Douglas Rushkoff is right — traditional media are caught between the stream and the reservoir

Gigaom

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has a new book out entitled “Present Shock,” which is about modern society’s obsession with what is happening now, and how that obsession is exacerbated by tools and technology such as social media. In a recent interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, he talked about what that means for media outlets such as the New York Times, and how some of these entities are stuck between catering to what he calls “the flow” of the real-time news stream and their traditional status as gatekeepers or storehouses of knowledge.

Rushkoff argues that in a world of always-on, 24/7 news coverage from hundreds or even thousands of different sources, there is even more value in having a single entity like the 6 o’clock news that can pull things together and give people an overview of what happened — as opposed to the constant news crawl of something like CNN. That’s also an argument for newspapers, the author says, but some are caught between these two modes of information delivery:

“The Wall Street Journal has held onto a lot of what the nightly newscast provides… there’s a periodicity to what they’re doing, so they stay anchored in time. The New York Times, on the other hand, it’s so hard to even comment on them, because there are so many New York Timeses happening simultaneously. It’s schizophrenic. I don’t even know how to consume it anymore… I just feel like they haven’t distinguished between that which is fit to print and that which is part of the stream.”

Trapped between the stock and the flow

In his book, Rushkoff talks about the difference between “flowing information” — such as Twitter or Facebook or other stream-based sources — and “stored information,” of the kind that newspapers and books specialize in, where it is fixed in time and remains more or less unchanged. In a nutshell, the author says that newspapers are caught between trying to serve these two very different needs. And it’s not just those companies themselves, but news consumers as well:

“You just can’t use the newspaper to keep up in society any longer. And you can’t use live blogging to make sense of anything.”

Rushkoff isn’t the only one to notice this: for me, the tension between those two modes of information delivery — the real-time stream and the fixed-in-time reservoir — was best described by Robin Sloan, author and former Twitter staffer, in an essay about what he called “stock” and “flow.” Those terms come from the world of economics, where people are used to talking about stored value (such as cash and other monetary instruments, or physical resources) and the real-time fluctuation in the value of those things: i.e., the trading of currency or the sale of goods.

Sloan said at the time that the idea of stock and flow was “the master metaphor for media today,” and I think he was right. We are all caught between the stream and the reservoir — because we want to be part of the real-time flow, but we also want to capture the value that comes from taking the time to analyze that flow. Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal wrote about this challenge in a recent piece on the life of a digital editor, but it is something we all struggle with, whether we are the New York Times or just someone trying to keep up with the news.

(Note: We’ll be talking with a bunch of smart media types about these and other challenges at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17)

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Fedorov Oleksiy




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