Should the Government Do More to Promote New Technology in the US?

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Should the Government Do More to Promote New Technology in the US?

Pondering the Future of News at Chicago Ideas Week (Oct. 10-16)

The greatest takeaway from Chicago Ideas Week was something Kara Swisher, co-executive editor of AllThingsD and a leading voice in technology since the early nineties, said: “The federal government has lain down on the job,” when it comes to supporting new technologies within the US. This indictment came at the tail end of a panel discussion called “The Future of News” at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Swisher pointed to China and South Korea as examples of countries that invest heavily in the technologies of tomorrow. She had recently returned from these destinations and was amazed at how far their screen technology has come: They are thinner, clearer, and more interactive than anything she’s seen here in the US. She insisted that our government is not investing in the technologies of the future to the same degree, and she won’t be surprised when we get left behind as a result.

To illustrate, Swisher recalled when her very young daughter reached out and touched the family’s new TV. When the screen didn’t respond, she said, “Mommy, it’s broken!” Swisher agrees.

Her other predictions about how technology will continue to shape media:

1. Media will be promiscuous.
2. Media will be everywhere.
3. Media will be noisy.
4. To succeed in the new media landscape, you will have to be flexible and entrepreneurial.

These intriguing—and conceivable—forecasts from Swisher were not revealed until the end of the talk. The discussion that preceded them, however, did not lack its own enlightening moments.

Music and Media

Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time, guided the conversation after introducing himself and the other panelists: Evan Ratliff, founder and editor of The Atavist; Kara Swisher; Joe McGinnis, author of The Rogue: Searching for Sarah Palin and ten other books; Ayman Mohyeldin, foreign correspondent for NBC News; and James Warren, columnist for The New York Times and the Chicago News Cooperative. The diversity of the panel contributed to a lively discussion about how technology will continue to shape how news is reported, delivered and consumed.

Stengel began the discussion by relating the news industry to the music industry. Indeed, today many people regard the album as an organic art form from which today’s MP3-driven culture has sadly strayed. However, Stengel pointed out that the album itself was the product of a technological innovation—the long-playing record. Before that, music was distributed on a song-by-song basis much like it is today.

In fact, The Atavist’s business model relies on this same purchasing behavior to sell its news stories individually. The stories can be downloaded directly to mobile reading devices like the Kindle or iPad. After lamenting the demise of magazines because they once provided him an outlet for stories that wouldn’t work as books, McGinnis pointed to Ratliff as his “savior” for his progress toward restoring long-form journalism. As more people get comfortable paying for stories rather than entire newspapers or magazines, we could see this model gain popularity.

From an organizational standpoint, Ratliff attributed a lot of his company’s success to its small size. Swisher echoed this sentiment, saying today’s new tools for journalists are allowing her to “do more with less people.” She even claims to pay her writers better than the writers in other departments of Dow Jones.

Regarding the ways in which people will get their news in the future, no one seemed to have any preference. Swisher joked that news will be so ubiquitous we might soon see content printed on salami. McGinnis is a little nervous about how new technologies are making it easier for people to avoid any news and opinion that challenge their beliefs, leading to what he calls “Palinization.” Warren complained about the lack of cohesion on the local level, but he maintained a positive attitude about the future, even if he doesn’t know what it will bring.

Mohyeldin explained that he puts a lot of effort into producing his stories, and it doesn’t matter to him whether you view them on TV or your watch. His outlook was based on one simple tenant that has only recently come into question. He said, “Good journalism will always sell.”

Let’s hope so.

– James