The Experimental Age Demands Patience
Over on his personal blog, Benji Lanyado asks if hyperlocal is all hype, worrying that the ad dollars will never arrive to sustain it, or that the need for a lot of hyperlocal content will drag down the level of quality to unacceptable levels. “Hyperlocal has been talked about for years, but a eureka moment still hasn’t materialised,” he writes.
I think Lanyado has surveyed hyperlocal ably and asked some very good questions. I’m not out to bash him. But it struck me that his skepticism, while well-founded, seems entirely too early — just as it does when attached to other news experiments by other commenters. Take nonprofit journalism, about which I’ll be moderating a panel discussion for Gelf Magazine’s Media Circus in Dumbo Thursday night. (Details here — come by!) If you read the nonprofit model’s detractors, you’ll conclude it’s clearly all hype too, whether the problem is that philanthropists’ agendas will distort things or that news organizations that don’t try to make money will wind up irredeemably flabby in allocating resources. Citizen journalists? Untrained hacks who can’t be taught the first thing about accuracy and fairness. Wikis? Poorly policed and prone to vandalism. Social media? Dooms us all to echo chambers of likeminded thought.
Skepticism is good, and we have to keep our revolutionary fervor in check lest our hopes for new journalism become cheerleading. But we also can’t let doubts and worries lead us to dismiss experiments while they’re still running. The newspaper industry’s current travails have taken a lot of these experiments off the back burner, and they’re now getting real attention — along with real money and, yes, an excess of hype. We need to resist excessive enthusiasm and cynicism and simply let the experiments run, giving ourselves time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what kind of worked — and then run variations on those experiments. And then do it again. And then some more. Right now we’re like biologists peering at the brew of lightning-stoked amino acids and grousing that this stuff will never produce a decent opposable thumb.
To borrow Clay Shirky’s line, “Nothing will work, but everything might.” It’s going to take time to find the mights and iterate them into some part of some successful model. And I bet that model will have little resemblance to what we’re thinking about now, here at the end of 2009 amid the early winter of the print age. The daily print paper as we knew it for generations isn’t exactly an obvious mix either: Who’d think to take news about distant lands and news about nearby towns and political editorials and sports and lifestyle pieces and advice columns and humor and cartoons and horoscopes and comics and crosswords and help-wanted ads and for-sale signs and coded personal messages and kids’ drawings and movie reviews and entertainment listings and neighborhood gossip and lots and lots of retail ads and present it as something that people would not only pay for but come to cherish as part of their morning routine? Yet that worked, and it worked for a long time. We need to bear that in mind, and be patient in figuring out what will work next.