At a Confab in Phoenix, Lamenting (and Inventing) the Future of News

What do we mean by “the news”? As recently as 20 years ago, the answer was pretty clear—it was whatever the media establishment was telling us. There were well-worn models for packaging news (in printed newspapers or half-hour broadcasts) and paying for it (through advertising and, to a lesser extent, subscriptions). There were sharply defined classes of news makers, news reporters, and news consumers. Now all of that is in flux. News comes to us in many more formats, via a huge variety of technical means; it’s supported—if it’s paid for at all—through mechanisms that are either old and failing or novel and unreliable; and the gates have been flung open, so that almost anybody who has something to say can be heard.

So what does the future look like for people like me who call themselves professional journalists? Will we have coherent audiences? How can we get paid for our work? What will happen to serious journalism if advertisers continue to flee and more outlets choose to pander to the search engines by prioritizing speed and quantity over quality and thoughtfulness? How does a society govern itself when news is delivered in 140-character chunks?

Those were the kinds of questions on the minds of people at News Foo last weekend. The two-day gathering at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix was an “unconference” organized by O’Reilly Media, the Sebastopol, CA-based technology publishing and events company, with support from Google and the Knight Foundation. The 150 hand-picked attendees created their own meeting agenda on the fly, organizing dozens of parallel sessions with titles like “Who Is a Publisher?,” “Upgrade the Audience,” “Imagining Life Without the New York Times,” “Build the Perfect Tablet News App,” “Networked/Social Reading,” “Open Data Journalism,” “What is Happening to Our Attention?,” and “Collaborate or Die.”

It was a powerhouse crowd, mixing executives from traditional media outlets like CBS, NPR, PBS, and the UK’s Guardian newspaper with j-school professors and founders of content-driven startups like Flipboard, Intersect, My6Sense, OneSpot, Pictory, and Storify. I felt very fortunate to be included, and I took the opportunity to organize one session of my own—“Business Models for Journalist-Entrepreneurs”—and to co-organize another called “Will Long-Form Journalism Survive?” with Steven Levy of Wired and Bill Jensen of Village Voice Media.

So, what did this group of distinguished thinkers divine about the future of news? Nothing specific. This meeting was more about starting conversations then finishing them—Tim O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media and the conference’s presiding spirit, said at an opening session that the main point of all Foo gatherings (the name stands for “Friends of O’Reilly”) is “to connect people who ought to know one another.” Still, I thought I could detect a few themes and lessons emerging from the rapid shuffle of sessions, meals, and networking, and I’m going to spend a few minutes describing them here. These are just my initial, personal takeaways—I’m still digesting a lot of what I heard at News Foo, and people who attended different sessions may have come away with a totally different set of impressions.

There’s a growing tension between “more” and “less.” Even some of the self-avowed news junkies at the conference admitted feeling sometimes that it’s all too much: that there are just too many news outlets producing too many articles to read, too many smart people to follow on social media, et cetera. Jody Brannon, director of the News21 Project of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, organized a whole session around her plea for … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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