Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"News Wars"? Let's hope the print media participate

Just days from the start of the new year, let's take a moment to revisit the too-close-for-comfort prediction made five years ago by two young Poynter Institute staffers that 2010 would be the year of "The News Wars."

The idea is plausible, given the deteriorating financial state of many legacy news organization, which have seen pockets once rich with revenue -- real estate listings, employment ads and other classified staples -- migrate to the Web even as new online operations poach the stories, photos and graphics that are the print media's bread and butter.

After all, that's at the root of threats to erect paywalls to protect content and sue search engines for copyright infringement.

But the skirmish foreseen by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson in their short film "Epic 2014" (soon updated as "Epic 2015") is different: The News Wars "are notable for the fact that no actual news organizations take part."

As Thompson tells it, the two created their decade-out look at the media landscape after a bar-hopping discussion one weekend in Miami about a speech delivered to an industry group by Martin Nisenholtz, the executive in charge of the New York Times' digital operations.

They focused on Nisenholtz's mention of the multi-contestant, role-playing game Ultima Online and what it might mean for journalism: "What if people could create and affect news stories by simply reading, viewing or listening to them?" they asked. That question now would fall under the rubric "social media."

So they sketched out in their film how such a system could develop, mainly through the growth of competitive behemoths Google and Microsoft, which would invent or acquire new technologies tit for tat (TiVo, Blogger, Friendster, Picasa, Newsbot) until they reigned supreme. (Google, meantime, would morph into Googlezon through a combination with Amazon.)

The News Wars of 2010, then, occur when Googlezon and Microsoft battle for supremacy in supplying the online news and consummables platform for Everyman. Googlezon ultimately wins by applying new algorithms that strip relevant factoids from news produced by the mainstream media and then "re-sorts, re-calculates and re-combines these scraps with our information -- our blog entries, our photos, our purchases, our lives. Suddenly, news is more relevant than ever before," Thompson says in a smooth, haunting voice as he narrates.

It isn't until 2011 that the mainstream media wake up and mount a challenge to Googlezon's hegemony, with the New York Times claiming the "fact-stripping robots" voilate copyright law. The Times loses, and by 2014 (when the original Sloan-Thompson film ends) the paper has left the Web and exists as a print-only newsletter "for the elite and elderly."

Googlezon, though, has launched Epic (Evolving, Personalized Information Construct), which at it's best offers a broader, deeper view of the world, according to the film. "But at it's worst, and for too many, Epic is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational."

"Epic 2015" has a lighter ending than its predecessor, foreshadowing the creation of a Twitter-like service through which people can arrange picnics or warn others off traffic jams. The more melancholy "Epic 2014" suggests the masses opted for the Googlezon product over the legacy media, despite its shortcomings.

"But Epic is what we wanted; it is what we chose," says the film. "And its commmercial success pre-empted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics. ... But perhaps there was another way."

Am I the only journalist who missed the Epic films? I only found them after seeing the announcement that Thompson had been named to the team that will help launch National Public Radio's local news initiative, which is seen as picking up the reporting left undone as newspapers have retrenched. (He and Sloan still collaborate on the blog Snarkmarket.)

Here's the YouTube version of "Epic 2014"; you can also see both versions here.

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