News Ecosystem Demands Collaboration, Not Us vs. Them Mentality

    by Chris O'Brien
    July 16, 2009

    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.

    Tagged: blogs collaboration cornell mercury news nextnewsroom
    • Jim Santori

      Well said, Chris. Rather than measuring who has the highest levels of testosterone, the challenge should be how we can leverage the strengths of all “providers” to better inform our readers, users, viewers, taxpayers, voters and consumers. No “one” method can serve all so we better get comfortable with using various methods to reach the optimal level. Rather than bloviating we should be collaborating. That’s the test I will be using.

    • I certainly wish those in the legacy media had more of an open mind to admitting their stories or sources might be wrong but they really don’t. Whether it’s partisanship or pride many in the press that I talk to have a near religious belief in their angles on stories.

    • Thank you Chris. We see things in a similar way. All these communication”tools” or “Channels” are are simply ways we can communicate news and ideas between each other. ( I do like the two way communication possibilities of social media services like Twitter, Facebook, Blogs etc….

      Thank you for the questioning of the study. It is easy to reduce things to this or that, either/or or “binary.” It is something we do to often in America ( and as human beings.)

    • Ben

      Thanks for the article Chris. When I consider the subject, I tend to think that the mainstream newsroom has actually been making itself obsolete for years, and blogs are simply filling a void as unhappy readers leave newspapers for more convenient and interactive mediums. When I was studying journalism in the late 90s, I had professors who predicted a future without traditional media, where people would, instead, get news and information via some sort of universal “box.” With the advent of portable devices like the Kindle or iPhone, that device is here.

      If my own communications professors could predict this future, there should be no reason why media conglomerates could not begin preparations for the transition many years back. Sure, the device wasn’t there yet, but the idea alone should have provided enough foresight for them to begin altering newsrooms to accommodate emerging technologies. Ultimately, I would argue that newspapers will become obsolete, and those currently invested in the industry will simply move their services completely online. Still, bloggers need traditional journalism to show it the ropes and, in that sense, you’re absolutely right. The two “sides” need to feed off each other and stop bickering about which will triumph over the other.

    • Thanks all for the discussion here. Let me just address something @Ben noted. I agree that online, mainstream news orgs have failed to move fast enough to provide forums for the kind of interactions and conversations the community wants to have. I do think there’s an evolution going on from both sides, and there are a lot of positive things to be learned in both directions. But too often, rather than learning lessons from all nodes, things end up in a shouting match, which is a shame.

    • Chris,

      I’m not the first poster to use the phrase “absolutely right,” but you are. But I would add that news has *always* been an ecosystem; it was just harder to see it that way when a newspaper was a concrete thing. Or when television only came into your house in one way. But the fact is that news stories have been “linking” to each other since before that concept existed.

      There’s such a paradigm shift happening now that it’s difficult, I think, for people who knew the media (in the proper, plural sense) to be clearly divided *things* to think in terms of this larger, connected ecosystem. I’m of the borderline generation (I got my first email address freshman year of college), and I still have to actively conceptualize it.

      Most critics won’t go to the trouble.

    • Good stuff. The zero-sum game is so much easier to play. This reminded me of an article by Wired where they interviewed Eric Schmidt of Google, http://www.wired.co.uk/wired-magazine/archive/2009/08/features/the-unstoppable-google.aspx?page=all – third paragraph, “So Youtube…”

    • You nailed it. I would add: the most successful information providers don’t align themselves by any one medium, but use them all — traditional and new. And the really successful ones come up with entirely new ways to communicate.

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