This thing is bigger than journalism

Journalism as we knew it is washing away. But the story is bigger than journalism alone, and bigger than a story alone can tell. (Image borrowed from the brilliant Despair.com.)

We who care about journalism are asked to join the Save Journalism Project, and its fight against Big Tech. Their pitch begins,

and adds,

On the first point, we should note that journalists have been working for magazines, broadcasters, newsletters and themselves for many dozens of years. So journalism isn’t just about newspapers. Also, because so many journalists have long made livings in those other media, the loss of work is far greater than the 2,400 gone from newspapers. It’s truly massive. I don’t know any field where the loss of paying jobs is larger on a percentage basis. Not taxi driving, not hospitality, not retail, not manufacturing… not anything I can think of. (Well, maybe nuns. I don’t see many of those these days.)

We should also respect the simple fact that now there is more journalism than ever: in blogs, social media, podcasting and other places. Most of those kinds of journalism don’t pay, but that doesn’t disqualify the work from the label. Hell, I’m committing journalism here and this doesn’t pay.

“The story of big tech’s threat to journalism” (what the Project wants us all to tell) is also something of a red herring, because it distracts our attention from causes much bigger than Big Tech.

Every new technology “works us over completely,” Marshall McLuhan says (in The Medium is the Massage). And no new medium, no new technologies, have ever worked us over more than the digital kind. The change began with digital tech and integrated circuits, and then went absolute with the Internet. Together, digital technologies and the Internet have changed our species, our civilization, and our planet, radically.

A few months back, in a conversation about this with Joi Ito, I asked him how big he thought the digital transformation was. Bigger than broadcast? Print? Writing? Speech? Stone tools?

“No,” he replied. “It’s the biggest thing since oxygenation.” In case you don’t remember, that happened between two and three billion years ago. (Joi also writes about it here.)

So, while journalism matters enormously, it’s also just one casualty of digitalization. And, let’s face it, a beneficiary as well. Either or both ways, we need to understand the whole picture, which is about a lot more than what journalism sees happening in the mirror.

Here’s one outfit working on that bigger picture. I don’t buy everything pitched at that link (at least partly because it’s novel and not the easiest grok), but I think the work is important and it’s a good start, which is why I‘m involved with it.

I also don’t expect most journalists to take much interest in the subject, because it’s too big, and it doesn’t make full sense as a story, which is journalism’s stock in trade. (I explain a bit about journalism’s “story problem” in this TEDx talk.)

Still, some journalists are on the case, including me. Love to have others join in. But please don’t bother if you think Big Tech is alone to blame. Because the story is bigger than that, and far more than a story.

The ancestral version of this post is at doc.blog.

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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