The future of (Pagan) journalism

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The past couple years haven’t been particularly good ones for the mainstream “old” media. Magazines have been folding left and right, and newspapers haven’t been doing much better. The slow and gradual transition from “old” to “new” media has been unnaturally hastened by the massive economic downturn and bad business decisions by the big media conglomerates. In the wake of their failure to make the web pay (enough), newspapers have asked for antitrust exemptions while old-media defenders have called news aggregators (like Google) “parasites” that will usher in an age of political corruption. As for the world of religion-based reporting it truly is the best of times and the worst of times. There is more religion content availble to the consumer than ever before, but many professional journalists bemoan the death of religion sections, and the lack of trained religion-beat reporters who “get” religion (and are avidly critical of the new-media up-and-comers).

Certainly the Pagan community hasn’t been immune to this rough transition. Several anecdotes seem to point to strains and belt-tightening, and the recent merger of Pagan magazines PanGaia and NewWitch mirrors the troubles faced by the larger less-niche publications. As Pagan commentary and journalism has (seemingly) contracted in the print world, it has exploded on the Internet. Thousands upon thousands of Pagans hit the Pagan blogosphere’s “A-List” (Gus diZerega, Chas CliftonPatti Wigington,Thorn Coyle, and myself, among several others) on a regular basis for news and opinion, while the ever-timely (and unafraid) Pagan Centered Podcast has racked up over 150,000 downloads of its show. However, the question remains of how journalism aimed at the Pagan community will ever “pay” in the same manner that the once-dominant publications do. Some, like Thorn Magazine, have attempted to create a print-online hybrid, but it’s too early to tell if that project will continue to thrive in the longer-term.

So what is the future of journalism, and what does it mean for “professional amateurs” like myself who service niche information markets like the modern Pagan community? Two recent essays really give some clarity as to the extent of what’s coming, why it will almost certainly get worse before it gets better, and why we have reasons to hope for a brighter media tomorrow. The first is from author Steven B. Johnson who reminds us what informaiton gathering, especially niche informaiton gathering was like before the Interent, and why the tech and political news worlds are showing that the future isn’t a barren news desert but a rich news rainforest ecosystem.

“The metaphors we use to think about changes in media have a lot to tell us about the particular moment we’re in … today’s media is in fact much closer to a real-world ecosystem in the way it circulates information than it is like the old industrial, top-down models of mass media. It’s a much more diverse and interconnected world, a system of flows and feeds – completely different from an assembly line. That complexity is what makes it so interesting, of course, but also what makes it so hard to predict what it’s going to look like in five or ten years. So instead of starting with the future, I propose that we look to the past. To use that ecosystem metaphor: the state of Mac news in 1987 was a barren desert. Today, it is a thriving rain forest. By almost every important standard, the state of Mac news has vastly improved since 1987: there is more volume, diversity, timeliness, and depth. I think that steady transformation from desert to jungle may be the single most important trend we should be looking at when we talk about the future of news. Not the future of the news industry, or the print newspaper business: the future of news itself.”

Johnson sees a future in which the “old media” establishment become massive filtering organizations, using their editorial skills to provide clear and accurate narratives on important news. Becoming part of a “bottom-up” news distribution system and economy, that advertisers and news agencies will eventually find a way to make the new media economy work for them (though not without further casualties in this unnatually hastened transition). While Johnson talks about a hopeful media future that includes all players at the table, New Media consultant and teacher Clay Shirky bluntly reminds us that when you’re in the middle of  revolution all bets are off.

“That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify. And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to. There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.”

One thing I rarely see mentioned by defenders of “old media” is that proponents of  new media rarely want newspapers or magazines to fail, or for journalists to lose their jobs, they merely understand that the current upheaval is going to play out no matter what we do. You can’t unring a bell, and you can’t stuff the genie of digital media back into its bottle. As Shirky says, we are in the midst of a revolution, and we have no idea what exactly the future will look like. I hope for Johnson’s lush ecosystem, but we can’t be sure.

What will the “pro” model of Pagan journalism look like in the future? Will it be the slick and academic-minded site Patheos? The corporate-backed blogs of Beliefnet? The massive “everyone gets a say” editorial page of the Newsweek-backed On Faith? Maybe even a renassaince of Pagan periodicals? Perhaps it will be something none of us ever saw coming. Looking at the last few years, I can’t say what the future of media and journalism will truly be, but I do know that Pagan journalism has grown in a variety of ways. Our community is more personally empowered than ever to inform, communicate, and ignore ineffecient gatekeepers. In the “old” mainstream media Paganism was treated as a fad, or a joke, or a “human interest” story stuffed into the “lifestyle” section. We had to wait for months for any news from our own periodicals, and those were often (due to the nature of scheduling) more interested in “evergreen” material than in what is happening in the here and now. Thanks to the citizen journalists and determined aggregators we have more “news” for Pagans than ever before, and if we’re lucky, a successful business model will emerge in that will allow for timely Pagan reporting that actually pays.