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It was a really enjoyable session. Thanks for the book signing!!

Steven Devijver

The video of this talk can be found here:



You seem to believe that there is a place for newspaper as an aggregator or filter for most of the population in the future. But isn't that naive? Does it mean this separation between bloggers and the newsrooms will always be maintained, however fabricated that divide might be?

In other words: is the general public somehow not interested or disconnected from the long tail which is exactly the part of the value proposition newspapers can't offer?




This is a very important piece. Thank you, Stephen. I'm addicted to newspapers, like most of my generation, and I'm worried about their potential disappearance. And I take heart from many of your points here -- thanks for bringing some piece of mind.

And as you (and Marx) point out, we need to imagine the future; real fast. The forces destroying the newpapers are rapacious.

I think the fundamental question is a business question, who's going to pay the reporters? The papers may go away, but reporting is serious profession that cannot rely on stay-at-home-volunteers, sometimes known as bloggers.

Even if we have reliable (?) neighborhood reporting from local activists and bloggers, we also need compensated professionals for the bigger stuff: city, statewide, national, and international. They don't need to work for a newspaper, but somebody's got to pay for them and for their reporting expenses.

The answer will probably include ad supported news sites, which aren't as yet economically feasible. Or subscription news like the WSJ, although this will be a tough sell to a general audience. Experiments like spot.us may provide an answer for longer, investigative pieces; but not the day to day from Bagdad.

We don't go to movies made by amateur directors (well...), we rarely read books by volunteer writers. Instead of pajama-wearing opinionators like those of us posting comments here, professional reporters are going to have to report the important news. We should have already learned that from the ruins of another Old Growth culture, talk radio.

Rush Limbaugh is not going to be at the scene of the next 911; love John Stewart, but he's not going to uncover the Madoff scandal, and neither Joe Trippi nor Guy Kawasaki is going to Kentucky to investigate mine safety.

Seems to me that traditional, competitive, professional reporting is essential to civic democracy. Who's going to pay its reporters? I'm reasonably trustful the marketplace will give us an answer.


Steven: sorry about the "Stephen", I have the reverse problem, and this just underlines my point that amateurs are not good reporters.

Adrian Holovaty

Right on, Steven. And I don't think you'll have to wait five years to get those e-mail alerts about muggings around your house; sites like EveryBlock.com are already laying the groundwork for block-specific news. In fact, in some cities, something very close to that *already* exists! One example: http://charlotte.everyblock.com/police-calls/

The technology infrastructure for a neighborhood-level information distribution system already exists. It's just a matter of data availability -- which just isn't evenly distributed yet.

Bill Koslosky, MD

News is the ashes of the efforts of the innovators, agitators, instigators, perpetrators, et al, the typical cable news fodder.

Despite the voluminous Web chat about Apple products, they are far from what they could be. Your talk is all about reporting and not about transformation. I guess if you're one of those trying to sell something, a book maybe, you want to be savvy to buzzpolitik. A loud bang in the echo chamber.

What would be truly impressive would be the ability of Web participants to have products and services created for their needs. Screw the soviet ministries of cell phone carriers. No more silos, don't make us jailbreak your products.

Your diagram shows a whole lot of nothing being accomplished. Just more chatter to fill the news cycle.


The internet is a communications platform that's here to marry or modify existing platforms including cell/land phones, radio, television and media. The problem with the newspaper business is that it didn't recognize this shift in its market or properly adapt to it. Now it's reaching a dire state. It's no different than the steamship disrupting the paddle boat world.

All the industry needs to do is recognize it's environment has shifted, and focus on what it will take to migrate its customer base to the new platform. It's not difficult. Retail business is a case study for how to transition from a traditional platform to a new one. Not nearly as much has changed about users, the audience and the way the world works. It's just a different platform, and companies need to take a platform focused approach.

Lots of industries have/are being disrupted by the web but the demise of a business entirely is still optional.


