Bookmarkable Reading: Revisiting Steven Johnson’s Thoughts on The Future of News

Sometimes, I find it informative to look back at “future of ___ “ types of writings. Not so much because I care overly much about whether or not the predictions were right, but because even the process of looking back upon writing that is focused on looking forward can be an useful exercise from time to time. Going way back to March 2009, I decided to revisit Steven Johnson’s thoughts on the future of news.

Among other reflections upon the future of the news ecosystem — such as the dramatic reduction of ‘information lag,’ and the proliferation of the volume and diversity of information on news compared to two decades ago — the focus is specifically about the evolution of two types of news: technology news and political news (with examples ranging from MacWorld circa 1987, to the evolution of political media coverage as exemplified in the 2008 election).

Talking about the future of news really can mean any number of things — so Steven makes a perhaps understated but important distinction: “the single most important trend we should be looking at when we talk about the future of news. Not the future of the news industry, or the print newspaper business: the future of news itself.”

So the point is a discussion of news itself, which is separate from a more nuts and bolts discussion about the economics of the news industry.

And, not that I necessarily disagree, but it always struck me as somewhat curious that oftentimes when reaching for metaphors to convey ideas on human/technology relations, we resort to metaphors grounded in nature:

“The metaphors we use to think about changes in media have a lot to tell us about the particular moment we’re in. McLuhan talked about media as an extension of our central nervous system, and we spent forty years trying to figure out how media was re-wiring our brains. The metaphor you hear now is different, more E.O. Wilson than McLuhan: the ecosystem.”

Maybe it’s because of an implicit understanding that communication is natural, and if technology is an extension of that natural process, resorting to metaphors of the body (i.e., media-as-nervous-system) or as an organic process of growth (such as Steven’s metaphor of the news ecosystem) makes sense. I don’t know.

More coverage of news, and a plurality of sources of information is itself a healthy thing (which, coincidentally is what we talked about yesterday, too). With that proliferation of information sources, the attention shifts from quantity, to quality:

“Now there’s one objection to this ecosystems view of news that I take very seriously. It is far more complicated to navigate this new world than it is to sit down with your morning paper. There are vastly more options to choose from, and of course, there’s more noise now.”

Essentially, the role of ‘old media’ in this brave new world of ‘new media’ should be providing a type of journalistic quality control — which in some ways it does seem to be doing. How that process continues to evolve is something perhaps we’ll have to check back on again in another year or two.

Anyways, Steven’s article is a good one. He touches upon a number of interesting questions in this wide-ranging discussion, from the future of newspapers, new vs. old models of news, and the possible shape of local news to come/already here (a topic of great interest to him. Check out: for more on that).

In a related vein, Newseum’s The Future of News, a 10-part discussion series, makes for some great supplemental viewing. Episode 3 (The Future of News: “Web 3.0”: The Impact of Technology — with Walt Mossberg) and Episode 11 (The Future of News: Who Decides What’s News? — with Krishna Bharat) are going to make my To-Watch list.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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