[Episode 3] The Far West metaphor

The image I have of the first Gold Rush is that of Americans travelling West, settling to create their own town from the ground up – I’m pretty confident it’s accurate, I’ve read Lucky Luke a lot.

They would typically start by building their house and craft some tools, wash their dishes and their clothes (sometimes), go to the well to find some water and, when luck came, rush to the nearest town to sell their gold nuggets. Those guys knew how to do it all.

But soon, some of the inhabitants of the town realized they were better bartenders than gold-seekers: those guys opened a saloon. Others opened banks, others became sheriffs, other opened places where you could do your laundry, stores where you could buy food, … The idea is that after the first migrants who did it all, people soon specialized when they realized they were better at doing some stuff than other.

This metaphor applies to the journalism industry: in the pre-internet world, institutions developed that were able to do everything from the getting to the telling as well as the making of the news, claim Anderson, Bell and Shirky in their landmark essay Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present. In this pre-internet world, “the news was whatever an enumerable collection of institutionally stable actors chose to publish”.

The irruption of the Internet in this journalism industry is the equivalent of the metal detector, the telegraph and the railroad arriving at the same time in the little Far West Town we were presenting before – as you would expect, it’s messy.

While it is very useful to think about the changing world and its potential effects on people, like the FON (for Future Of News) thinkers do, a simple question remains: what should the Far West do? The FON consensus (“consensus” here is an interesting choice of word because they all but agree as this great piece by Dean Starkman in Columbia Journalism review underlines) offers a theoretical framework but no real solution and no quantitative analysis of the impact of Internet on the journalism industry.

FON thinkers have brainstormed between themselves for almost a decade now – with arguable influence on the actual world and industry. It is important to explain why the Far West people will now be able to find gold much more easily, communicate with other towns when they found a good spot and travel to other good spots with increased safety and speed. But what if they just don’t know how to use the metal detector, the telegraph or the railroad in the first place?

My main criticism is that they agree on the democratic value of good journalism and the importance of a successful digital transition yet they leave it upon the industry to get itself out of its dead end. I think there are three areas we can investigate for interesting recommendations:

  • The Economy: Finding business models that can support journalism in the future, as this study of the business models in the French digital sector in 2012 by Benghozi and Lyubareva strives to. These recommendations aim at creating business models that are as self-sustainable as possible for the journalism industry, not waiting for the right business models being serendipitously found out of all the news startups.
  • The Public Service point-of-view: Understanding the democratic value of good journalism (or, in economics term, the opportunity cost of not having a good journalism industry) to be able to subsidize it at the appropriate level – some French people say that newspapers like Le Canard Enchaîné are the proof that they live in a democracy. These recommendations would aim at raising public awareness for the importance of good journalism and raising public concern about the importance of subsidizing journalism institutions.
  • The technological perspective: Content Management Systems (CMS) are paramount in both processes and broadcasting of modern pieces of news. Creating an Open Source CMS that would be both flexible and adapted to the production of news would be a very good public investment in the sense that it would augment both democratic and economic value.

Institutions matter, and the cowboys didn’t create their institutions alone. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian philosopher, says crisis happen when the old does not die and the young is not born. If old institutions of journalism are on the verge of dying, maybe the question we should ask ourselves is how to make sure that new institutions are being born.

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