Thanks Stev. This is a terrific analysis. You said so well what I have been stumbling around trying to articulate here in Chicago. Thanks to the beauty of the web, I was able to read your comments and will be able to see a video of you presenting the day after the event- glorious access to information! At a Poynter Institute event here in Chicago yesterday, the reality you describe was coming sharply into focus in the discussion. It is so sad that newspapers and some other legacy media do not see the preciousness of their brands and how important it is to preserve THAT so they have a place in the new ecosystem. Newspapers don't need to go more deeply into the "swamp" of disinformation to have a role in the new forest. They need to do a LOT more of what they do well and spread cooperatively through their value systems instead of competing the old line hierarchical way. Unfortunately, some newspapers like the Sun-Times where I used to work have been sucked dry of their newsroom resources by their business operating model. If you are operated by a hedge fund, all they want is a dollar return. They don't see or value the social return. that is what I am on the soap box for the new L3C hybrid for news businesses.. It's great to hear your vision and here in Chicago, theree are many of us who get it and want to see a healthy ecosystem develop. By the way, I wrote about you guys when I was at the Sun-Times in 2007..


nice try at reading the tea leaves.

the descriptives of the past were amusing and on point.

the future, however, will not be the old guard as aggregators. they have lost much of their brand(and trust) for putting out mediocrity in order to line their own pockets. the public has spoken. they will not return.

to use your old growth theory..

when the big trees topple, the sunshine they dominated for so long will be spread evenly amongst smaller, more adaptive, more short-lived entities. there will be a free for all of competition. a few new ones will arise to dominate the sunlight again. it wont be he newspapers we continue to harken back to.

Niel Robertson

I like the thinking. Similar to something I wrote:



This is a fascinating, if not grievous point of view; not as to pass judgment in a negative sense, but as a view of the future embraced by the influences of established doctrine procurers. One can note the explosive influence of e-formed communication devices (blogs ect.) as the accelerant fueling the move toward a tiered internet; where influence is maintained (or re-established) based on access, or the ability to limit vantage points. Absent curtailed access, one would need the acumen of an actuary to compute the sophisticated sequences which are quickly producing the stresses on traditional mainstream media.

Dan Woog

A very insightful piece. And here's the PS: The College Hill Bookstore is no more, a victim of exactly the type of migration to new journalism (new media, new reading habits, etc.) that are so well explained here, and so profoundly exciting. As wonderful as this new world is, it's sorrowful that we've lost the College Hill Bookstores of the world.


You are really on the mark here. As a small business owner who is struggling to decide WHERE to put my advertising dollars, it's apparent to me there's a HUGE hole in the online community news sector. If the sites existed where I am, I would advertise there without a doubt. I know they will be everywhere eventually, but right now we are in transition.

David Merkel

Just one question: how are you going to get the money to flow to support content creators, and in proportion to the value of their content?

J.A. Ginsburg

Several years ago, I put together an exhibit called "The Art of the Message" about the evolution of the modern newspaper as a graphic medium (recently, Maria Popova of the brilliant Brain Pickings blog wrote about it - lots of good art here: http://tinyurl.com/c8t9a8). It was based on a rare, private, rag-edition run of Chicago Tribunes from the late 19th century through WWII. The show started off with a front page from 1871, in which 6 1/2 out of 7 columns were devoted to ads (post-fire, any income was income...). The only news story on the page, in what must have been 2 pt type, included a crude illustration etched into the printing plate to help explain a vintage Chicago news story: ballot box-stuffing.

A hundred years ago the newspaper as we know it was being invented. The Tribune turned out to be a pretty good case study in part because of its stunning vertical integration (the company owned forests in Canada for making newsprint and mixed its own inks) and unabashed sense of self-important mission (until a graphic designer who shall remain nameless took an exacto blade to it in the 1970s, "World's Greatest Newspaper" was part of the masthead - for trivia buffs, that's what Tribune-owned radio station WGN's call letters stand/stood for).

There are stunningly parallels to what journalists, designers, advertisers and publishers were experimenting with in newspapers - the world's first truly mass medium - a century ago, and what's been happening on the web over the last decade. There was an energy and a willingness to stretch boundaries that frankly hasn't been seen in some time.

The optimism of your post had precedent: Until the modern newspaper happened, most people would never have imagined it possible. I'll think of your post daily as I pick my Tribune, mostly out of habit and now with an increasing sense of watch-the-train-wreck horror.

