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Steps To An Ecology of Journalism

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Newspapers and news-gathering are breaking up. The information ecosystem is changing — has already changed — and a migration must occur. The food and water that sustained the journalist is drying up. The climate has undergone a drastic change. If the environment they inhabited had remained largely stable, the kinds of calibrations they’re currently attempting might have been successful. Central to the conditions necessary for a stable ecosystem are flows of sustaining energy across established trophic dynamics. The sustaining energy flow of the newspaper system has been fundamentally disrupted. No amount of calibration will halt the transformation of the verdant forest into a scorching desert.

Central to the ecosystem concept is the idea that living organisms interact with every other element in their local environment. Eugene Odum, a founder of ecology, stated: “Any unit that includes all of the organisms (ie: the “community”) in a given area interacting with the physical environment so that a flow of energy leads to clearly defined trophic structure, biotic diversity, and material cycles (ie: exchange of materials between living and nonliving parts) within the system is an ecosystem.The human ecosystem concept is then grounded in the deconstruction of the human/nature dichotomy and the premise that all species are ecologically integrated with each other, as well as with the abiotic constituents of their biotope.

Following the threads initiated by Richard Dawkins, we’ve come to think of the life of memes independently from human life and society. Memes can be thought of as having a will of their own to both live and replicate. It’s through this lens that the news distribution system is often viewed. In this model, journalists are not the source of news stories (memes), these information units are spontaneously generated from the social activity of the environment and dispurse through the Network. While this perspective is useful for certain kinds of analysis, it’s too constrained of an approach to shed much light on this problem. We need to take a few steps back and find a view that brings the human element back into the picture.

Did journalists create the ecosystem they currently inhabit? Will they create the ecosystem to which they must migrate? No member of an ecosystem creates, or can create, a new ecosystem. But clearly both journalists and what used to be called “newspapers” will need to evolve to survive and prosper as the next ecosystem emerges.

Natural selection will dictate that the skill set of the journalist change to match the media through which stories and information are transmitted. Text, audio and video have previously been divided into separate streams of production based on the available technologies. The digital doesn’t distinguish among these modes. Text, audio and video are all bits traveling through the Network; and the page is no longer just hypertext, but hypermedia. Even the static document is giving way to the dynamic textual environment of wikis, blogs and other modes of version-based publication.

The editorial function has been displaced from its position as a quality control agent prior to publication, and now must find its role as a post-publication filter. The energy required to use traditional editorial filters after the fact is very high, so new methods will need to be found (Track). The walls of the newsroom have become transparent and permeable on their way to disappearing all together. New hierarchies and inter-dependent systems (meshworks) will need to emerge from the digital environment to form a new ecosystem.

The organizations formerly called “newspapers” will need to come to terms with the new digital environment as well. Geography, locality and the publication of syndicated content are no longer differentiating advantages. These things have a different meaning in the current context. Those that are able to, will need to migrate into the real time multimedia news space with distribution through the Network to fixed and mobile endpoints (microportals). Dramatically lower cost structures will allow them to disrupt the cable news networks. Soon the flat screen will come in a number of sizes and will be able to connect to any node broadcasting on the Network from any location. Yes, even the living room and the kitchen table.

And what used to be called the audience, or the readership, has organized itself into social media clouds. What was a one way, one-to-many relationship has become a two-way, many-to-many relationship. The capacity to connect where ever necessary and discriminate between high and low value real time message streams has become a necessary adaptive trait for both individuals and organizations.

We are in the unique position to be able to contemplate and effect the ecosystems within which we reside. And yet the nature of an ecosystem is such that our understanding of it is always partial. In his essay “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” Gregory Bateson discusses the human dilemma with regard to trying to direct our own ecology:

…We are not outside the ecology for which we plan– we are always inevitably part of it.

Herein lies the charm and the terror of ecology–that the ideas of this science are irreversibly becoming part of our own ecosocial system.

We live then in a world different from that of the mountain lion– he is neither bothered nor blessed by having ideas about ecology. We are.

What are the signs that the new ecosystem is starting to take hold and stabilize? Look to the new systems within the Network environment that transform labor into capital. Apple’s appstore, the Kindle, Google’s adsense and affiliate networks are a few of the early players. This process happens in a number of modes, sometimes it’s quite subtle. Until an economics that supports a sustained transforming energy flow emerges, the news and news-gathering ecosystem will remain in flux.

Comments

  1.   links for 2009-03-24 — contentious.com | March 24th, 2009 | 8:00 am

    […] echovar » Blog Archive » Steps To An Ecology of Journalism "Did journalists create the ecosystem they currently inhabit? Will they create the ecosystem to which they must migrate? No member of an ecosystem creates, or can create, a new ecosystem. But clearly both journalists and what used to be called “newspapers? will need to evolve to survive and prosper as the next ecosystem emerges." (tags: tidbits+fodder journalism media+evolution influence+ecology philosophy) […]

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    […] Steps To An Ecology of Journalism (echovar.com) […]

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    […] question of the day about journalism, as a scientific discussion by Cliff Gerrish: Did journalists create the ecosystem they currently inhabit? Will they create the ecosystem to […]

  4. Teaching English in Taiwan | November 12th, 2009 | 12:34 am

    Interesting post. I have stumbled and twittered this for my friends. Hope others find it as interesting as I did.

  5. Teaching English in Taiwan | November 12th, 2009 | 7:34 am

    Interesting post. I have stumbled and twittered this for my friends. Hope others find it as interesting as I did.