The Washington Post had an interesting back and forth wringing its hands over the future of journalism. Oh no! Journalism is dying! Again! Or so a newspaper with declining readership and revenue would have you believe.
But that's just plain wrong. Journalism is just dandy. And that's largely because of your phone.
The Posts' Gene Weingarten took the first crack in a recent column. Weingarten frets and willakers because Ben Huh the LOLcats guy is delivering future-of-media keynote addresses instead of someone older and more boring like Bob Woodward. Weingarten litters his copy with what I think he thinks is a cute conceit, repeatedly linking to pictures of cats. (You fool. Your cats should be inline images. Also, those are not technically LOLcats, but you get a pass because you are old and out of touch.) But you're a bigger fool for bemoaning Huh as a speaker simply because he got cheese thanks to the Cheezburger. And as one dyspeptic old cranky guy to another, you are wrong.
The Post's Alexandria Petri responded to Weingarten shortly thereafter, making the case that journalism has to be about giving people what they want if it is to survive. She also says that it was probably an old person who killed journalism and that now she totally has to, like, sit up with the dead and also Twitter and a bunch of other stuff the olds don't understand, because they are old.
Ben Huh gamely also weighs in on WaPo, and manages to be the only person who gets it kind of right. (Predictably, he's not a journalist. Or at least, not a professional one.) Huh says that Journalism is thriving. And it is!
Journalism isn't dying, or getting old, or merely surviving. It's just changing. And in many respects, it has never been better. We are now in a Golden Age of journalism, largely driven by mobile devices. Journalism's biggest problem isn't that it's in financial trouble, it's that there is too much of it. And in that glut there's a tremendous opportunity.
Mobile devices are turning us all into reporters. The citizen journalist hasn't been such an important player since the days of the American Revolution. That's largely been a cell phone phenomena; everyday people can both record and broadcast information widely, and in narrow channels.
When conditions at Occupy Oakland turned violent, I didn't go to the San Francisco Chronicle, which had a paucity of static information. I didn't turn to the local TV networks (one of which was off-air for a helicopter refuel), I went to Twitter and YouTube, which gave me a steady stream of reportage, video and photos from the ground, describing events as they happened.
Mobile devices are making an unprecedented amount of data collection possible. In the late 1990s, SETI@Home crowdsourced part of its mission, letting millions of people use spare processing power to look for aliens. Today that's been flipped, and our always-on Internet devices are being used to collectively record everything from the weather, to crimes, to human rights conditions. (A friend has long promised to build a mobile app that lets you upload geo-tagged photos of dogshit and email them directly to the mayor of San Francisco. That's reporting!)
Mobile devices are also making new experiments in publishing possible, and profitable. Because the ease of citizen reporting has resulted in an overwhelming volume of it, the real future of journalism rests in the hands of hacker journalists who are finding new ways to make sense of the data glut—mapping it, analyzing it, digging through it and making it accessible and useful to an audience. They are taking the babble of the world's voices, and finding the message buried within.
They are building (successful) businesses, institutions, and platforms that enable not only millions of citizens to become journalists, but also for those removed from the story to make sense of it without getting lost in the din. Like Ushahidi, that builds open source tools to let citizens in the field become human instruments of data collection, mapping and visualization. Storify lets you build complex narratives out of disparate tweets, images and videos. iWitness, a winner at this year's Knight News Challenge, will compile social media updates by time and place to build stories from a particular moment and location.
Mobile is reviving long-form journalism as well. Consider Instapaper, the reductionist service that lets readers cut away the clutter and focus solely on the text. The Atavist reimagines the magazine process, selling a single long-form story at a time laid out for Kindles, iPads and other mobile devices, with built-in videos, maps, and built-in encyclopedia-style entries. It gives more context than you can from print without having to jump into the chaos the Web.
Even the old guard's finding surer footing online with the right filters in place: Conde Nast raised its digital subscription rate by 268 percent after Apple rolled out Newsstand. You might think that's because Newsstand is a distribution mechanism. I tend to think Newsstand works because it's an interest filter. It acts as an App Store sieve, helping readers pluck periodicals out of the myriad apps swimming around iTunes.
News has a future. It's just not on your doorstep, or even your desktop anymore. It's in your pants.
Image via nogoodreason/Flickr