Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A map of the future

While we argue whether it's the Baby Boomers' self-absorption or the irresponsibility of Gen Y slackers that ruins our newsrooms (see comments on posts below), the world of news and stories and audiences is changing irrevocably. The blaming debates – even the persistent discussion here about whether Gary and I ruined the whole economy, the newspaper industry, or just McClatchy – are already history, and no longer even very interesting history at that.

The people who will shape the future of news in the new order are already hard at work doing so – with their ideas, their arguments, their actions. The discussion plays out day by day on dozens of specialized blogs, moment-by-moment in Twitter streams of engaged journalists and thinkers. It plays out in newsrooms – newspaper newsrooms, unique new media like TPM, hybrids in-between – with every turn of the cycle. Grizzled veterans and over-confident rookies, categorical prophets and cynical pessimists all play a role.

You can either participate in that process, stand aside quietly and wait for a resolution, or get rolled.

When people ask "If you were my age, would you be in the news business?" I answer unequivocally, "Yes, and for the same reasons I got into it in the first place."
  • I always wanted to have a career that let me make a difference in my community, promote fairness, explain how things worked;
  • I wanted to work around smart, articulate, smart-ass people.
  • I wanted to have fun.
  • And I wanted to feel like my life's work had made a difference.

The future of news will be decided in this generation. If we manage to sustain the core principles of public service journalism, being part of that effort will be a worthy legacy for any of us. How cool would it be to look back one day and say, "At the point where it really mattered, when many others had left or moved on, I was on the field"?

The media sites on the blogroll down the right side of this page (slightly outdated, but then so am I) offer a good starting point for those who'd like to dive into the thinking and argument now going on about the future. At the moment I am particularly taken with Matt Thompson's, though I haven't got my brain completely around it yet.


  1. Anonymous8:20 PM

    you are the biggest fucking loser I have ever seen. I know this won't see the light of day but jesus god it makes me feel better to call your sorry ass out. howard, you are nothing but part of the problem. you are a pompous ass. you sit there in sacramento, rake in all the money you do and happily make fun of those of us who try to keep the boat afloat. fuck you.

  2. Anonymous8:03 AM

    An analysis of your arguments for entering the news business:

    "I always wanted to have a career that let me make a difference in my community, promote fairness, explain how things worked;"

    The old deal was that reporter takes humdrum pay in trade for fun and chance to make the world a little better. This deal is dead. Newspapers almost never provide their staffs the time or resources to do anything with lasting impact. Plus, they are so cautious and nervous that they will never truly take heat for tough but important stories. Oh, and then there are the hyper-strict rules on sources that -if in place in the early 1970s - would have blocked Woodward and Bernstein from their Watergate work. The final insult - fewer and fewer are reading any news stories, even the rare ones with "impact." Most people hate the media anyway. So your mega project will be greeted by the sound of crickets chirping or outright contempt.

    "I wanted to work around smart, articulate, smart-ass people."

    This remains true - journalists are among the funniest, most interesting people anywhere.

    "I wanted to have fun."

    It can still happen on certain days. But most days, not, especially in this climate.

    "And I wanted to feel like my life's work had made a difference."

    Journalism will almost certainly not provide you this opportunity, unfortunately. You can't do social work while also being in the employ of mega corporations. The need of the company and customers will trump the goal of the journalist to "make a difference." You will spend your days grinding out turn of the screw stories gathered by phone for listless companies like Gannett with management that is among the least creative this side of GM.

    If you want to make a difference, go work for a NGO, non-profit or social sevice organization. Or start your own business or non-profit. Written and verbal communication are essential to success in these fields - and while they have many other problems they are FAR more likely to reward individual initiative and creativity than any mainstream newspaper in America where out-of-the box thinking is squashed and crushed.

    Its long past time for the leaders of media organizations to stop selling the myth of newspapering - those of us who have lived in newsrooms darn well know the reality. Sad? Sure. True? Unfortunately yes.

