aspen institute future of content

When Walter Isaacson, Marcus Brauchli or Ken Auletta speak, you listen.

And when the three of them get together and talk about the future of content, you sit down and take notes. Which is exactly what I did the other day at the Aspen Institute Dialogue on The Future of Content 2020.

Here are 6 lessons learned from these three wise men of media.

Just because it is being reported, doesn’t mean it is journalism.

Citizen journalism may be what we’re labeling the user-generated news coverage phenomenon, but the label is misleading at best.

To be fair, citizens are generating original content live from the scene of events. (Examples like the Arab Spring and Sully’s plane ride into the Hudson come to mind.) But that doesn’t automatically make it journalism. Journalism provides context and arm’s length objectivity (and oftentimes cynicism) required to deliver a balanced perspective on any issue.

Citizens contribute to journalism, but they don’t often create it, which leads us to the next point:

“There’s too much goddamned information out there.”

Ken Auletta told a story of a conversation he had with a publisher who once said that in digital age, journalists would be unnecessary thanks to advances in technology (a la John Henry and the railroad). With the amount of data available, who would need a journalist to track down stories and share them with people when people could do that on their own?

But what he didn’t count on was the deluge of information. The overwhelming abundance of data, information, anecdotes, and stories has actually led to an increasing need for journalists to make sense of it all. The publisher eventually told Auletta he was wrong, and journalists were in fact more necessary than ever.

If traditional gatekeepers don’t play by the new rules, no one will use their gate anymore.

Marcus Brauchli said that the homepage of the Washington Post might look more like your personal homepage on Facebook in the future. Why? Because people want information in the context of what their friends think is important. This plays to a very basic, pragmatic premise: people want to have something to know the conversational zeitgeists arising in their social circles.

Content is social capital and that currency is spent among their existing human networks.

Though it may be a painful relinquishment of control for traditional sources, it could be better for the end user. Marcus urged traditional publishers to evolve to stay relevant, and embrace the social web because you can’t beat it. It’s how people consume content now.

You can’t talk about the future without noting the past.

Our future-forward vision sometimes blinds us to the lessons of history. People have always been splintered in their interests and have organized themselves into like-minded echo chambers. Digital media only exposes that to everyone. The concern that selection bias (the tendency for people to seek out information that agrees with what they already believe) will lead to further social and political polarization is not a new concern – it’s been around since the dawn of the printing press (and perhaps before). But digital actually allows these competing echo chambers to battle it out with each other.

Painful, ugly, vitriol-fueled discourse on the web (with some gems of actual useful debate) may actually support democracy more than we might think.

Digital exposes redundancy.

The need for original content is at an all-time high. When the Internet blossomed, newsrooms across the planet who had been printing local papers started to publish to the web and realized their reporting had tremendous overlap. This redundancy at least partly contributed to the de-emphasis of importance of the community newspaper (though it is making a comeback in different forms).

Truly original journalism works on every platform and has throughout time because people crave information, context, and stories about the communities they are a part of. The digital explosion made everyone a publisher, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is worth publishing.

There is still a tremendous need for brainpower to be spent sifting through the noise and distilling the signal. (People will pay for that).

Despite the feeling that everything is changing, things are fundamentally the same.

Except, of course, the platforms and the business models. Content is still at the center. But consumers are king. Technology gives them the ability to make or break the publishers of today and tomorrow.

What do you think the future holds for content as we know it?