January 15th, 2006

Media Should Start With Conversation, Then Synthesis

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The problem with the current debate over Old Media vs. New Media is that most people see it in binary terms — either Old Media dies and the web becomes a completely open marketplace of commoditized content (as Jeff Jarvis and countless others have argued), or consumers rebel and cling to the structures of Old Media.

The problem with this “either/or,” as Rob Hof points out in his framing of the debate, is that:

…old and new media can’t afford to choose sides. Because the former audience isn’t.

Rob is of course referring to Jay Rosen’s tagline for this debate: “the people formerly known as the audience.” I think the solution to this quandary will come from focusing on what the (former) audience wants and needs — Rob is right that consumers aren’t going to consciously choose New Media’s archetype over Old Media’s archetype (or vice versa). As with most polemics, the solution probably lies somewhere in the middle.

After reading Jeff Jarvis’ though-provoking piece on the value of scoop vs. collaboration, it occurred to me that there might be a new model for publishing online that is neither pure conversation nor purely structured, one-way content. Right now consumers have two basic choices:

1. The Old Media “article” (like BW’s cover story on math, the subject of Steve Baker’s lament, which got Jeff thinking), which is fact-checked, packaged, polished and published. The article sparks conversation, but the only conversations that happened “pre-publication” were between the journalist and her/his sources — the journalist is the focal point for a limited sphere of conversation, which the journalist then “synthesizes” into an article. Perhaps the problem with this model is not the synthesis (which is arguably where the value is), but the limited sphere of conversation — the journalist can only get so many people on the phone.

2. The New Media “conversation” — the debate on New Media vs. Old Media is a perfect example. The conversation is broad, wide ranging, with an every-expanding sphere of participation — blogs (like this one) link to other threads in the conversation. Here are a few great threads I haven’t mentioned yet:

Sam Waldman’s The ‘former audience’ is still an audience
Matt Blumberg’s New Media Deal, Part II – the We Media Deal
Matt McAlister’s The “Old Media” rebuttal to the noisy blogosphere
Mark Pincus’ the future of media…looks just like the past but different

I list them here as part of the New Media mechanism for letting them know I’m part of their conversation. The problem is I’ve only just scratched the surface — there are so many threads, so many sub-conversation (and sub-sub-sub-conversations) — and nobody to tie it all together.

It’s at a moment like this in an evolving debate that I start to wish for a BusinessWeek cover story to pull all the threads together and synthesize all of the thinking. I could do that on Publishing 2.0, but it would probably carry a lot more weight if BusinessWeek did it.

Why is that? Is it because I’m just one mind, while BusinessWeek has the benefit of an editorial team, i.e. their collective thinking (and experience) is much more powerful than my individual thinking? Or is it also because people trust the BusinessWeek brand more than they have any reason to trust me? (I’m wishing right now that I had some fact-checkers and copy editors.)

The problem in a nutshell is that New Media has a powerful conversation, but with no synthesis, and Old Media has synthesis, but with a more limited conversation.

What if there was a way for New Media and Old Media to work together to produce the best possible media product? Let’s take Steve Baker’s BusinessWeek cover story:

1. Steve starts by announcing that BusinessWeek is going to tackle the topic, and “seeds” the conversation with a thought-provoking blog entry. (Doing this would allow BW to stake out the terrain and preempt the “scoop” issue, as Jeff rightly suggests.)

2. Steve’s traditional journalistic work — seeking out and interviewing the most interesting people on the topic — is then complemented by the online conversation that he’s started. He won’t control the conversation, but he can participate in it, help guide it, and follow it wherever the blogosphere takes it.

3. Steve writes his article and leverages the collective intelligence, experience, and resources of BusinessWeek’s editorial function — but maybe (and I know this is radical) he submits a “draft” of the article (or synthesis) on his blog and invites comment. The blogosphere conversation would then significantly enrich the synthesis.

4. Steve then publishes his article — the goal is not to be definitive — the conversation will continue. Instead, the goal is to provide a useful guidepost along the road, which can help people find their way without having to navigate the sea of conversation up to that point.

