McGuire on Media

Trying to find the right tone when "left wing technologists" grab all the attention

Perhaps the wisest thing I read this summer was this fine articulation of an idea I’ve been talking about for months. Rick Edmonds, the media business guru for Poynter Online wrote this: “Put another way, a transition to robust digital options and aggressive experimentation are still good strategies for newspaper organizations. But I might tap the brakes now and then to be sure the offerings do not get way ahead of readers and advertisers moving on from print.”

Tapping the brakes seems like a great idea to me when we have so many gurus telling us that a week from Thursday newspapers will be, or should be, all online. Jeff Jarvis, a really smart, albeit controversial guy, tells us  that in a number of ways. Eric Clemons, another smart guy, says advertising has failed on the Internet and something must be found to replace it.

There are all sorts of dire predictions almost daily on Twitter and Mashable and there are specific analyses from wise people like Clay Shirky that newspapers are dying and on the brink of death.

I know I am entering the lion’s mouth here. I will be accused of all sorts of heinous crimes from naivete to stupidity, to co-habitation with the dinosaurs, but I want to introduce the idea that the people I call the “left-wing technologists” might be leading us too far, too fast. These people I call “left-wing technologists” (I do not mean the political left-wing, but rather very progressive) are smart as hell–a lot smarter than me. They have vision and technical knowledge that far outstrips mine. These wise people make early adopters look like slowpokes. They are way out in front on technological thinking. My concern is that they create their own “bubble” in which they honestly believe everybody is running at the same pace they are. It is kind of a “technological Beltway.” I wonder how many real people live there.

I know a ton of baby boomers whose eyes would glaze over if they heard the descriptions of the present and the near-future that the gurus represent. But using baby boomers as an example might be considered cheap because they are so “yesterday.” So allow me to use an example featuring the younger generation–the digital natives. I use it as an illustration and not as scientific proof of any point.

Clemons writes this ( the links are his) in his piece on the failure of advertising: “And mostly consumers do not need advertising. My own research suggests that consumers behave as if they get much of their information about product offerings from the Internet, through independent professional rating sites like or community content rating services like or TripAdvisor.” 

Okay, so Clemons argues advertising has failed because consumers, presumably especially younger consumers, rely on professional ratings systems rather than advertisers. On Wednesday, I taught my Business and Future of Journalism class at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism from Clemons material,  including that specific quote. Suddenly, with that slide up on the screen, being the aware professor I hope to heaven I am, I saw confusion and skepticism on the faces of way too many of my 46 Journalism majors in the class. On a whim, I stopped and asked how many students had heard of those sites mentioned by Clemons.  Not a single one of the “net natives” had heard of all three and only eight had heard of at least one. Whoa!

That’s when I stopped and put out my “left-wing technologist” idea that there are a lot of technologically savvy experts who see a future coming faster than perhaps it really is because the public is not ready to “adopt” technology at the predicted fast pace. The students agreed with the thought.  One bright young man seemed to speak for the class when he said that so many people think that students climb all over the web all the time.  He said he knew very few people like that.  Now one student in the class did say he roams the web all the time and loves it. However, most students agreed with the contention that the Internet obsession of the young gets seriously overdone. Again, this isn’t scientific, it’s as random as you can get. Clemons research is obviously superior, but I think my anecdotal discovery tells us we need to continue the research.

The point is a lot of Internet gurus are making a lot of money by being gurus. Predicting a fast-paced route to tomorrow is in their best interests. These authors and critical thinkers are crucial to today’s debate about the future of journalism, but let’s not confuse that value with some magical ability to see into the future.  When I think of authors “seeing the future” I am reminded of a book named The Long Boom: A Vision of the Coming Age of Prosperity.  The premise of that book published in 2001 was that the United States faced nothing but a booming economy for the next 20 or 25 years.  Oops.

I do not bring up that book to mock but rather to illustrate that you will read a lot of predictions these days.  A lot of those opinions will be very strongly held.  Accept and reject those creative thoughts and opinions judiciously.  Study what the futurists write. Integrate their best thoughts into your planning and your actions. Don’t make anything you read a bible that dictates some sort of theological construct especially when you are thinking about technological predictions.

Today Eric Black, who from my personal experience is the smartest man in most every room he enters, writes a wonderful piece on about  the direction journalism should take. He quotes and links to a CJR piece by Brent Cunningham. Both men write about the courage required  to make journalism work.

Those are the kind of pieces we need to consider, at least as much as the predictive technology pieces.  Pieces like Black’s  and Cunningham’s allow us to “tap on the brakes” and attend to the things in the here and now that can make journalism work.