The Future of News or the News of the Future?

I spent part of the morning immersed in  Jay Rosen’s Flying Seminar on the Future of News, an annotated and definitive collection of links to thinking on the critical state of affairs in newspaper journalism. It seems to me that there’s a sense of crisis and urgency, but also a new desire for clarity and sobriety on all sides: old media, new media and everyone in between. As Paul Starr wrote this month in the New Republic, “This is no time for Internet triumphalism: the stakes are too high.” I left a comment on Rosen’s post that was lifted from my earlier post, talking about how objectivity in reporting isn’t, as most people in the blogosphere believe, about opinion, but about influence.

What I have to add today is an insight, or maybe just an observation: Journalism is a stolidly 20th century practice, with respect for tradition, while new media is made by tradition-busters. The former are worried about the future of news, while the latter are concerned with the news of the future. Those are two very different orientations, underneath the skin, and I think this is why people too often talk at each other rather than to each other in this particular debate.

While reading Rosen. I was reminded of something I read yesterday in a book called Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review. My latest day job is around software development, and I find that there are many similarities between writing code and, well, writing. English and Java are both languages, after all.

In the introduction to the book, the author uses journalism as a positive example of why software developers need to build checks and balances into their writing process, the way newspapers employ fact-checkers and copy editors. What this means, and I’ve verified it with my coder friends, is that most software is published without the equivalent of editorial oversight, right up until late stage testing. (If you had as bad a time with iTunes 8 as I did, you know that late stage testing doesn’t catch nearly enough bugs.)

Conway’s Law, put forth in Datamations in 1968 states that “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” Right now, the native culture and practice of the world of code does not include, nor value, the equivalent of editorial traditions, even within its own deep structure, and the foundations of new media spring from the culture of code. Coders may not be the writers and thinkers of new media, but they are the architects of it, and form influences content tremendously.

Interestingly, I see evidence that the chasm might first be crossed by code monkeys writing enterprise software, rather than the Spacebook/Myface/New Media/Web 2.0 folks. Much of the work I do now in my day job involves promoting a newer software development model called Agile, which does indeed involve practices analogous to editing, copy editing and fact-checking–the “secrets” in Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review. And there’s every possibility that even Agile is a stepping stone to what traditions will emerge in the culture and practice of making things out of bits rather than ink.

If we think back to the 15th century (that’s how old I am!), the printing press preceded any agreement on spelling and grammar, but then precipitated them. The same level of reorganization is happening in code, but it takes time for the need for these best practices (as they are called in software) to emerge, and even longer for them to take root. Moore’s law doesn’t apply here, as we’re talking about hearts and minds and habits, not circuits and gate arrays.

I don’t think the sky is actually falling; New Media is in its adolescence, and doesn’t want to talk to its parents, or be seen with them in public. Which is fine. Someday it will have kids of its own.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 27, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    How heartening it is to find an optimistic view of the evolution of journalism. I have fallen into the “sky is falling” camp too often, as the ever-shrinking morning paper threatens our breakfast ritual. I find that much content relating to national and global issues has been covered the day before on NPR, often in greater depth. It is still the best source for local news and opinions, and op-ed pieces by the likes of Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, David Brooks et. al. How do you see these heavy hitters being compensated for distilling their opinions for the masses in the new world order? And I sure will miss the comics and the daily crossword.

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