Carnival of Journalism: Technology Is No Silver Bullet

My entry in the February Carnival of journalism. This month’s question comes from Steve Outing: “What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?”

“Designing a communication tool as a work-around to problems resulting from the organizational structure imposed when someone decided lean manufacturing was just the ticket for a IT service company is crazy!” I fumed to two colleagues at lunch after reading a paper proposed for an international conference. “It’s enabling dysfunctional management!”

Both chuckled, and one (she’s a sociologist) pointed out that the effort reflects an unstated assumption that “technology” can “fix” problems that are social in nature. The other (a newly minted PhD) wondered if this faith in technology’s omnipotence is uniquely American.

Given that the practice of lean manufacturing originated with Toyota, and humans around the globe heralded the telegraph as an invention that would surely lead to world peace… I do not think this hope for an externally generated silver bullet is uniquely American. But here’s an American example: the Harvard Business Review from Oct 2011 (emphasis added):

[O]ur research in IT, financial, engineering, and legal services reveals that [work involving expertise and judgment that relies on tacit knowledge] can in fact benefit from the principles of the Toyota Production System. For one thing, a substantial amount of knowledge assumed to be tacit doesn’t have to be; it can be articulated and captured in writing if the organization makes the effort to pull it out of people’s heads.

Get that? The organization’s problems would be solved if we could just have reliable and regular brain dumps.

Didn’t you know that people are the problem? After all, it’s those lousy readers who won’t cough up subscription fees for web content who are bringing about the end of the media world as we know it. Right?

The problems facing journalism today – whether we think of the term as reflecting journalists, newspapers or media conglomerates – won’t be fixed because of a new technology. Technology isn’t going to help us be relevant. Technology can’t create a compelling story where one doesn’t exist. Technology is unlikely to help with cash-flow, either, given that media conglomerates have decided (again) that paywalls are somehow going to stem the hemorrhaging.

I don’t believe that there is a technological silver bullet for journalism. And I know that Steve didn’t phrase his question as such, and having someone who calls herself a digital evangelist riffing in a totally polar direction seems ironic.


Tools can help us craft more interesting, thorough, compelling stories.

Tools will not (I hope) preserve media monopolies or reverse the economic tidal wave unleashed by cheap, digital tools of production.

For example, GeekWire, a technology news startup in Seattle, is holding conferences and networking socials (the December holiday gala was a hoot) as a way to connect with the community while also helping foster community. Yes, it’s brand recognition. Yes, it’s a way to generate an alternative to the advertising revenue stream. But it’s also a way for John and Todd and Rebecca to be part of the community. And it’s very old, not new, tech.

Their success will rest not on technology (they use WordPress, by the way, as their CMS) but relationships: understanding what their community wants to know and needs to know and then delivering that information in a way that the community wants to receive it.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my shiny toys! I can’t wait for the iPhone5 and iPad3 to hit the market. I think the combination is the unbeatable; Nick Garnett makes a great argument that the iPhone is a reporter’s best friend … ever.

The shiny toys are like words on the page of a book. And my dad tried to teach me that I would not find answers to all life problems in a book, no matter how many books I read. It’s a lesson that I still bump into, and I think it’s relevant here.

Shiny … will not, at the end of the day, save the day. The answer we seek is not external. It’s not a tool. It’s relationships.

And that’s a lesson not only for journalism but for the MBA/financier/know-it-all managers who reorganize their companies in such a way that they break relationships and the shared knowledge that those relationships enabled … no tech can fix stupid. Nor should it try. I’m certain my dad would agree.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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