Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The future of news belongs to those who…kiss

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2010

Image credit: Okinawa Soba

The traditional news organisations: the BBC, CNN, New York Times, the Guardian, Sky News – and all the others – have got a problem.

Up until recently I thought the problem was revenue and the lack thereof; but that will solve itself organically over time.

And then I realised they’ve got another problem:  it’s one they’ll never be able to solve – and it threatens their place in the future of journalism.

They’re too big.

Sounds strange doesn’t it (after all, size is usually good for a news organisation with a big remit). The insight comes from Clay Shirky, whose blog posts are rare, but always near revolutionary. He talks about the collapse of the great empires of the past: the Mayans, the Romans. They collapsed because they got too big, too complex and couldn’t adapt to a new world.

His modern case in point: the Times paywall. He interprets Rupert Murdoch’s justification for charging online content as this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

In other words, News International is so big, so complex, so addicted to the exuberant and wasteful systems which it consumed in the 20th century, it just can’t change. So it has to charge customers to help sustain its lifestyle.

Shirky goes on:

“In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one….Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.”

That last point about video is important. Think how many TV production companies are addicted to $20,000 cameras, big rigs, professional lighting, large crews and plush offices in the centre of major cities. They don’t know how to do anything different, and so they charge their clients thousands upon thousands to cover their secret addiction to luxury.

Video Journalism has been around as a cheap alternative to traditional TV news gathering since the 1980s. Why do all the big news organisations still send 2 or even 3 person crews to stories? Michael Rosenblum points out dryly, ABC News’ move to VJing should have been news in the 90s.

Bad times for them. Good times for the next generation of journalists and producers.

How to survive in the future of journalism

Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Next generation journalists have a big advantage: we’re not addicted to expensive gear, offices, full time employment or bureaucracy. We know we can do things quick, cheap and simple. We can get impressive results with DSLRs, open source software, a laptop and creative commons media. We’re not ashamed to interview someone on a FlipCam, or embed our video with Youtube.

Do not underestimate the advantage that gives us in the market.

Someone who gets it is media commentator and lecturer Jeff Jarvis. Here’s what he wrote for the Guardian, when the Times paywall was announced:

“…in Murdoch’s folly, I see opportunity….As a teacher of entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York, I see openings for my students to compete with the dying relics by starting highly targeted, ruthlessly relevant new news businesses at incredibly low cost and low risk.”

And that’s precisely it. Go in lean, mean and ruthless and start tearing stuff up. But know this: if your career takes you into the fold of the giants, you too will become addicted to their opium. It’s a tough drug to get over. I’ve been lucky in some ways. I’ve only ever worked for tiny, struggling commercial outlets. I thought it sucked at the time, but it meant I always had to do things cheap, and quick – and I never got hooked on the luxurious journalism of the BBC or anyone else.

But the future is bright: here’s Clay Shirkey to wrap it up:

“It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.”

10 Responses

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  1. Rosenblum said, on April 16, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Great piece, Adam!

  2. Terry Purvis said, on April 16, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Clay Shirky is absolutely correct.

    And this is also bang on the money:

    “Next generation journalists have a big advantage: we’re not addicted to expensive gear, offices, full time employment or bureaucracy. We know we can do things quick, cheap and simple. We can get impressive results with DSLRs, open source software, a laptop and creative commons media. We’re not ashamed to interview someone on a FlipCam, or embed our video with Youtube.”

    It is entirely possible for a group of individuals to compete and beat Murdoch and the all rest, each one armed with nothing more than a Pc and an Internet connection.

    Some of us are making the very tools to enable journalists and broadcasters to do just that . . . . . . .

  3. […] 1 – Adam Westbrook says that news organizations are too big to succeed and that we all just need to keep it simple, silly. […]

  4. Mars Dorian said, on April 20, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Indeed the times have changed – it now officially sucks to be big – you’re much faster, agile and more original – you don’t have a committee behind you that’s softening your edges – I think most media empires still don’t get it. Rupert Murdoch said that he wants to control and influence the information stream of the world. I almost feel sorry for him…ALMOST😉

  5. adamwestbrook said, on April 24, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    …Almost :p

  6. Erik Gable said, on April 27, 2010 at 1:36 am

    “Next generation journalists have a big advantage: we’re not addicted to expensive gear, offices, full time employment or bureaucracy.”

    Though there are always exceptions, lack of full-time employment has a way of wearing thin after a while.

  7. […] The big problem for mainstream media – they’re too big (and why that’s great for u… […]

  8. Will Peach said, on June 30, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Just revisited this and it’s an interesting article.

    However I still can’t help but feel that the majority of newly graduated journo’s would still bend over backwards to join larger org’s than any “tiny, struggling commercial outlet”.

    Prestige is too big a lure.

  9. Adam Westbrook said, on July 1, 2010 at 6:06 am

    @Will – see this more recent post, saying that very thing!😉
    https://adamwestbrook.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/are-you-waiting-for-approval/

  10. Thomas Sattlefield said, on February 26, 2013 at 11:30 am

    News writing doesn’t have to be boring! If a writer can’t learn to spice up the story with the right angle, readers will skip right past it – no matter how important the content.Writing an interesting news piece isn’t hard. You just have to learn how to approach it in a more interesting manner. Readers need to know what happened at last night’s school board meeting, but is it necessary to bore them with a basic rundown of the agenda? Of course not! Even at the most mundane meeting, a good writer can find a unique angle or twist to highlight some aspect of what’s being discussed. Just stay away from sensationalizing and editorializing in order to create a story. It may seem that that’s what sells these days, but a true news journalist should always strive to get the story – the real story – and present it in a fair and factual manner. ;

    Most recent blog post coming from our own blog
    <.http://www.prettygoddess.com


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