Friday, September 17, 2010

Media: Still Need the Editors

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One might think that I, of all people, would understand the value of an editor in the modern media environment. During my undergraduate years, every week during the academic year (and for some periods, every week of the year), I compiled a 500-750 word summary of the week's news called "News Beyond the Farm." Besides being widely distributed by e-mail on campus at Stanford University, whose students were its original intended audience, "News Beyond the Farm" was also published in the student newspaper of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Newspeak. If this web page is to be believed, it was the most popular column in that paper in early 1996. While the official web page of the publication disappeared with the cancellation of my "leland" account at Stanford, a number of issues live on in the WPI archives; it looks like the last one they published, about four months before publication stopped entirely, is still posted here.

"News Beyond the Farm" wasn't popular because students lacked information. Most newspapers had all their important content on-line by time I ceased publication, but I was still getting new subscription requests. The value of the publication was in the compact format appropriate to the student lifestyle, and in the trust of the editor. The vast majority of the readers didn't know me personally, but they knew I was a student just like them whose filters were likely compatible with their own. The editorial choices that I was making were the key to the popularity.

A recent interview on the TVO podcast Search Engine with New York University professor Jay Rosen had me thinking back to "News Beyond the Farm." Rosen has been one of the thought leaders in interpreting Wikileaks. He's pointed out that Wikileaks had to provide its massive dump of United States war documents to a handful of news organizations first before full release because otherwise, with all that free information available to all, the "supply" of information would be so large compared with the demand that it would likely be ignored. Wikileaks needed the editors of reputable news organizations to make its information valuable in the information marketplace.

As time goes on, the Internet is making almost all information, now even state secrets, available to all. However, the world has long since passed the stage in which any given individual could process the information that becomes available. While search engines, RSS feeds, and other technology aids make it more tractable, there is still a need for people who know how to best utilize those tools to find the information that people will actually find interesting. In most cases, it's still multiple layers of people, in fact. A subject matter expert may use informatics tools to process the information on the Iraq war, and then a journalist may extract what the general public is likely to find interesting in what the expert has found, and then a meta-journalist (or, as I called myself fifteen years ago, a compiler) may put it in a form that someone will actually read and trust.

The two ends of that equation may be radically changing. A "stateless media" like Wikileaks didn't exist in 1997 to provide massive amounts of documents, and nobody was reading News Beyond the Farm on an iPad in 1997. However, what goes on in between is largely the same, and where the value in the information is ultimately created. The business models need to evolve--and it is still hard to see how that happens--but in the end, it doesn't seem possible to change that reality of value creation. Thus, it's possible to see how journalism has the economic basis to continue to exist. The Internet can't destroy it after all.

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