Maybe one of the reasons it's so hard to figure out what the Future of Journalism is going to look like is that none of us agrees on what the Present of Journalism looks like. At least we don't agree on what to call it.
Wired editor Chris Anderson, making the rounds to promote his book "Free," told Der Spiegel that he refuses to use the words "journalism," "media," "news" or "newspapers" because "I don't think that those words mean anything anymore. They defined publishing in the 20th century. Today, they are a barrier."
A little case study. In her post about the New York Times' plans for charging for online content last week, Katharine Mieszkowski included a link to Jeff Sonderman's history lesson at NewsFuturist about the price of newspapers.
She wasn't the only one to do so, and the next day Sonderman dug into his analytics and wrote a post, headlined "How viral ideas spread online," about where the links come from when a piece breaks big.
His conclusion: "Ideas like this spread through social networks, peer-to-peer, then find their way into blogs and MSM sources next." MSM is how the cool kids say "mainstream media." Keep in mind Sonderman's conclusion is from a sample size of one, but it tracks with plenty of other anecdotal experience.
He writes that his initial tweet about his post was re-tweeted around, first among friends, then by big-time journalism thinkers Jay Rosen and Jim Brady. Eventually the post "got the attention of some mainstream news sites and blogs, including The Guardian, Media Bistro and Salon."
Wait a minute. Salon? Mainstream?
Media Bistro, a company that provides services and hosts events for media professionals, is big but hardly mainstream. A quick survey of my non-media friends revealed nary a soul who'd heard of it, and even some of my friends in the business don't know it. The Guardian is a big ol' honkin' legacy-media newspaper, though also a major and innovative player online. It's as mainstream as mainstream gets.
But Salon? Interesting question.
So I asked it. I asked my friends, co-workers, Facebook friends and Twitter followers if Salon is mainstream media. And the answer came flooding back: We don't know!
Actually there were as many different answers as answerers, and that's the real answer. About as many people said yes as no, with a few tap-dances around the question mixed in. But everybody had one thing in common: Their own custom definition of the word "mainstream."
Some people based their definition on ideology, some on circulation, others on revenue. Some used quality as a yardstick, others judged by how often representatives of the joint show up on TV. There's no such thing as mainstream anymore, one friend said. Another said Salon is mainstream, "but a kind of MSM 2.0."
Anderson comes across as a jerk at the beginning of that Der Spiegel interview. "Let's talk about the future of journalism," interviewer Frank Hornig says, and Anderson pouts, "This is going to be a very annoying interview. I don't use the word journalism." He also doesn't use those other words: media, news, newspapers.
But behind the rudeness, he has a point. What do these words mean? If everyone with a smart phone is a journalist, what is journalism? Never mind mainstream media, if anyone can reach the worldwide world instantly with start-up costs in the tens of dollars, what is media?
I don't agree with Anderson that these words should be jettisoned. There are babies in that bathwater. But it's telling that so many of the words we use to describe communication have lost so much of their meaning.
That's something to keep in mind any time you hear the pessimists moan about how the Web and free content and citizen journalism are destroying quality journalism, and also when you hear the optimists reassuring you that everything's going to be all right, that we'll figure it all out and it'll be great.
I'm with the optimists, but remember: Our world is so disrupted, so chaotic, so new that we really don't know what we're talking about.
Shoot, we don't even know what the words mean.