Lines from the past occasionally float to the surface. Here's one I have been thinking about lately: "OK open systems beat great closed systems every time."
That one came from Scott Kurnit around 1994-95, when he was VP/marketing for Prodigy. His company, originally a joint venture of CBS, Sears and IBM, had built a closed system (great in its day) that was in the process of getting its tail kicked by a bunch of little startup companies that run by people who had no clear idea where they were going.
These startups were pushing open standards: TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML.
Prodigy's system could do animated graphics and had complete control over presentation. HTML at that point couldn't even do tables, and most of the ISP entrepreneurs didn't know how to keep books or create business plans. Flat-rate Internet pricing wasn't the result of a business decision. The ISP entrepreneurs just didn't know how to charge by the minute.
Yet in a matter of months, the open system ended the era of closed, proprietary online services.
There are other examples. VHS versus Betamax, for those old enough to remember videotape. Windows vs. Mac. Today we may regard Microsoft as a predator, but in the early days it appeared radically more open than Apple. Steve Jobs' control-freak personality may have made the Macintosh "insanely great" but that control impulse doomed it to near irrelevancy.
How does this apply to journalism?
Journalism arose as a way to overcome the limitations of personal experience and word of mouth.
The printing press allowed experience to be recorded and distributed broadly. Importantly, that experience could be frozen, protected from the corruption inherent in handing information verbally from person to person (Chinese whispers, or "playing telephone.")
By making it possible for everyone to be publisher, the Internet has created a kind of hybrid of document and conversation that has many of the characteristics of a pre-Gutenberg society.
What we are seeing today, this thing that I once called "a new kind of people's journalism," is colliding with traditional media in the same way the World Wide Web hit Prodigy and CompuServe in 1994.
Mike Smith of Northwestern University's Media Management Center says many young people do not feel a need to seek news. If it's important, the news will come to them one way or another.
He's right, and this spells trouble not only for "old media" but also for reformers who mistakenly believes the answer is "give it to them in whatever medium they prefer," because that's code language for "put it on the Web." That won't work.
Flat publication on the Web is optimized to connect with seekers, not people who aren't seeking.
To connect with the new passive majority, you need to be engaged in a broad conversation (that largely isn't about news), and professional journalism simply has not yet figured out how to do that.
Thanks to investor Bruce Sherman's meddling in the newspaper business, suddenly America's newsrooms are acutely aware that the world has changed, and there's a broad debate about what it all means.
One of the recurring themes: What will be the economic foundation that will support serious professional journalism in the future?
What if that's the wrong question?
What if the right question is: What does an open journalism company look like? How does it work? Because if traditional journalism is a closed system, it's going to be clobbered by an "OK" open system. How can we make that open system "good enough?"
When facing the Web, Scott Kurnit didn't sneer at its primitive interface or its complicated setup requirements; he accurately saw the end of the proprietary online services.
He went on to found The Mining Company, which today is known as About.com, a site that puts many individual "guides" to work in an organized fashion to layer some structure and some value on top of the chaos that is the Internet.
Perhaps there's a lesson there for us.