However... there is one angle to the discussion that doesn't seem to come up much. News organizations not only provided livelihoods for journalists, but funded legal teams to protect them. As can seen already in many places around the world (Russia, China, Sri Lanka - http://tinyurl.com/95vce9), a free press is never a given. It's that much easier to intimidate and marginalize journalists working on their own. I don't know what the answer is, but the loss of protective organizational cover presents a real challenge.

Full disclosure: I edit a news aggregator that focuses on health issues, humanitarian work and technology that relates to both (http://www.TrackerNews.net) It has a few twists. Stories (breaking news, research papers, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books — print, audio, video) are grouped for contextual relevance, rather than organized by category, which makes for a rather eclectic page.

In a sense, it is sort of a "slow food, artisanal" version of a semantic web, with (as Steve Baker put it), the human algorithm tossed back into the equation. It's definitely an experiment-in-process.

We're in the process of determining whether to finish up a "custom tracker" tool we've been playing with. Tracker's back end UI is drag-n-drop wysiwyg, which makes it easy for anyone to get onto it quickly. If anyone's interested in finding out more, I can be contacted through the TrackerNews site.


Fao Dan Woog.


A DIY, self-service hyper-niche/local ad system...


What about local news that only locals care about? Who's going to keep an eye on the shenanigans in the Ottumwa school board, or the Peoria city council? How will the web provide that, along with real estate values, police blotters, and other information that we need?

Jeff Bragg

"Now, what would have happened to that speech had it been delivered in 1992?.... Fox News and MSNBC? They didn’t exist yet."

Hmm...not that it's particularly relevant to the discussion here, but this does make me wonder who I was editing news for in 1992. The checks did say "Fox News."

Darrell Todd Maurina

I've repeatedly heard the "Baghdad bureau" discussion, and as the owner of what's probably (today) the only online newspaper covering a major Army installation -- the Pulaski County Daily News at www.pulaskicountydaily.com outside Fort Leonard Wood -- I think those people who don't know the military are ignoring the tremendous amount of blogging that **ALREADY** goes on with active duty soldiers as well as civilian contractors.

And quite frankly, when I finally left print journalism last year after 19 years to start an online newspaper, an important underlying factor was that most of the servicemembers who were reading me were reading me ONLINE, not with printed copies of the Waynesville Daily Guide. The print newspaper for which I worked had a dozen paying subscribers on Fort Leonard Wood, but I probably had a dozen soldiers a day tell me they were reading my articles online who usually had never seen a printed copy.

Let's face it -- soldiers are young and that means they're even more internet-savvy than the general civilian populace and less interested in print media. It's possible to retire with a good pension and health insurance after 20 years in uniform, which means 38 for enlisted and 42 for officers. And at West Point, they're giving cadets computers and telling them to read the New York Times online. Even the older soldiers such as the installation chaplain, a full colonel in his early 50s, told me he'd been reading my articles online.

Fort Leonard Wood routinely has major units deployed to Iraq. I can't possibly afford to send an embedded reporter to cover the 5th Engineer Battalion (that opportunity has been offered) but I am trying right now to find ways to effectively cover our soldiers in Iraq.

The simple fact now is that we cover the civilian life of what soldiers are doing off-post as well as major on-post events, but I am not convinced that blogging by active duty soldiers and civilian contractors, combined with what the Arab media are doing very aggressively to present their point of view, can't provide at least as good coverage of our active duty military as what the civilian media are doing now -- which is, frankly, not much.


Good post!

Darrell Todd Maurina

By the way, I linked to your blog here:


I have a running commentary section called "Media Meltdown" on the Pulaski County Web, another community discussion site in our county whose owner is my webmaster, and a lot of people in rural Missouri have been quite interested in seeing these links to the state of the news media in larger cities.

A commenter above asked who will cover the Ottumwa or Peoria school boards. That's an important and legitimate question.

My answer? If I can cover the Laquey, Crocker, Dixon, Richland, Plato and Swedeborg school districts -- all of which have less than 1,000 students -- as well as our county's main district (Waynesville) with about 5,000 students, surely some business entrepreneur in Peoria or Ottumwa can come up with a way to pay one or two full-time reporters to cover their school boards and city councils online.

