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.


-30- said...

Objective 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.

Many would argue that what you and I consider "objective" is not. The press at large is being accused of pandering to one side or the other and we tend to scoff and ignore this, as we vote for Obama.


You know, James McClatchy (and C.K. after him) were adamant that the paper they ran stay neutral in politics. Objectivity, however, was still not their forte. If there was a cause, or a passion, that they took up, they took it and never let go.

Today we praise objectivity and ridicule the blogs that show only passion. I wonder if we're doing it wrong.

Andria said...

Good point, -30-.

I used the wrong word. "Independent" perhaps works better.

Finding information about down-ballot candidates independent of the candidates themselves or their parties has become extremely difficult in some places.

Jim McBee said...

I'd never heard of Shirky two days ago. I enjoyed his essay, then a bit of googling turns up that he's pretty well known in the 2.0 world, whatsoever that may be.

Anyway, thanks for the shout-out. Maybe your segment of the skinny part of the long tail and my segment of the skinny part of the long tail can get together one day and drink a pitcher of margaritas on their own tiny hump.

Andria said...

Margaritas sound excellent.

Correction for anyone clicking on your name: It's

(Tried to fix before publishing comment, Jim, but it was beyond me after a long day of traveling.)

Shannan M. Bowen said...

Thanks for the shout-out for the Wilmington Star-News.
Our web developer Vaughn Hagerty and others have worked hard on We're hoping it will be a mix between a community wiki and a live question-and-answer forum.
We're constantly trying to think up new products and services that will keep readers interested. We've launched a series of teams in our newsroom, including an "innovation team" that I'm a member of. I think all newsrooms need this type of idea group right now.