Why are Newspapers Disappearing

In recent weeks we’ve read of the demise of several major newspapers. Most of the analytical conversation about these events suggests that newspapers are getting throttled by new technology. The internet is changing their operating environment and the newspaper companies have not succeeded at changing their business model to succeed in the new environment. There have been shifts in the world out there and so media institutions need to adjust.

Certainly plausible.

But I wonder if this obvious explanation doesn’t obscure things a bit. By keeping the focus on technology, we avoid asking hard questions about the product and practice of journalism. Could it be that the changes that the environment is “calling for” include new ways of producing information as well as new ways of delivering information produced using conventional practices?

I put this out there because I’ve noticed that the two most obvious “initiatives” carried out by media organizations are (1) delivering the same old stuff over new media and (2) spicing up delivery to make it more entertaining. I have not, though, noticed any fundamental changes in the production of information. Have journalists taken up any new analytical tools? Do we see a move toward journalists developing new levels of substantive expertise?

In the wake of the financial crisis there’s been lots of “why didn’t anyone see this coming?” hand wringing. Of course, if you look closely, you’ll see that there WERE lots of pieces out there giving us a warning. But a big piece of our after-the-fact-wisdom is that things were just too complex for observers to decipher. So, is there any chance that this experience will provide an incentive for higher degrees of expertise among journalists? Or will we stick with the “find a source who will tell you what to write” approach (often enough balanced by some other expert who is willing to claim something to the contrary)?

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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