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Jeff Jarvis and the seduction of tablets

Interview 2.0

Jeff Jarvis is an associate professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009). He also blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. I recently spoke to Jarvis about entrepreneurial journalism, life after tablets, and what The Economist could learn about user-generated content.

Credit: John Smock 

What is the state of digital journalism today, especially with the rise of tablets?

The tablet is seductive. But like most seducers, one should be wary of being caught too much in their spell. I rather infamously returned my iPad at first. I now have an iPad 2 and use it all the time. I still wonder, however, whether it’s a transitional device. For example, on Wednesday, Google announced their Google Glasses [you can watch Google’s video about the glasses here]. Maybe we’ve moved past the screen. With Google Glassees you can imagine getting information at the moment you need it, without a screen.

This belief that we are entering the promised land of the tablet is dangerous. I’ve seen too many publishers say ‘Oh good, I finally have control back. The control of the readers’ experience, the brand, and the business model have all returned to me.’ So you see efforts to create the same form, to replicate the models of print onto the tablet – rather than embedding something new into the tablet.

This is not to say there’s not innovation in journalism. But there is still more to be done. I teach at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where I direct the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. Just last week, we put out some research that maps technological opportunities in journalism. The author of the study, Nicholas Diakopoulos, has a Ph.D. in computer science. And there is a lot being written about technology in his area, but it’s not explored in journalism. There are a lot of unmapped opportunities to rethink the form of journalism. There is some innovation. We’ve seen clever uses of multimedia being used by outlets. We just haven’t gotten to the point where we’ve totally rethought media.

The study by Nicholas Diakopoulos advocates for more ‘user-centered design’ in journalism. What does this mean to you?

I’m not sure what this means yet for journalism. I haven’t pushed the models enough. I think we’ve got to see more experimentation in journalism to re-imagine what it is.

I know what user-centered design is though generally. I’ve been a Mac person for many years. I had not touched a Windows machine since 1995. But I recently had to use a Windows machine, and it’s not a user-centered design at all. It took me 20 minutes to get the WiFi on! When you look at Apple, you see a product that anticipated users’ needs and then meet them.

For journalists, the school of thought is that our users don’t know what they need. Journalists know what their readers need. It’s haughty, but it’s true – because people don’t know everything that’s going on in the world. They need journalists for that. Nevertheless, I do think it’s possible to rethink a few things. With information, for example, journalists often think there’s a pile of information and how can we present it now in better ways. But the journalism business is also a platform for communities.

What do you mean by a ‘platform for communities’?

I was at Davos, and a certain publishing house scion asked [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg ‘How do we build a community like you?’ And Zuckerberg responded, ‘You cant. You dont make communities. They already exist. The real question is how do you help them do what they want to do better. You bring them elegant organization.” And that’s what Facebook does – helps people organize better and more elegantly. 

And really that’s akin to what journalists aspire to do. I teach entrepreneurial journalism, and I always define journalism for my students as ‘helping the community organize its knowledge so that it can better organize itself.’ As journalists, we’re not just delivering information; we’re creating tools so that a community can share its own knowledge in more effective ways. 

So, what’s the future?

As journalists, we think the value of what we do is encased in content. A former television executive said to me ‘Facebook and Google use our steel to make their cars.  Zuckerberg doesnt value content.’ But I think that’s wrong. We in the media only value content that we make. Facebook and Google value content from every source. And should the media be Facebook? No. But we do need to broaden our scope. The media needs to not just deliver content, but also find new ways to get communities to share what they know.

Take The Economist, it has probably the smartest readers on earth (in English and for a non-academic journal). What if The Economist were truly a platform to enable the smartest group of people on earth to share what they know and to tackle problems together? The Economist has the opportunity to go beyond the humble tablet and create a platform that enables intelligent people to share their content. That would be cool. How can The Economist unleash the incredible intelligence of its informed public?