Decentralization

In a TechDirt post last week, Timothy Lee references a Reason magazine article called After the Newspaper. Both pieces discuss how news is moving from a vertically integrated structure (one company controlling the news-dissemination process from story gathering to paper delivery) to a dispersed network structure (what we’ve got going on online).

It’s true that mass media organizations have become too monolithic, and are paying the price in this economy for their multimillion-dollar buying sprees. In cities where there used to be multiple dailies competing and publishing, there is often only one (and in the whole of Western Canada, for example, all the major dailies are owned by the same company and publish much of the same content). The lack of multiple voices in that sphere is something I wouldn’t be sorry to see change.

But this idea from the TechCrunch article is, I think, a little romantic:

Decentralized news-gathering processes can incorporate small contributions from a huge number of people who aren’t primarily in the news business. You don’t need to be a professional reporter to write a blog post every couple of weeks about your local city council meeting. Nor do you need to be a professional editor to mark your favorite items in Google Reader. Yet if millions of people each contribute small amounts of time to this kind of decentralized information-gathering, they can collectively do much of the work that used to be done by professional reporters and editors.

We already have that kind of “decentralized information-gathering” going on. And I don’t think it’s suited to the average citizen’s needs.

For example, I’ve become interested, in the last few months, in one specific topic: the transformation of in how we communicate, with a focus on the transformation in journalism. That’s why I started this blog, because I wanted to get a better feel for what was happening by trying some of it out myself, rather than just reading about it. Currently I subscribe to 18 blogs related specifically to this topic, which means I’m reading more than 40 entries every day. (I also consume a lot of other media, in the general news realm, but that’s beside the point.) Frankly, it’s a little overwhelming — even though I also do this sort of thing for a living!

One of the most time-consuming parts of my job (the one I get paid to do, at the newspaper), is wading through all the content and selecting what goes into the paper (when I’m doing one of the wire-based sections such as arts or national news). And there, I’m only wading through stories that have been written by trained reporters working under experienced editors. I do it so all our readers don’t have to, and they trust that what’s in the paper is what’s most relevant to them (generally speaking).

Those readers, as they shift to online, still need a place to go to get their news in a time-efficient manner. While I can see how decentralized news gathering is useful, I still believe centralized news editing is necessary. Most people don’t have time to edit their own news. I barely have time to digest my own news.

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