Notes on Steven Johnson on the News, Part the First

Well, I ain’t at SXSW, but damn, a man can’t just give that sort of excuse when the time comes to look at the changes in the news business and highlight how one might view current issues in publishing in that light. Clary Skirky, already in progress, and now Steven Johnson. Batch one of reactions.

Let me say one final thing. I am bullish on the future of news, as you can tell.

I’ll discuss that anon.

But I am not bullish on what is happening right now in the newspaper industry. It is ugly, and it is going to get uglier. Great journalists and editors are going to lose their jobs, and cities are going to lose their papers. There should have been a ten-year evolutionary process: the ecosystem steadily diversifying and establishing its complex relationships, the new business models evolving, the papers slowly transferring from print to digital, along with the advertisers. Instead, the financial meltdown — and some related over-leveraging by the newspaper companies themselves — has taken what should have been a decade-long process and crammed it down into a year or two.

Well, it’s less the specifically financial meltdown and more the economic meltdown that resulted in advertising revenues that fell far faster than they would otherwise have. But yup, that’s basically right, though a bit overly generous to the companies that owned the news media, I think.

That is bad news for two reasons. First because it is going to inflict a lot of stress on people inside the industry who do great things, and who provide an important social good with their work.

I expect most folks reading this personally know people in both the news and in book publishing who are those very people.

But it’s also bad news because it’s going to distract us from the long-term view; we’re going to spend so much time trying to figure out how to keep the old model on life support that we won’t be able to help invent a new model that actually might work better for everyone. The old growth forest won’t just magically grow on its own, of course, and no doubt there will be false starts and complications along the way. But in times like these, when all that is solid is melting into air, as Marx said of another equally turbulent era, it’s important that we try to imagine how we’d like the future to turn out and set our sights on that, and not just struggle to keep the past alive for a few more years.

The kicker. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening in the book business. Yet another world is possible.