The Demise of the Newspaper and How to Move Forward

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Journalism is undergoing a profound change. With the rise of online news, the traditional paper-based newspaper is rapidly dying due to increased competition, higher relative production costs, reduced ad revenue, and the loss of the youth demographic. The evidence is palpable. Newspapers are closing bureaus, reducing staff and content, and their stocks have lost 42% in value. Indeed, some predict that today’s presses will be the last and that the final paper delivery will occur by 2043!

Certainly, the transition to online news has its advantages. Unlike print, the internet allows news to be rapidly updated and easily shared. It drastically increases the volume of news by reducing the cost of entry. Its “long tail” allows for much more niche content. And finally, it renders news more participatory and interactive.

But not all effects will be positive. As newspapers become increasingly “unbundled” online, articles that attract high ad revenue will be prioritized over quality. The existing subsidization scheme, in which revenue from popular articles funds investigative pieces, will fall apart. Secondly, internet news will not only have more noise, but more filtering. Consumers will choose news that fits their preferred paradigm (e.g. Republican, Democratic), resulting in a lost national narrative. This will be exacerbated by the increasing aggregation of online news, effectively obscuring authors’ voices. Third, the demise of the newspaper will weaken one
arm of the “triangle” that provokes political change. Without such news, the blogs (or netroots) may struggle to generate the content, audience, and legitimacy needed to reach critical mass.

To date, many publishers have refused to accept the inevitability of this transition. They have deluded themselves into believing that the newspaper itself is sound and merely requires a “digital facelift”. They have spent the last decade trying to “save the old newsrooms”.  But this is the wrong crusade.  We need to shift our attention from saving the old newspaper to “saving society”.

The most promising approach is to experiment with new business models. As even the revolutionaries can’t predict what model might succeed, broad experimentation is necessary. One potential model is mandatory payment for online news, via metering or online subscriptions.  A more innovative model is voluntary payment, in which consumers pay what they choose or journalists withhold content until reaching donation targets. Another approach, closest  to the current online model, is to have non-consumers pay (e.g. advertisers or sponsors). Lastly, online newspapers can eliminate costs by using crowdsourcing to produce content.

In addition to experimenting with new business models, we too must adapt to this changing media environment. We must recognize the opportunities, as well as the limitations, of this new “ecosystem” of news. As a policy student, I am particularly interested in how politicians will adapt. Will they become more extreme, given the polarizing effects of filtered online news? Will they seek the support of online news communities over the traditional counterparts? Will they focus on new policy topics as  interest groups develop, unite, and exert pressure online? To some extent, these possibilities appear to be occurring already.

In sum, the print newspaper is a dying breed of media, being “crowded out” by online news. While there will be causalities and feelings of loss along the way, there are advantages to the new media (greater volume, breadth, timeliness etc). I am also confident that the demand for solid journalism will continue. The challenge, therefore, will be finding the right business model to ensure that such journalism is economically viable. It will also involve adapting ourselves to their new media environment.

 

 

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Categories: Uncategorized

Wikipedia Page Assessment

 

Given my knowledge of public housing, a topic I explored during my days as a researcher, I chose to analyze the Wikipedia entry [[Public Housing in Canada]].

Upon accessing the page, I was immediately struck by the short length of the article. At only 10 lines, the article was clearly missing several pieces of key information. Among other things, it neglected to discuss the size and state of the public housing stock, the level of investment, and policy arguments and implication surrounding public housing.  It also failed to adequately describe the public housing providers, as well as the types of such housing (with examples). Perhaps most glaring, however, was its sole focus on public housing in Ontario. While Ontario has the most public housing units, to overlook the remaining 12 provinces/ territories is a major oversight. Thus, the article is far from “comprehensive”. (This weakness is only magnified when you compare the page to [[Public Housing in the United States]] or the wealth of information in the internet).

Unfortunately, the article does not fare much better in terms of sourcing. In total, it features only 2 citations. Of these, the second citation is from a reputable source (the Government of Ontario) and appears to sufficiently support the text. The first citation, however, is more questionable. It links to the homepage for the County of Renfrew, Ontario, which provides no information on housing. Worse still, there are several statements that fail to provide any citations.  In light of the abundance of credible information online (e.g. through the census, housing agencies, Ministry of Housing, think-tanks, newspapers), it is hard to excuse such weak sourcing.

