to happen. The media is changing rapidly as we introduce new technology and tools. And whether that change has a positive or negative affect on journalism and the sharing of information is really up to us.

I guess my love-hate relationship with some of the popular online tools is just a sign of the times. Yes, I want to know what’s going on in the world and with my friends and family. And no, I don’t like the idea of trading my personal information with a business in order to have access to that information.

So while I love the tools, I’m not necessarily happy with the deal. And I am growing increasingly weary of the way businesses think they can just change a popular system without warning, or make their terms so hard to understand that you need to ask a lawyer what it actually means.

On the plus side, I am encouraged to learn about a new tool like Medium, which was just featured in the New York Times. It’s a simple and elegant blogging platform that was started by the serial entrepreneur Evan Williams. The platform is easy to use and it serves up content by famous authors as well as writers like you and me. And in a kind of retro shout-out to Marshall McLuhan, I think Williams is reminding us that the medium is still the message.

We now have a whole new generation of journalists who have either just entered the field, or are gearing up to study and participate in what is one of the most exciting careers I can think of. It’s changing so rapidly that I can’t even imagine what journalism will look like when my nephew graduates from college. But with all the innovation and experimentation going on today, I remain optimistic that it can be better than ever. As long as we don’t become complacent with what we are being served, and as long as we get to choose where and how we get our information. Because it’s really a personal choice.

Like life itself, it’s all a bit messy and wonderful. But you’ve got to pay attention and you’ve got to stay involved.

— DJ