The good that can come from chaos

Posted on July 12, 2011 by Janet Coats

When I began work on the New Media Journalism Initiative, I asked a wide range of smart thinkers what they saw as the biggest challenge facing journalism innovators.

Over and over again, I heard that the pace of change was breeding exciting new ideas but that it was also creating a “fog of war’’ effect. The most common phrase I heard to describe the state of journalism: It’s chaos.

At the time, that seemed like a problem to be solved. Chaos can’t be a good thing, right?

But in the 18 months since I left a traditional newsroom, I’ve come to believe that chaos is the best thing that could have happened to innovation for journalism. While it hurts in the short-term – and I would never minimize the very human toll this chaos has taken – in the long-term it is a powerful force for creating journalism without barriers. It is not a problem to be solved.

So I felt all kinds of validated when I read the post by Clay Shirky this weekend entitled “Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic.’’

I don’t know Shirky, but I have been a regular reader of his blog posts and of his books. He’s a deep and provocative thinker about the ways the Internet is changing social interaction, collaboration and the transmission of news and information. His book, “Here Comes Everybody,’’ is a primer for those interested in online collaboration, crowd-sourcing and the development of networks.

Shirky’s most recent post meditates on the ongoing debate about how substantive journalism will be funded as old advertising models continue to decline and fall away. The framework of that debate – Shirky uses the phraseology of Jeff Jarvis to describe “Journalism as Philanthropy’’ and “Journalism as Capitalism’’ – is, I think, like the framework of most debates. The practical answer lies not at the extremes; I think most folks would argue that the future of journalism funding is not an either/or proposition, but an “and’’ proposition. While I would count myself more among the "Journalism as Capitalism'' crowd, I do see an important supplemental role to be played by philanthropy.

It will take a multitude of models and funding mechanisms to fund journalism, and Shirky explores that thinking a bit while also expounding on his own view that “News has to be subsidized, and it has to be cheap, and it has to be free.’’

I’m not sure I agree completely with his thesis, especially when it comes to the subsidy part, and I’ll leave it to you to read it and contemplate it for yourself. But I was most interested in the end of his piece, in which he returns to the idea that the news environment needs to be chaotic. In this section, he makes the case for chaos far more powerfully than I have been able to do so:

“None of the models being tried today are universally adoptable; the most we can say is that each of them happens to work somewhere, at least for the moment. This may seem like weak tea, given the enormity of the current changes, but if our test for any new way of producing news is whether it replaces all the functions of a newspaper, we’ll build things that look like newspapers, and if replicating newspapers online were a good idea, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.’’

This is what makes it interesting for those of us who are working to help enable journalism’s innovators. There is no way to know what is going to stick. There’s no way to know whether what seems like a good idea now will still be a good idea this time next year. It’s difficult to even measure what success looks like, because success is still evolving.

The approach we’ve taken in the New Media Journalism Initiative is to focus on two areas where we know there is work to be done: creating connection for innovators so they can see each other through this wonderful chaos, and thinking methodically through what the experiments in sustainability can teach us.

I know for certain that we aren’t going to come up with the one true answer – because there isn’t one. But I love the idea of wading into the chaos, and playing even a small role in enabling some of the good stuff that will rise out of it.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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