One area where the article performs well is neutrality. Perhaps because of the brevity of the article, it never strays from strictly objective data (primarily historical or legal information). Perhaps the one exception is the first line, which somewhat pejoratively suggests that public housing is only for low-income people. (Though generally true, it can also house the elderly or those with disabilities).

A further weakness of the article is its poor readability. One line, for example, was totally incomprehensible: “1998 Consolidated  Municipal Service Managers took on the financial costs of social housing”. Others were simply unclear or required further  elaboration: “[public housing] is provided in a variety of setting” (which settings?), “public housing used to be…” (what is it now?), and “a great deal of money was invested” (how much?). Furthermore, the text featured several redundancies (“for low income and poor people”), improper capitalizations (Federal law, the Social Safety Net legislation), passive voice (“were invested”) and acronyms without definition (OHC). Lastly, to make matters worse, the article is written in a dry, ‘laundry list’ format, with virtually every line beginning with “In (year), ….”. Such writing style does little to engage the reader.

A final consideration is the aesthetics of the page. In terms of formatting, the article does include (and properly positions) the requisite content box, lead section, headings, “See Also”, and “References”. However, the lead section requires expansion, while the body requires more sections (beyond “History” and “Ontario”). With regards to illustrations, the article fails to include a single image, table or chart. To improve its visual presentation, it could add a photo of a Canadian public housing development, a table  etailing the type and number of public housing units across Canada, a chart with investments in public housing by year etc.

In summary, this article (or stub) doesn’t yet qualify for “Featured Article” status. Still, it does provide a starting off point for improvement. All the article requires now are users with passion and expertise to realize its potential.

 

Click here for my wikipedia user page!

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Review of Steven Levy’s “In The Plex”

September 24, 2011 Leave a comment

 

In the Plex”, a 2011 book by Steven Levy, offers a thorough examination of all things Google. Among other topics, it explores Google’s history, innovations, business model, and culture, as well as the company’s impact on consumers and governments.

Perhaps the central focus of the book, however, is how Google became what it is today: the world’s dominant search engine and a multibillion dollar corporation. As Levy explains, this meteoric rise stems from two main innovations. First, the success of Google’s search engine derives foremost from its use of inward links as an indicator for search relevance. Based on the system used to evaluate scholarly articles, google ranks a webpage as more relevant if many other pages—especially reputable pages—link to it.

This innovation served to drastically increase the accuracy of google search results. However, Google wasn’t able to monetize the development until a second innovation: AdWords. AdWords functions by matching ads to users’ search queries. It also sells ads by auction and lists them on search results pages based on the bid value and ad quality. Thus, AdWords is revolutionary in that it has made advertising useful to the user. It has also exploited the long-tail by enabling millions of small advertisers to place cheap ads.

But, as Levy implicitly suggests, the real success of Google lies far deeper than Google search and AdWords. It lies in the company’s culture, philosophy, and strategy. Unlike most companies, google is founded on the Montessori approach: asking questions, making independent decisions, acting on impulses, disrespecting authority, thinking beyond the “feasible”, and pursuing areas of interest. This is manifested throughout Google and has generated incredible creativity at the company. Google also believes strongly in securing the best minds. It therefore invests heavily in its employees, especially its engineers. Third, Google believes in the supremacy of data (gathered from testing or the users). As much as possible, the company bases its decision on algorithms and numbers. Finally, Google is guided by the notion that users come first. Company efforts are geared towards enhancing user experience and access to knowledge, even at the expense of immediate profit. This is reflected in the company’s unofficial credo “Don’t be evil”.

Thus, Levy’s “In The Plex” provides an in-depth look into the many dimensions of Google. By meticulously recounting the company’s development, weaving in numerous behind-the-scenes anecdotes, he paints a fascinating story about the Internet giant. Still, there was room for improvement. In my view, the book contains a few inconsistencies (e.g. he describes Google as lacking hierarchy and yet, describes “engineers as royalty”). More importantly, however, I believe the book placed too much emphasis on description over analysis. It focused more on the rise of Google than on how the company has changed the landscape and thus, society.