If this is a viable model, there can and should be intense competition for who does the best synthesis. Maybe it will be Old Media brands — or maybe New Media applications. Consumers are equipped to navigate these options.

Given that the alternative is media chaos and consumer apathy, I’ll end with this (consciously provocative) question:

“Why can’t we all just get along?”

UPDATE: Steve Baker explains on Blogspotting why BusinessWeek and other print publishers might not be ready to embrace the model I laid out here. Steve acknowledges that the importance of the print edition and its notion of the “cover story” will likely fade. In the meantime, BusinessWeek is fortunate to have Steve on the vanguard.

  • I haven't seen Newsvine yet, although I've read the reviews (at some point they need to open it up, or the anticipation is going to turn into annoyance). It sounds like it has a lot of promise, but I still think that seeding the conversation with "traditional stories" is no substitute for a synthesis of an issue. So Newsvine may come to play a critical role in the news cycle, but it doesn't sound like it will be a place where people can come to get perspective.

    I'll try to reframe my point about synthesis -- following an issue or news thread by reading across connected or related pieces of content still leaves the individual to figure out what it all means. It's great that we're empowering individuals, but we all have our limits -- we can all use help figuring out what it all means. I hesitate to use this phrase, but we need media entities that serve the function of connecting the dots -- what does it all add up to?

    I still maintain that whoever figures that out will be the next Google. Google (search) is the killer app for finding discrete pieces. What's the killer app for finding useful "wholes"?

  • I think that Newsvine is succeeding at providing both synthesis and conversation by providing both "New Media" blogging hosting and support and seeding of blogsphere and traditional stories. Further, by having a built-in feed from AP, it provides "Old Media" stories as a basis for discussion. It's the first site I've seen that seems to strike that balance well (and, by the way, also distributes ad revenue to writers). To me, they are the poster child for publishing 2.0.

  • Umair, you're right, I am talking about a different level of synthesis -- one that requires a human intelligence to create a narrative. (But tech.memorandum is linking to this post, so I can't complain.)

    Elliott, corrections and retractions may not be sufficient accountability, but it's more than we're getting from Web 2.0. It's also about conscience -- as Steve points out, BW may make mistakes, but at least there's someone to feel accountable for the mistakes and to take responsibility for trying to make it better. It's possible that someone will find a way to make collective accountability work, but I worry that in our litigious society that may prove to be a messy prospect. (I hope for my sake you continue to break your resolution.)

    I'm intrigued by Steve's notion that some story concepts might be more suited to open sourcing, which could take journalists in a different direction from where they might go if they were writing for print. But I don't think traditional print journalism would hesitate to take on any story idea, so I don't see why open-source journalism should be any different, i.e. more limited.

  • I think there is synthesis. Reconstructors like Memeorandum do synthesize - often better than editors can.

    That said, I think you are talking about a different level of reconstruction...

  • Elliott Breece

    Scott, let’s not exonerate Old Media from dragging individuals reputations “through the mud.” And let’s not assume that printed retractions and corrections amount to accountability. Wikipedia is obviously more prone to criticism on this front but I am willing to bet the bank that other institutions are in the lead when it comes to defamation.

    With regards to your response to my characterization of your model as one where "BusinessWeek pockets all the revenue," point taken. I wasn't suggesting that BW include the blogosphere in revenue-sharing to the detriment of their business. You’re right this is for the invisible hand to decide. I was merely musing, and clumsily so, that their is still an alternative model in which amateur content creators (writers, musicians, writers) SELL their work directly to interested parties. Skip advertising. How would this look? I don’t know but I think it is the answer for bloggers and the like; collaborate on more comprehensive (but still time-sensitive) projects and someone soon will create a more techno-savvy mechanism to sell them for real money. But everyone should still keep their day job for now.

    I won’t take any more space up on your comments. I am trying to stick with my new years resolution keeping out of the blogosphere but you provocative writing is making that difficult. I’ll stay tuned.

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