And by the way, I do understand Iowa -- I used to live there, and years ago thought my ideal job would be to work for a daily newspaper in the Dutch Reformed country of northwest Iowa or as a suburban reporter for the Des Moines Register while living in Pella. I was a reporter in Iowa until I turned down three different news jobs in smaller cities than Peoria or Ottumwa to move to Fort Leonard Wood and cover the Army after the 9/11 terrorist sttack.

Prokofy Neva

You are yet another geek, looking through the geek keyhole, and extrapolating from your experience of how tech news and information can or should disseminate and imagining this provides a model for all news and news organizations.

It doesn't.

Techs wanted information to be free because they saw it as vital to tech development *itself* -- they were very self-interested in their destruction of the private property of "freedom of the press which belongs to him who owns one".

The tech talk about tech is mainly about the Internet which easily spreads it. An 8,000 word piece has value; a tweet has value in the technology development process, which can pay for itself by selling the machines, or selling the knowledge to code the machines, and doesn't have to worry if the infosphere around that process is paid for or not. You're paid to blog not by the ads here, but by your consulting or your big IT company.

But...Local and international news isn't like tech news; it's much more expensive to get as it requires basic hoofing around the ward and making cold calls and triangulating lots and lots of sources. It's not just "oh wow I used this new iphone and here's my experience" it's more like "oh, all the relief agencies are expelled from Sudan, what's happening?". Very, very different newscape and skills required to gather information (you don't just point and click) and very, very different business model (no big IT company waiting in the wings to pay for all tech talk and all tech mags -- itself a problem of bias in tech journalism).

Tech talk, tech journalism, tech business models -- these are only the externals of news, they are not its core. The core is still about talking to *people*, not machines, and making organic value judgements, not scraping data produced by web analytics.

The fact that 13 million wired Obama supporters raised bunches of money from Silicon Valley doesn't change that; that's only 10 percent of the people who voted for Obama. And they represent a far greater spectrum of people and interests than you might be prepared to believe. Having Huffpo or the Daliy Kos or Scoble to push Obama and presumably funnel your agenda points in the future into his Blackberry is not enough of a structure to run a country or create a space for leaders and ordinary people to persuade diverse interest groups in a society about complex policies -- which is the role of the newspaper.

The ecosystem of tech talk and tech press, which you were able to forcibly overlay on to politics through the Obama machine is just one ecosystem. It's not *the* ecosystem. While you're imagining Silicon Valley has produced a machine for ruling the country (destroy newspapers, get everyone in a Facebook group), Fox News and talk radio trundles on, not really injured in your destructive war on paid content. If anything, the most liberal press is your technology's first victim. The web cannot replace the Village Voice, which, while free, paid its expenses with the ads -- the ads that craigslist took away from it. Your breath-takingly naive plan to just let investigative and international reporting go to, oh, I dunno, Al-Jazeera and Kremlin-owned news sites and be regurgitated faithfully on leftist blogs, isn't going to happen because Fox News or some other conservative force like it won't let it happen, and the liberal cause will actually lose, not win.

Newsassignment.net is definitely not a substitute for anything approaching a newspaper. It's a college blog. It has stories about...social media. It has hugely skewed political rants about the Middle East -- not local or national news of the civic import you claim will now be covered by projects like this.

As for your notion that this "more complex" set of ecosystems -- and yes, there will be more than the one tech ecosystem where you thrive and are comfortable -- will somehow require more effort to navigage, I guess you never heard of the Google news reader. And what will happen, as that news reader fills up with a 1,000 feeds, as there will be -- there already are -- news aggregators and feed readers who are like Scoble and the News Gang with way more power to rebroadcast than they themselves even realize they have (go and check how many mindless cows re-tweet them without ANY discussion). The newspapers *could* be the authoritative source -- but the Silicon Valley A-lister blogs are too busy destroying and trashing them with the help of their East Coast Marxist professor friends.