It is hard to overstate the impact that Google has had on our lives. After all, within just 15 years of its inception, Google has become our go-to source for information. As a graduate student, I am acutely aware of my own dependence on the search engine, as well as that of other students. In fact, I know several students that have yet to step foot in a Harvard library (unthinkable even a generation ago).  Of course, as a student of politics, I am also aware of the “downside” of instantaneous global access to information. A simple Google search can expose candidates or politicians like never before. Nevertheless, I believe—like Google’s founders—that the search engine is largely a force for good. I look forward to seeing how Google and its latest initiatives (e.g. cloud computing, Google Book Search etc) continue to shape society in the years to come.

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Review of Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody”

September 11, 2011 1 comment

 

In his 2008 book, “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky delves into the new technology of our era and details how such innovation is profoundly reshaping society. While his analysis is broad, two themes feature most prominently.

First, Shirky regularly highlights that the cost of global publishing has “collapsed”. In the past, publishing was a relatively costly endeavour. It demanded significant resources to cover overhead costs (e.g. offices), payrolled employees, editors, reproduction, and distribution. As a result, the ability to publish broadly was tied to ownership of communications machinery, thus limiting the number of publishers and the volume they published. Today, however, the internet and personal computer have drastically reduced these barriers (or “disincentives to participation”). Now, virtually anyone can write and widely disseminate their ideas. In the words of Shirky, publication has undergone “mass amateurization”.

A second major theme in Shirky’s work is how modern technology (particularly the internet) has enabled us to form new groups in new ways. Because we are more connected and socially visible than ever before, we are better able to locate (and be located by) like-minded people. Furthermore, joining and forming groups have never been so simple. The result, explains Shirky, has been the creation of a “small world network”. In this network, small densely connected groups are “bridged” to other such groups via “connectors”. Members are then able to meet new individuals, as well as spread information, through their existing contacts.

The implications of these 2 major themes are immense. To begin, the deprofessionalization of publication has allowed people to publish anything – regardless of content or profitability. This has led to an incredible proliferation of information, as well as a sort of “cultural flowering”. Next, the ease of creating groups has facilitated coordinated effort and collective action on a massive scale. It has altered the “old limits for size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised efforts” and allowed people to experiment with novel ways of “getting things done”.

But not all effects have been completely positive. As Shirky notes, the incredible quantity of material on the internet, and the sheer speed in which it is produced and shared, has made it impossible to filter before publication. Furthermore, our newfound ability to create and improve content (e.g. user-generated content) online has led to the loss of thousands of jobs. Finally, modern tools have allowed certain groups to form (e.g. pro-Anorexia groups) and share information which might ultimately prove detrimental.

Thus, at the end of the day, new technology is not necessarily improving society, but challenging it. This has led, maintains Shirky, to the creation of an entirely new global “ecosystem”.

Overall, Shirky’s findings affirm many of the conclusions of his contemporaries. For example, in describing how new tools have allowed people to unite and provide for each other’s needs, all while circumventing traditional institutions, Shirky reiterates Charlene Li’s concept of “the groundswell”. Li arguably digs deeper into the real-life manifestations of the groundswell, but both authors outline the same phenomenon. A further parallel can be drawn between the findings of Shirky of Chris Anderson.  In his book, Shirky references the “power distribution law” (or Pareto Principle), explaining how collaborative efforts on the internet generally involve a few people who make massive contributions and many more who make minor contributions. This matches what Anderson calls “the long tail”, although he focuses on the long tail more as a business model (i.e. selling not just “hits” to many, but selling a wide variety of products to niche markets).

To conclude, Clay Shirky offers an astute and balanced analysis in “Here Comes Everybody”. In my view, he rightly emphasizes the transformative effects of modern tools on our ability to publish, share, and come together, noting that these effects are most profound when the tools reach critical mass. He also shrewdly avoids taking a normative stance, observing that these effects can be both “good” and “bad”.  Certainly, I believe there are areas in which Shirky is off the mark (e.g. his belief that the “promise” of an online collaborative project must be modest to entice participation) or could have elaborated further (e.g. the Coasean floor concept). Still, I would recommend Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” to anyone with an interest in modern technology, media, and/or group dynamics.

Links:

Here Comes Everybody: http://www.amazon.com/Here-Comes-Everybody-Organizing-Organizations/dp/1594201536

Charlene Li’s “Groundswell”: http://www.amazon.com/Groundswell-Winning-Transformed-Social-Technologies/dp/1422125009

The Long Tail: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Tail and http://www.amazon.com/Long-Tail-Future-Business-Selling/dp/1401302378

For more media blogs: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/  and  http://www.darrenherman.com/