Brave New (Writing) World: The Positive Future

I don’t subscribe to magazines much anymore, but I tend to buy them in airports so I have something to read on the plane — this despite the fact that I usually have several books in my carry-on bag and also usually pick up a new Sudoku book as well. My greatest fear is being stuck on a an airplane with nothing but Sky Mall to read.

On my trip home from WisCon I picked up the June issue of The Atlantic, and discovered an excellent article by James Fallows called “How to Save the News.” And unlike most writers in print magazines opining on how technology changes are affecting journalism, Fallows thinks the future of journalism is bright. And here’s the particularly interesting part: He thinks Google, far from being the problem, is part of the solution.

Fallows writes:

But after talking during the past year with engineers and strategists at Google and recently interviewing some of their counterparts inside the news industry, I am convinced that there is a larger vision for news coming out of Google; that it is not simply a charity effort to buy off critics; and that it has been pushed hard enough by people at the top of the company, especially [Google CEO Eric] Schmidt, to become an internalized part of the culture in what is arguably the world’s most important media organization.

According to Fallows, Google is working to create “reinvented business model to sustain professional news-gathering,” which is the same goal held by serious journalists. He goes on:

[Crowd sourcing and citizen journalism] are certainly valuable, but they will be all the more significant if they are buttressed by reports from people who are paid to keep track of government agencies, go into danger zones, investigate and analyze public and private abuse, and generally serve as systematic rather than ad hoc observers. (I am talking about what journalism should do, not what it often does.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Fallows piece is that by talking to people at Google who care about the future of news, he comes at the topic from outside the journalistic establishment, which perhaps can’t see all the options because it’s blinded by its commitment to the current way of doing things. As a working journalist, I know I still think of what my work will look like in print, and when I was editing rather than writing, I was even more print-focused. But I recently discovered that many of our subscribers read our work on their smart phones. It’s hard to lose the print bias when you came up with it.

Here are four more significant points from the article:

  • Google isn’t just being altruistic; its own key business relies on good journalism and other writing.
  • Google assumes people will pay for content, and is working on a variety of models to make that work.
  • Despite all the mythology, newspapers don’t make money on news. And they don’t spend it on news, either — according to the article, 15 percent of a newspaper’s overhead is related to news gathering. All that paper and ink, not to mention distribution, costs a bundle.
  • There are too many publications publishing highly similar articles about the same event — not copying each other, just providing the same take on the same issue. Meanwhile, many subjects go uncovered. To Google’s Krishna Bharat, that’s inefficient, and journalism will need to change in that area.

I know this is about journalism, not fiction publishing, but to me the issues in publishing are all intertwined. And certainly what applies to newspapers also applies to magazines. I notice that The Atlantic is not only providing interesting and provocative articles on current affairs (along with poetry and book reviews, but not, alas, fiction), it also has a significant online presence that includes features not available in print. In short, it looks like a magazine working to make the transistion. Based on this issue (and a brief glance at the table of contents for July/August), I’m finding myself tempted to subscribe when I get around to getting an iPad or other good e-reader.

In other words, I’m starting to think about paying for content that I’ve been getting for free. Interesting. But after all, what we’ve got right now is not the final word on anything.


Nancy Jane’s novella, Changeling, is now being serialized on Book View Cafe. You can start at Chapter 1 here; a new chapter will be posted every Sunday. An e-book edition of the whole book will soon be available for a modest price.

You can still find 51 flash fictions and a few other stories on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of her stories are available through Powell’s.



Brave New (Writing) World: The Positive Future — 2 Comments

  1. That’s fascinating. It’s been interesting watching people become their own news vectors on the Net–“the voice of the people” only dreamed of by the National Committee in the 1790s . . . before they realized that they didnt want the people finding out all the news, only the news they wanted known.

    I would pay for content if I trust the source–exactly the same way I paid for a paper. Still do, though I’m reading it less often.

  2. I was particularly intrigued to find that Google is aware that it needs news organizations and other “content providers” to create material, and that it’s looking at a variety of models. I’m not sure the current news organizations will survive, but I have more hope that journalism will.