The system you outline is not only 'not perfect" it's dangerous. Because under the guise of a long-tail wiki-culture democracy, it actually encourages mindless re-tweeting by confused consumers, consumption-to-content ratios of 90 percent to 10 percent and brand and actor confusion -- which of course lovers of Actor Network Theory, who think all knowledge resides in the network, without much of an individual's role, will only be too happy to see happen.

Your tears for the ugliness of what's happening to newspapers are crocodile tears, as you represent a class of people -- the geek, the Mac lover, the Internet news maker and consumer -- who actively, gleefully helped it to happen. What you will be surprised -- shocked -- to see is ultimately how the forces you thought you suppressed or persuaded, all those SUV drivers and born-agains, grab the tools bad and the rump of the old media and have a good long run with it.

Shame on you for quoting Marx -- Marx who created the virtual world of communism imposed on people violently -- and whose works justified the massacres of millions. No one needs figures like Marx to "imagine" the future, thank you very much.

The struggle to "keep the past alive" as you disparagingly call it will in fact be a struggle of the new -- against the 150-year-old ancient, outmoded doctrine of communism Marx helped built which today survives as the conservative technocommunist doctrine of technology (it's anything but progressive as an ideology). And you will see your tools misused by people you call fascists. And you will see both old and new combine in ways that will remove power above all from you first -- and you thought social Darwinism is something that only happens to other people, never yourselves.

David Eaves

Hi Steven, great piece. I think your ecosystem is correct and that it will call for some real rethinking about the nature of journalism - perhaps even its death and rebirth?

Hope you can swing by and take a look...

Scott Carney

The college hill bookstore closed a few years ago. It's a cheesy thrift store now. Not like it used to be at all. Anyway, I don't think I remember you hanging out there maybe I didn't see you because I had my nose stuck in the sci-fi section.

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I'm a father of three boys, husband of one wife, and author of nine books, host of one television series, and co-founder of three web sites. We split our time between Brooklyn, NY and Marin County, CA. Personal correspondence should go to sbeej68 at gmail dot com. If you're interested in having me speak at an event, drop a line to Wesley Neff at the Leigh Bureau (WesN at Leighbureau dot com.)

My Books

  • Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

    Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
    A history of innovation accompanied by a 6-part TV series on PBS and the BBC, this was the first of my books to crack the top 5 on the NY Times bestseller list. Appropriately for a book that celebrates diverse networks, this was the most collaborative of any of my books. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

    Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age
    My first book-length attempt to organize my writings about emergence and networks into something resembling a political philosophy, which I called Peer Progressivism. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

    Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
    An exploration of environments that lead to breakthrough innovation, in science, technology, business, and the arts. I conceived it as the closing book in a trilogy on innovative thinking, after Ghost Map and Invention. But in a way, it completes an investigation that runs through all the books, and laid the groundwork for How We Got To Now. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Invention of Air

    The Invention of Air
    The story of the British radical chemist Joseph Priestley, who ended up having a Zelig-like role in the American Revolution. My version of a founding fathers book, and a reminder that most of the Enlightenment was driven by open source ideals. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Ghost Map

    The Ghost Map
    The story of a terrifying outbreak of cholera in 1854 London 1854 that ended up changing the world. An idea book wrapped around a page-turner. I like to think of it as a sequel to Emergence if Emergence had been a disease thriller. You can see a trailer for the book here. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

    Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
    The title says it all. This one sparked a slightly insane international conversation about the state of pop culture -- and particularly games. There were more than a few dissenters, but the response was more positive than I had expected. And it got me on The Daily Show, which made it all worthwhile. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

    Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
    My first best-seller, and the only book I've written in which I appear as a recurring character, subjecting myself to a battery of humiliating brain scans. The last chapter on Freud and the neuroscientific model of the mind is one of my personal favorites. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

    Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
    The story of bottom-up intelligence, from slime mold to Slashdot. Most of my books sold more copies than this one, but Emergence has influenced the most eclectic mix of fields: political campaigns, web business models, urban planning, the war on terror. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate

    Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
    My first. The book I wrote instead of finishing my dissertation, predicting the growing cultural significance of interface and information design. Still relevant, I think. But I haven't read it in a while, so who knows what's in there! (Available from IndieBound here.)

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