News ecosystem needs collaboration, not us vs. them mentality

by Chris O’Brien, MediaShift

One of the great tragedies that I see in the current debate about the future of journalism is the way the discussion continues to be framed around a series of binary choices. Newspapers or blogs. Print or online. Journalists or algorithms.

In each case, there seems to be a simple-minded belief that the future will inevitably be one or the other. I consider this tragic because the result is a lot of dead-end debates that devolve into spitball fights about whether one will replace the other. My belief is that the better conversation is about how these things should complement each other and extend and enrich our journalism. That is the great opportunity of this moment.

False Trade-Offs

I got to thinking about these false trade-offs last weekend when I saw the The New York Times headline: Study Measures the Chatter of the News Cycle. The piece, by reporter Steve Lohr, discusses a recent study released by Cornell researchers called Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle. The three researchers built an algorithm to track the way news moves across the web to better understand the dynamics of the evolving news cycle.

Now, I'm not qualified to assess the way they designed the algorithm. But what caught my attention was the decision to essentially place all sites into two categories: mainstream news or blogs. While the study has some interesting findings, this construction strikes me as perpetuating that binary choice. Us vs. Them. The Future vs. The Past. Choose A or B.

What I've been arguing through my Knight Foundation project, and others have also, is that news is now an ecosystem. And going forward, news organizations of all shapes and sizes, from the blogger at Starbucks on up to whatever remains of the major metro newsroom, need to focus on how they fit into the ecosystem. And more importantly, how and when they collaborate with the other parts. Continuing to make artificial distinctions short-circuits that thinking. It emphasizes divisions and competition, rather than collaboration.

The paper, co-authored by Jure Leskovec, Lars Backstron and Jon Kleinberg, does make a nod to this notion when they write:

"For example, one could imagine the news cycle as a kind of species interaction within an ecosystem..."

Yes, one could indeed imagine such a thing. But the false construction of the study (mainstream media or blogs) essentially ignores it.

There are any number of holes that could be punched in the study. And Scott Rosenberg does a nice job of mapping out many of those red flags here.

Blurring of the Lines

But on a fundamental level, it's still the "blogs or mainstream news" construction that bothers me. Most problematic, of course is simply tackling the problem of which site goes in which bucket. The lines were never really all that clear to begin with. But they're become increasingly blurred in an era where newspapers such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times run enormous blogging networks.

In this fast-changing era, identity and labels are hard to sort out. Just to use myself as one example, I've been a professional journalist for 17 years now. Currently, I write a column twice each week for the San Jose Mercury News. But beyond that, I've been blogging about my family here for three years; blogging about my Knight research here; blogging at Idea Lab for two years; and, oh yes, blogging for my employer here. On any given week, I produce more words for blogs than the newspaper. So what am I?

Answer: It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that I'm constantly trying to see how all those different pieces fit together and complement each other. I see blogs not as competition, but vital parts that help expand the conversation around news and information. I worry less about who is winning the battle of breaking news first, whether it's mainstream sources, blogs, or Twitter.

Seeing these other pieces as competition leads down the poisonous road where people complain about bloggers stealing content. Or, it takes you down the equally poisonous path where people argue that blogs (or now Twitter) have rendered the mainstream newsroom obsolete.

I don't want to choose option A or B. I want "All of the Above." That is the mindset we must choose to fully realize the enormous potential of this digital era of journalism.

article originally published at MediaShift.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey