Eric Johnson

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Interview: C.W. Anderson and Emily Bell Discuss the Future of “Post-Industrial Journalism”

Last night, San Francisco got a high-dose injection of East Coast media experts.

In an event space once belonging to the San Francisco Chronicle, New York University’s Clay Shirky, Columbia University’s Emily Bell and City University of New York’s C.W. Anderson sat down for an onstage interview with AllThingsD editor Kara Swisher (who is herself a transplant from the New York area).

The group convened at Intersection for the Arts to discuss “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” a new report published by the Columbia Journalism School, which also hosted the event for its centennial. You can find the full report at this link; it is also embedded at the bottom of this story.

After the event, I caught up with Anderson and Bell for a few postgame questions about the changing state of the media:

Many of the people in attendance tonight were in some way connected to the media. Why should people outside those circles pick up this report?

C.W. Anderson: To understand the hypercharged individual. If you want to understand how technology is empowering individuals to have all sorts of new responsibilities, but also significantly more ability and authority, you should read this report. There is far more pressure on you, and far more responsibility, because you’re now acting in public in a new way.

And for those who are in the media, what can they do? Is there some action individual journalists can take now?

Anderson: Individual journalists should familiarize themselves with how a database works, how an Excel spreadsheet works.

Most seem to know nothing about that.

Anderson: Yeah, my initial answer would be, “Oh you should learn to code.” But let’s not even go there yet.

Why not?

Anderson: Because, as you said, most journalists don’t even know how an Excel spreadsheet works.

So it’s a step-by-step thing?

Anderson: One thing at a time. Every journalist should learn some basic coding skills — not necessarily becoming coders themselves, but understanding the people who do in their organization, understanding what they can ask from them. But, hey, baby steps. Do Excel first.

Emily Bell: It’s really about understanding that the world of information is changing very quickly. We’ve always aligned journalism with things like marketing and PR, because it’s about telling stories and how you present something. But what about journalism as finding and distributing information? Learn math.

What about news editors? What should they do?

Bell: There was a phase of everything being converged — the offline and online newsroom. I wonder now whether a lot of that was a big waste of time. [Laughs] That’s why I think so many journalists now leave and do their own thing. They want to be freed of whatever that process is, just to experiment with new stuff. It sounds wishy-washy to say “enable your staff,” but that’s a hard thing to do.

And what about that distinction between journalists and non-journalists? Do we need better media literacy?

Bell: The public and journalism are indistinguishable. Journalism as a profession and a trade can’t take all of this on. Some of this has to be about how society is changing. Often, people produce really good journalism, but if they’re not journalists, they don’t do it all the time.

And that’s not a problem.

Bell: No. But we need people doing it all the time.

Read the entire report, “Post-Industrial Journalism,” here:

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus