Toward post-Journalism journalism

On Thursday, right after failing to get a root canal for the Xth time (saga here), I participated in a square-table discussion (because that was its geometry) titled “How to Make Money in News: New Business Models for the 21st Century — An Executive Session sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy”, hosted by Harvard’s JFK School of Government. My panel was this:

Panel 2: Disruptive Technologies and their Impact on Business Models in Other Industries
  • Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT
  • Tom Eisenman, William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit, Harvard Business School
  • Persephone Miel, Senior Advisor, Internews Network
  • Virginia Postrel, author, The Future and Its Enemies; contributing editor, The Atlantic
  • Doc Searls, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
  • Moderator — Nicco Mele, Harvard University; founder and president, EchoDitto

It was a good one, and it was fun sharing the table sides (since there was no stage) with such bright and interesting folks.

Nicco kindly let me speak last since I was fighting major tooth pain at the time and wanted a few minutes for the Tylenol to kick in. Others present said I made sense. But I didn’t pull my various threads together since I kinda ran ahead of myself. So I thought this morning it would be good to share what I tried to say, drawing from the outline I wrote on the pad kindly provided by the organizers there, and which I kept. Here goes…

Let’s start a quarter-millennium ago, with The Enlightenment, the ideas of which were applied by the framers of our republic. The Enlightenment’s value system elevated the principles of liberty, freedom, self-reliance, personal rights, and reason, among others. As a movement, it was suspended when industry won the industrial revolution, which, among other things, created the modern corporation. By “modern” I mean big, or wannabe big. (Although the East India Company was big enough to deserve the Boston Tea Party in 1773.) Think railroads, oil companies, car companies, phone companies… and media companies, starting with newspapers.

The industrial system was this pyramid-shaped top-down arrangement of power and process that changed us from individual craftspeople to workers in a system that subordinated our originality to positions we occupied in org charts. Check your surname for evidence of some ancestor’s craft. Baker, for example. Or Merchant, Miller, Weaver, Tanner or Cooper. Nobody today names themselves, or their kids, “Joe Middlemanager,” “Mary Drillpressoperator,” or “Bill Webdesigner.” Collective power was all. This was believed by both the capitalist system and the communist and socialist thinkings that opposed it.

In the industrial system, nearly all original thinking, invention, and innovation took place within corporate walls. Governments, colleges, and universities did some origination too. The system still encompassed everything, subordinating the individual to larger corporate entities.

This was not a Bad Thing; it was just how things worked. And it did lots of good. In the area of communications—our concern here today—this gave us magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and a phone system that was smart in the middle and dumb at the ends. Innovations by the phone giants included touch-tone dialing, the Princess Phone, the RJ-11 jack, call waiting, and message recording, all rolled out slowly over a span of about forty years.

Near the beginning of that stretch, in 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker”. By then Drucker had already forecast the end of the modern corporation and had compared management (his specialty) to conducting a band or an orchestra of self-empowered individuals, each good at what they do, and eager to learn more and improve. He said companies existed at the sufferance of the individuals who comprised them, even as they organized their work and put it to use.

By late in the last century, the knowledge workers who mattered most were geeks. Engineers. Programmers. These were the people who gave us the Internet, the PC, and now hand-held Internet devices that still do old-fashioned telephony—along with a zillion other things. The most effective geeks worked independently, within their organizations, on their own, or both.

Consider the differences between the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF. While the former governs its member companies and government bodies through complex and slow bureaucratic procedures, the latter uses a “request for comment” system that results in operative good-enough standards based on “rough consensus and running code”. The differences illustrate how the phone system never could have created the Internet, and geeks did exactly that, and then some.

Does anybody know when we first started talking about open source? The answer is February 1998. That’s when Eric S. Raymond (ESR) posted a short instructional missive titled “Goodbye, ‘free software’; hello, ‘open source“. In it he explained why Free Software, long in use as a term and accounting for much success in the computing realm, was not going to make good enough sense to businessfolk, and why a crew of fellow geeks was going to make the world talk about open source instead.  Look up open source, and you’ll now get 73 million results, give or take.  (In no small way this was the direct result of Eric’s charisma. I’ve watched him hold crowds of fellow geeks in thrall while pacing the stage and holding forth for more than three hours at a time. Chris Locke called him “a rhetorician of the first water.” In the midst of this work, ESR also put out some of the strongest and most durable writing, including The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which now amounts to canon.)

Thanks to its founding geeks, the Internet embodies a principle called end-to-end. Among other things, it assumes that the bulk of intelligence—and the kind that matters most—resides at the ends of the network, with people and the devices serving them, rather than in the middle, where the phone companies used to be, back when they thought, as old-fashioned formerly modern industrial companies, that most of the network’s intelligence should reside, and make decisions for everybody.

The end-to-end principle provides an environment for creation and contribution that is radical, profound, and beyond huge. As applied ideas go, it’s as big as the invention of movable type, or bigger. It’s also our new environment: we live on the Internet now. And it is here that we can pick up where The Enlightenment left off, enjoying boundless ways to apply enlightenment virtues (along with, to be fair and complete, bad activities as well: as Kim Cameron once put it, the sure sign of a good idea is that it’s easy to find bad uses for it.) The Internet supports *dynamism in the extreme, both for individuals and for whatever gatherings they form.

So now to journalism.

Big newspapers, big magazines, big radio, big TV… these are industrial-age creatures. Some will persist in the new age that is coming upon us. But they will need to adapt to a networked environment where everyone can write, perform, publish and produce.

This environment will be with us for millennia to come. So think of today as a moment in the early paleozoic, say in Cambrian time. Here, Facebook is a trilobite. Twitter is a bryzoan. The Huffington Post is a primitive sponge. For small-j journalism, this is not the End of Time, but the beginning of a new eon (not merely an epoch or age). Will big-J journalism survive? Only if it adapts. While some of that adaptation will be corporate, the leadership won’t be in the corporate system. It will be among the journalists themselves. Just as it was, and still is, with technology companies, the geeks they employ, and the individuals they still demean with the label “users.” Each of us will be far more than that, especially if dynamism is what best characterizes this new eon.

Bonus links:

Dan Gillmor‘s The Only Journalism Subsidy We Need is Bandwidth.

Edward Younkinsreview of *The Future and its Enemies, by Virginia Postrel.

Evolution Going Great, Reports Trilobite, in The Onion.


  1. erdina’s avatar

    (Although the East India Company was big enough deserve the Boston Tea Party in 1773.)

    Forgive me for being a bit off topic but I just had to say, we Indonesians did give the Dutch East India Company, aka. the VOC a sort of Boston Tea Party in 1945, though with “sharpened bamboos” and through Soekarno’s speeches xD

    Which makes me think, was the ancient evil of Indonesian occupation a product of the “evil Dutch kingdom”, or the “evil Dutch Megacorp?” Oh well…

    Anyways, right back to your regular scheduled programming 😀

    PS.: I could really use a preview button here…

  2. alan p’s avatar

    Nice post, Doc – 3 things in response:

    (i) The enterprises of the Industrial Revolution borrowd their structure from the armies of the day. Armies have moved on, have many enterprises?

    (ii) Re Bakers etc – did you ever read “Jennifer Government” which “modernised” that idea 🙂

    (iii) We have just completed a piece of research on Innovation 1909 – 2009, I’ll post some of it up on my blog later, but the interesting thing about “the meedja” is that this is not the first revolution this century. By 1909 Film, Radio and Telephony were cutting a dash, by 1929 TV and the Talkies are getting going, by 1969 the DVD/Home Video revolution is starting and in 1989 we had DTP under way. And of course the vested interests of the day always wail that they need protection as they didn’t see the “creeping snail” of a 30 year cycle coming until it bit them.

  3. Jeremy’s avatar

    I think the biggest problem with journalism is the people attracted to work in the field.

    They’re ticket-punching careerists who don’t care about the truth. They’re just not people I want to learn anything from.

  4. Katherine Warman Kern’s avatar

    Hope your feeling better.

    I, too, have thought about the relevance of the Enlightenment to resolving the conflicts in media technology today. I do believe that what our constitution founders “got” better than, for example, the drafters of the French constitution(s) is that resolving the conflicts inherent between the interests of the individual and the community is achieved by a dynamic system that balances the two – not deciding that one or the other should prevail, in principle.

    You may be interested in the piece that inspired me to think of the Enlightenment – Shirky likening the internet to the Reformation:

    Consistently, I also agree with your premise that industrialism has resulted in a shift in the balance away from individual freedom, stifling the creativity that fuels both economic growth and culture. But I do not completely agree that this is driven exclusively by individual greed. For example, I think the notion of shareholder value (which appears to be in the best of interest of community in the context of a publicly held company) being more important a goal to shoot for than, for example, value to the customer, has distorted executive incentives and decision-making to unsustainable, short term earnings growth.

    Also, I hope we are not so paleozoic! We’re developing a Platform as a Service for customers who see the relevance of the Enlightenment! We can’t be that far ahead of our time, are we?

    Katherine Warman Kern

  5. Bill Macfadyen’s avatar

    Well said, Doc. It’s an exciting time to be in journalism, even though the traditional industry has simply collapsed. Just as the Internet flattened the access to information, so, too, has it created a truly competitive opportunity to create the next era of journalism. It will be messy at first but the principles will survive and, I think, will flourish with so much competition.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Bill Macfadyen founder & publisher
    Santa Barbara

  6. Brett Glass’s avatar

    One of the big issues not mentioned above is the extent to which big money and conflicts of interest can control the news.

    For example, Washington Post reporter Cecilia Kang is a loyal supporter of all things Google. She produces highly
    biased news reporting for the ink-and-paper publication, and an equally biased blog on the Post’s Web site — all favoring Google’s agenda du jour. Why? Well, when you visit the pages where her articles are located, you’ll note something interesting. Google’s logo appears at least twice on every page — along with ads placed by Google/Doubleclick (which means that income from Google is funding the blog — a blatant conflict of interest which Cecilia is not reporting, despite the new FTC rules). Very often, the ads will be “donated” ads for Google’s “Open Internet Coalition” lobbying group, and will point to material touting the “network neutrality” regulation that Google favors — regulation that would bolster Google’s monopoly.

    Monetary influence over editorial content is, of course, nothing new. Large advertisers have always had the ability, via advertising, to control editorial content. (Microsoft, back in the days of the antitrust trials against it, had several computer journalists fired because they supported sanctions against the company.) But Internet advertising monopolist Google — now that it has acquired DoubleClick — has far greater power, because it places the ads not just for one company but for many. If it were to refuse to place ads in, say, an online newspaper such as, that publication would be effectively out of business.

    Can journalistic independence and objectivity survive such market power? Is this the reason why the Post has published only one lukewarm editorial questioning the need for the regulation that Google advocates, but dozens of articles favoring Google’s political agenda?

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brett, do you think Cecelia King is aware of the ad placements? And do you think Google places them there consciously? Or does Google’s AdSense placement algorithm automatically find and support those singing Google’s tune? I suspect it’s the latter. Either way it suggests that her blog is in harmony with Google.

  8. Rikard Linde’s avatar

    Journalists are hackers! Good thinking Doc. Would you say that things that weaken the ends are unwanted? And are things that strengthen the ends good?


  9. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Doc, Cecilia absolutely does view her own pages, because she has done followup articles in which she has quoted the comments below the articles. Many of which, incidentally, have also pointed out her bias toward Google and the fact that Google is supplying the ads for her page.

    Alas, the bias goes beyond the blog entries; it is also present in her ink-and-paper news stories for the newspaper.

    One might hope that the newspaper would take notice of the bias and do something, but it has a problem. As far as I can tell, the Washington Post’s Web site receives virtually all of its revenue from ads placed by Google/Doubleclick. If they were to take Cecilia off the beat, would Google respond by cutting advertising (which could well impact them so much that the Web site would become financially unsustainable)? This is the scary part about the company’s market power: it already has the ability, if it chooses to exercise it, to manipulate the news by threatening to “cut off a publication’s air supply.” Smaller Web publications, such as GigaOm and DSL Reports (both of which also seem skewed toward Google) are likewise vulnerable.

  10. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    What’s wrong with a bias? It’s much better to have a bias and let people know what it is, than to deny that one is not biased.

  11. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Mr. Nelson, your bias is showing. 😉

  12. Suzanne Lainson’s avatar

    I’ve long argued that all news is inherently biased. Everyone reports from point of view and decides what to include and what not to include. Therefore, I’ve set my home page to Google News to at least skim headlines in order to get a mix of viewpoints.

    The problem with “pick-and-choose” news today is that many people are solely going to news that reinforces their biases rather being exposed to a variety of viewpoints. I’m not sure how we deal with that.

    We have people believing made-up news because they want to believe it.

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