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.