Saturday, March 14, 2009

The big hump in the long tail

Everyone's linking and talking about Clay Shirky's latest thoughts on journalism this weekend. He makes valid points about how news and information have changed in our digital world. He predicts an explosion of experiments and new models to replace news on paper.

He's a big hump in his own long tail in our attention economy, and his words draw attention to a subject near and dear to my heart.

At the same time, I can't help but feel his post is essentially a Cliff's Notes version of Phil Meyer's "The Vanishing Newspaper," written in 2004. Perhaps that's good: His name brings awareness to a new audience.

Still, I worry about the costs in our attention economy. I hope we can move on to examining the next steps instead of merely walking ground that's already been covered.

As a companion piece, many people are pointing to Steven Berlin Johnson's talk at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. Johnson, one of the people behind aggregator Outside.In, notes that news, analysis and information exploded during the last presidential election, and he notes that local news is quite available in his Brooklyn neighborhood through local bloggers.

His point: The digital revolution has given us more information than ever before.

I don't doubt it, for some places and people. But we need to acknowledge that his examples illustrate, again, the big hump in the long tail. Objective Independent information in this last election season for local judges' races, or small county commissioners' races, was quite difficult to find, outside of media-rich places like Brooklyn.

Local, objective independent information in other places is drying up faster than you can say the word "layoff."

Indeed, the future is coming, and it isn't evenly distributed yet. Society needs to find a way to distribute reporting, analysis and information-gathering resources away from the big hump to the longer tail, so that we don't gorge in some places and starve in others.

Brilliant photographers always remind us that the best shots are those taken when everybody is looking the other way. They say, "Turn around. Look elsewhere."

That advice goes for those seeking answers about journalism as well.

So try looking in different directions:

What Philip Meyer was thinking four years after "The Vanishing Newspaper."

What Matt Thompson says about "us" versus "them."

What reporter Meranda Whatling worries about before she goes on a cost-saving furlough.

What Shannan Bowen and others are launching in Wilmington, N.C.

What Jim McBee and friends are doing to provide a new marketplace for journalists and publishers.

What Steve Buttry is learning about top newspaper editors on Twitter.

What some good people have been hatching in Charlotte.