What’s the future of media … from a creator’s perspective?


This week, we are “Predicting the Future” at ReadTheSpirit, prompted by many requests from readers all across the U.S. In Part 1, we tried to predict “the future of religion.” In today’s Part 2, we’re publishing five key points that, as editor of ReadTheSpirit, I outlined for a gathering of journalists meeting at the University of Michigan over the weekend. (The OurValues.org series this week also is exploring the future of America itself.)

Talk about a humbling task! Predicting the future of media is now a billion-dollar business and entire libraries of advice are accumulating. Predicting the future of media also is fraught with pitfalls and the wreckage of thousands of publications, radio shows, TV programs and movie projects built on past flawed predictions.

For the Ann Arbor gathering of journalists, I was asked to talk about “Innovation” (a.k.a. “the Future”). The occasion was a reunion of journalists who have passed through the Knight-Wallace Fellows program at the University of Michigan. That group of alumi includes a Who’s Who of leading lights in news media. Many gathered in a ballroom to hear what I had to say and what a dozen other top journalists from across the country had to say, as well. I knew that I had only 10 minutes in the spotlight—and that other top professionals on the platform would be discussing the future of “the business” (a.k.a. “traditional news media struggling to survive”).

At ReadTheSpirit, we’re far more focused on the individual than on corporate culture. Every day, we’re thinking about our readers, our writers and the countless small-group leaders, teachers and preachers who look to us for news and fresh ideas. In our daily work, we’re focused on men and women who simply want to make a positive contribution in their communities.

My own five points, which I presented in the ballroom to the gathered journalists, are aimed at the creative people who write, photograph, blog, work on websites and newsletters: the creators among us.

Five Tips to Writers and Other Creators for Surviving the Future of Media

1.) Focus on what you can create with the new tools appearing every day; don’t focus too much on individual tools themselves. The worst mistake a “traditional” writer can make is to jump from one sinking ship to the next. Media is in the midst of a historic transformation that will churn and burn through tools and entire structures for a number of years to come. Some media professionals I’ve met are so focused on learning everything they can about Facebook or Twitter or some new software tool that they forget to actually pursue their day jobs.

When I guest lecture for high school or college students, my first question is always: “So, what does a writer do?”

I get lots of answers: “Pushes boundaries.” “Thinks deep thoughts.” Or, “makes other people think deep thoughts.” “Lives in a big city.” Or, “leaves big cities behind.” “Tries to get into television or the movies.” “Hopes to publish a book.” Or, more recently, “Has a Facebook fan page.”

The correct answer is: A writer writes.

And: A photographer makes pictures. A filmmaker produces films. (Or, if you’re in religious leadership: A preacher preaches. A pastor provides pastoral care. A teacher teaches.)

Technical innovators are handing us a host of terrific new tools with each passing season: new cameras, new software, new social media, new phones, new iPad apps. Grab ‘em! Use ‘em! But, first and foremost, we need to do the work of gathering information and professionally creating stories that connect lives. (Or, you can see the parallels here in religious leadership, can’t you?)

One of our 10 Founding Principles is: “It’s about the Voice, not the Book.” That’s as true in 2010 as it was when we founded ReadTheSpirit in 2007, perhaps with this amendment: “It’s about the Voice, not the Book, not the Facebook page, not the Twitter feeds, not the …”

2.) We are not competitors anymore; we must work cooperatively. This is another of our 10 Founding Principles. It’s a concept that’s very hard for media professionals to embrace. As professional creators of content, we have been trained for decades to work in secrecy, searching for exclusive projects to “break news” or “scoop” the competition. But those days are long gone. (Religious leaders were taught in the 1970s and 1980s that they were competing with other houses of worship; but those days are long gone, as well. Now, religion itself, as an entire community, competes with Starbucks, cable TV, yoga lessons, soccer and working an extra job to make ends meet.)

The future belongs to convergence of communities, building trends and movements until our best ideas “go viral.” And nothing ever went “viral” that wasn’t freely and cooperatively shared. This means that creative people need to publish fast and often. A blog post, like our 2007 Founding Principles, forever “time stamps” that core cluster of innovations. If others want to follow our Founding Principles, we welcome that.

If other writers want to explore “The Future of Religion,” we celebrate that convergence of creative effort! Just as we described our partnership with Patheos in Part 1 of this series, when we converge our efforts we’ve got a community sharing ideas. Our true competition, as creators of content, is not each other—it’s obscurity and extinction. (Religious leaders? The message is the same. Clergy don’t compete with each other anymore; clergy collectively compete with irrelevance.)

3.) As professional creators, we all have to determine the line between “Free” and “Paid” content. At ReadTheSpirit, the thousands of stories published in our daily magazines are “Free.” The content we hope you will purchase, at this point, is contained in our books. And, stay tuned in early 2011 for some new forms of paid content we plan to introduce.

Professional writers, photographers and filmmakers can’t hope to survive without both Free and Paid offerings in this new world. But discerning the line between “Free” and “Paid” is a determination most professionals have never been trained to make. Moreover, the line separating Free and Paid will continue to shift and the forms of payment will change as well.

4.) Finally, own your own content. Even if you give away a major portion of your work as Free, if you hope to be a successful professional, you must control your content. You can’t even truly give away what you don’t own in the first place.

One of the startling truths that professionals gathered in Ann Arbor talked about privately before and after the formal presentations is that most writers, photographers and filmmakers have worked for companies that own the content professionals produce. Thousands of professionals are finding themselves jobless each year. Once they’re out on the street and the door swings shut, they discover after a lifetime of professional creativity—they don’t own a word, a sound, an image, a minute of footage they created. Not only are they out of a job; they’ve also lost a lifetime’s legacy of work. If you’re already out in the world of independent media: Own your content!

5.) Finally, remember there will be a future. No question about that.

“Media” is simply connective tissue and the world’s population is moving toward more connection, not less. Media has an enormous, powerful, limitless future. The question is: How can we survive as creators within that new world of media?

But, even as we ponder that enormous question, take heart. Media isn’t dying—even though many traditional forms of media are imploding.

What does a writer do? A writer writes.

What’s the purpose of media? Media connects.

What do we do tomorrow? We climb out of bed and we use our talents to connect lives. If we do that, we’ll be all right in this new world. (And religious leaders reading this particular column, our prayer for your future is the same as this prayer for media professionals: May God’s grace continue to help us all—as we keep trying to connect lives in the years ahead.)

We want this “national conversation” to continue

As Americans, we have no choice: Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in recent weeks. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of these stories—and, this week, what you see on the horizon line!

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