  3. Anon803: This is profoundly and demonstrably untrue. If you want to argue that our capacity has been diminished by layoffs and expense cuts, of course that's true. But you do grave disservice to your colleagues by suggesting it doesn't still happen. You're ignoring landmark work done within the past few months -- our Guantanamo series, Charlotte's poultry industry exposé, the N&O's look at the waste of hundreds of millions in NC mental health reform. You're just wrong.

    Anon 820: Thanks for letting me know how you feel. I am sure you're not alone in that.

  4. Anonymous1:40 PM

    Gee Howard. I guess that Anom820 won't be on your Christmas card list this year......

  5. Two future forces, one mostly social, one mostly technological, are intersecting to transform how goods, services, and experiences—the “stuff” of our world—will be designed, manufactured, and distributed over the next decade. An emerging do-it-yourself culture of “makers” is boldly voiding warranties to tweak, hack, and customize the products they buy. And what they can’t purchase, they build from scratch.
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  6. James Richardson4:51 AM

    Howard --
    This last round of departures is truly numbing, sad, downright awful beyond words. It doesn't take a economic degree to see that the debt of acquiring K-R is the anchor pulling McClatchy into the depths, and that raises an issue I have tried to raise before and will try to raise again. The for-profit business model of newspapers is gone, obsolete, and sinking the ship. You can't bail fast enough. Journalism isn't broken, the business is.

    At the beginning of this year I shopped around an op-ed column that, for whatever reason, never saw the light of day in any newspaper. In it I suggested that newspapers need to find a way to become a non-profit along the lines of NPR or PBS. Newspapers are an asset to their communities that are at least as important as art museums, symphony orchestras, food closets, and religious organizations. Maybe even more important. The community has an enormous stake in newspapers and news gathering, and it is time for the newspaper honchos to come out their castles and find community (philanthropic) support for the vital asset of newspapers. Going non-profit will certainly require doing many things differently, and executive pay will certainly be more in line with the generously, but no extravagantly, compensated non-profit executive directors.

    This way of thinking is not that out of line with the pre-Wall Street newspapers. The old families who once controlled newspapers (the McClatchys for one) saw their newspapers primarily as assets to their community, and they were willing to make less money than they might otherwise have because of their perspective. The Wall Street perspective of investment bankers and quarterly dividends is what has sunk newspapers. And let's also be honest: I remember a number of commentators predicting this result in the 1980s when newspapers headed to Wall Street. And that was well before the internet.

    I would like to suggest that while there is still time (and time seems to be in short supply) that newspaper executives truly think outside the box and explore how to convert as many newspapers as they can into locally-based non-profit organizations. Yes, there are huge issues doing that. But your other choice appears to be closing down.

  7. Anonymous5:40 AM

    Howard, you should find out who the writer (Anom820) is. The writing is concise and to the point. This person could become a valuable addition to the McClatchy team.

  8. Anonymous7:26 AM

    Here's the problem, Howard. I like you and respect you as a smart, creative person. But somehow the corporate culture that you're setting for your exec eds isn't one of smartness, creativity, innovation, inspiration -- all the assets that you say you value.

    \Instead you put into place people who are personally cold and controlling and creatively frozen. People who kill innovation when they see it. People who systematically run out-of-the-box thinkers out of the business.

    I don't think that happens by accident.

  9. Anonymous10:44 AM

    Someone blamed you for the ruination of the ENTIRE economy? Seriously?

  10. Anonymous9:19 AM

    How true about the "personally cold and controlling and creatively frozen" managers who "kill innovations when they see it." This has been the biggest problem in McClatchy newsrooms and for several years.
    Anybody with great ideas and modern thinking need not apply. The managing editor only wants suck-ups and parasites who growl at the mention of anything new and innovative.
    Howard, if you could purge these newsroom management clones and replace them with bright, creative thinkers who instill a sense of warmth and personality, we'd take a huge turn in the right direction. Take a chance - go for it!

  11. Using newspaper headlines and articles, the Global Strategy Institute at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has put together a web site with an explorable map called "Mapping the Future." The map links together what I'd call Events in various categories such as Science, Politics, Construction, and Sporting & Culture arrayed over a time line from 2008 to 2012.
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