Fear not for information – it always finds a highway

This post has already made its round on Twitter – but I wanted to archive it on my blog as well.

The Sacramento Bee is asking various thinkers and writers to opine on the last decade for certain fields and industries and asked me to sum up the trend of new media in the last decade with a particular focus on California’s role. I had roughly 800 words to do so. That’s no small task. In truth I could probably write about this topic for days on end. Perhaps that is the larger purpose of this entire blog?

But for what it’s worth – here’s what I wrote for the Sacramento Bee.

Fear not for information – it always finds a highway

It’s easy to get lost in the buzz about the future of new media and the death of newspapers. Taking a closer look at the last decade might put the hype in perspective.

Just think, around this time 10 years ago, most people connected online through painfully slow dial-up modems. Cell phones were the size of Fuji apples with no Web browsing capabilities. Being “social” online meant forwarding a chain e-mail.

It’s amazing what can happen in the span of a decade. After a boom and bust, the Internet, led by Silicon Valley and Google’s public offering in 2004, has rallied back. It has since altered the way many people find mates, organize events, purchase products and do damn near anything you can think, including how they consume news and information.

This isn’t just idle chitchat. The revolution is happening and it will be “tweeted.”

Consider that Twitter is expected to hit the 10 billion tweet mark sometime in March. That gives you a sense of just how much information is being poured online.

So what does this trend toward?

Overall, the “new” in new media is replacing the old. And while there is an ongoing debate in journalism about the merits of this trend, from my vantage point as an online entrepreneur with my own nonprofit news organization, Spot.Us, the larger trend is toward the positive.

In any other decade of modern journalism, I’d be just graduating from a cub reporter beat covering the police. Maybe I would be moving on to metro or a specialized beat like education. But as luck would have it – and I do consider it luck – my journalism career has blossomed in a decade of uncertainty. As a result of traditional models unraveling, I’ve had the opportunity to define my own career and explore a new model of my crafting.

My organization, Spot.Us, is trying to pioneer “community funded reporting” which is the act of distributing the cost of hiring a reporter across many different people. In other words – if we can get 50 people to put down $10-$20 each – we’ve raised enough money to investigate a topic that all 50 people think is important. We give the public a freelance budget and respond to their editorial needs and requests.

This is one of many new projects here in California that are rethinking and reinvigorating media, tossing the old paradigms on their heads.

Others include New American Media, which is updating what we think about ethnic and youth media with projects like LA Beez and Youth Outlook Magazine. For watchdog journalism, the recently launched California Watch is riding the wave of nonprofit accountability journalism. It soon will be joined by the Bay Area News Project funded by private equity investor Warren Hellman.

On the other end of the spectrum are pure-play online start-ups in California that cover everything from the hyperlocal like SF Appeal or LA Observed to niche topics like PaidContent.org and TechCrunch, which are now industry leaders covering technology.

It is fitting that so much of the Internet revolution this past decade has taken place in California.

Just as we came to be the final stop of the Wild West, so too has our ambitious and innovative outlook on the world put the Golden State in the center of the digital revolution. Gold launched a thousand wagons in the 19th century, and now our Silicon Valley has launched a thousand start-ups.

Who knows which may hit as the digital equivalent of the New York Times? Before that happens, however, most agree there will be missteps along the way – plenty of them.

I always admit my project Spot.Us might fail. If we can report back to the larger journalism industry about what we learn along the way, then our collapse will not be in vain. Like a lone gold digger putting up a skull and crossbones sign in a mountain unsuccessfully mined, new media start-ups are constantly sharing what we learn to better help our allies in the cause to save the fourth estate.

The past decade has brought turmoil to how communities stay informed. Many would argue that people have more media sources than ever. But I’d be remiss not to point out the new digital means of getting news is replacing the old, to the detriment of some older readers. There also is more mistrust of mainstream news organizations than ever. This leaves our democracy troubled.

There’s no telling what the next decade will bring. But most media entrepreneurs, especially those in sunny California, believe there is a light at the end of this storm. We don’t know just what it will look like, and anyone who tells you they do know is lying through his teeth.

But I believe, as do many others, that journalism will continue beyond the existence of its instituions.