‘Facebook is nothing more than a campfire’

That’s what Paul Gillin told the students in my Journalism 24/7 class when he visited a couple of weeks ago.

He’d given a pithy run-through of the reasons why the new industry must, in his words, “destroy the old to create the new,” and the students were asking probing questions about collateral damage.

“What’s going to happen to verification?” asked Lauren Cioffi, a junior who has interned at Newsday and written for The Statesman, one of our campus papers. (Links are to the blogs students write for my class.)

The emphasis on speed over accuracy is “scary,” said Ari Davanelos, one of two exceptionally computer-savvy students in the class. “Will we reach an equilibrium?”

“The jobs being lost in the old model — what about all the people who are being squeezed out?” asked David O’Connor, who wants to be a sportswriter. “Is that okay?”

“What’s the future of journalism schools?” Paloma Paultre, who hopes to be a news anchor, wanted to know.

Gillin’s answers had a common theme: What has changed are behaviors, not a value system. “The essential values of human trust have not been changing,” he said.

“Facebook is nothing more than a campfire,” he went on. “We get together at the end of the day, and we shoot the breeze.”

It’s a comforting thought — that despite the tumult and uncertainty enveloping the news industry, people ultimately want to know that they can trust the storytellers.

But “the next 10 years in journalism are going to be really ugly,” Gillin said. The democratization of publishing is “now destroying the institutions we have relied on since the Civil War to tell us what is true.”

“Big media was created to solve a problem: lack of information,” he told the students. “You’re going to enter a world where everyone is publishing.” Publishing “is cheap and easy. And that changes everything.”

“This is much bigger than just journalism,” he added. “When anyone can publish … then it’s much harder to hide.”

Gillin earns his daily bread by consulting with businesses that want to harness social media, and he noted that many companies — he cited the Coca-Cola Co. as one example — now encourage mid-level employees to blog, or to communicate in forums, or to use Twitter and Facebook. Like journalism, business in general will be “more participatory and more transparent.” Companies will be smaller and flatter with less need for middle managers, whose role traditionally has been to communicate up and down within organizations.

For media companies in particular, which in a largely digital future won’t need expensive real estate, presses, paper, ink, drivers, press operators or circulation departments, “the future is going to be in ‘small.'”

From a societal perspective, the whirlwind is destroying institutional knowledge, reducing journalism’s role as government watchdog, making it harder  to afflict the comfortable and eliminating “a common reference point for conversation.”

“That’s bad,” he said.

(A note to those who demean observers like Gillin, Michael Rosenblum and others who are delineating the new realities: These observers are not the enemy, and they are neither ignorant nor uncaring about the toll of the destruction. They are news people reporting a story.  Scratch their enthusiasm for the possibilities of the new order, and you’ll find a deep disquiet about the loss of many aspects of the old — just like the classic newspaper grouch whose cynicism masked a deep but often thwarted idealism.)

In Gillin’s view, the role of the journalist is expanding. Reporters will continue to write stories, but “our product is not a single story any more,” he said. “Our product is a flow of information … Curation is really, really important.”

And that’s where the conversation comes back to trust and basic human values. The digital journalist who becomes a trusted “brand,” for lack of a better word, leads readers (viewers, news consumers, news participants, whatever you call ’em) not only to his or her work but to the best of the work others produce. People who want to make sense of the world will follow those who can curate the most meaningful interpretations of events, issues and trends.

“The principles of journalism are very, very solid,” Gillin told Paloma, the student who had asked about the future of journalism schools. “And they’re not going to change.”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog entry. It touched upon everything Gillin spoke about in class and the message he wanted to get across. As you know, I was in the class when Gillin spoke and I was very intrigued by what he had to say. For those who wish to go forth in the journalism industry I think it would be wise for them to pay attention to what Gillin has to say.

  2. I also wrote a blog about Gillin’s visit. Check it out!
    http://tiny.cc/y9zpt

    • Glowatzy
    • April 13th, 2010

    I’m glad you noted that Gillin is just reporting the story of the future of journalism. It’s true that there are Chicken Little journalists who are yelling that journalism is dead (and there’s nothing we can do and the world is ending) and they don’t tell you how to avoid the train wreck. But Gillin is different because he’s telling you the shape of things right now and where they would have to go in order to save the industry. And he’s very candid about it. That’s why I enjoyed his lecture so much.

  3. Good up until the last line:
    ““The principles of journalism are very, very solid,” Gillin told Paloma, the student who had asked about the future of journalism schools. “And they’re not going to change.”
    Change or die, I am afraid.
    Many institutions, strangely, prefer death/
    go figure.

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