In defence of newspapers and serendipity

One of the things that Clay Shirky mentioned in the panel with Andrew Keen that I moderated at Ryerson University recently (my post with video here, tweet-stream here and live-blog here) was an idea that he has also written about before on his blog: namely, that one of the principal functions of a newspaper was to aggregate completely unrelated things, primarily because the newspaper company (and its advertisers) had to appeal to the widest possible group of potential readers, and couldn’t possibly know in advance which parts of the paper they were likely to be most interested in. As Clay described it in a recent talk he gave at Harvard:

“The idea that someone who is doing a crossword puzzle may also want news about the coup in Honduras or how the Lakers are doing — it doesn’t make any sense. It’s never made any sense, in terms of what the user wants. It’s what print is capable of as a bundle.”

In my desperate attempt to justify the continued existence of newspapers, I asked Clay whether that aggregation didn’t serve some kind of purpose, but he argued that it did not — that it was simply a holdover from the industrial process by which papers were created and distributed. But is it? I know that we increasingly believe that “if the news is important, it will find me” (I’m actually the number one result in Google for that phrase) and that aggregation of whatever kind we require can be performed by our friends, by service like Techmeme and Tweetmeme, by RSS feed readers, by Twitter, and so on. Heck, I use all of those things and have come to rely on them.

But are they enough? Is there a purpose in aggregating the horoscope and the weather and the news about the coup in Tegucigalpa? I think there is, and I think newspapers do a pretty good job of it.

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Video: My panel with Shirky and Keen

As some of you may know, I was asked by the folks at Ryerson University’s Journalism School (one of my alma maters) to host/moderate a panel on “What’s Next For News” last week, as a kickoff for the school’s “Wordstock” event, and it was my pleasure to welcome Clay Shirky — author of Here Comes Everybody and of a number of great think pieces about the future of media — and Andrew Keen, notorious Web 2.0 gadfly and cultural critic, and author of The Cult of the Amateur. We had some audio difficulties, and I rambled on a bit during my intro (as I often tend to do) but once we got into the questions we had some great back-and-forth on topics such as transparency and objectivity, the rise of Twitter, the similarities between what’s happening to media now and the Gutenberg revolution, and many others. The entire event was videotaped, and I’ve embedded part one here. You can find the other three parts at J-source.ca.