Evolve or Perish: The Cooperative Extension Imperative

An article that ran recently in the Christian Science Monitor serves as an excellent post script to yesterday’s musings.


Even the nation’s leading national newspapers, however reluctantly, have reached the same conclusion that many of us already share, namely that there is an evolutionary imperative associated with the Web that means exactly that — we either evolve or perish.  

Newspapers either will adapt to the web by featuring client-driven content or they will go increasingly unread. And if they are left unread, well, you get the picture – eventual extinction.  Two of the biggest players in the newspaper business, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have reached that painful conclusion.  And as they are learning, part of this will involve removing their pay-to-read firewalls and offering entirely free content.


Yes, there are risks associated with this transition, potentially fatal risks.  If everything the newspaper posts online is free, why should anyone bother to subscribe?  And if people aren’t subscribing, what will become of advertisers, the newspaper’s traditional bread and butter?


Pertinent questions, to say the least.  But the fact remains that newspapers are between the proverbial rock and hard place. There are the even more potentially calamitous risks associated with maintaining the status quo.  The simple fact of life is that the evolutionary imperative of the Web simply can no longer be ignored.  Client-driven content and the Web essentially are synonymous, and anyone who can’t see that had better head for the nearest tar pit or start growing feathers.  Back to that underlying theme again: evolve or perish.  

There is no turning back.

Fortunately, many online papers have chosen to grow feathers.  They have come to terms with the fact that in this client-driven, cut-and-paste world, pay-only content doesn’t stay that way for very long. 


“They can’t ignore the Web,” writes the Monitor’s Dante Chinni.  “They understand they have to find a way to move online.  But they aren’t exactly happy about it and they are unsure how the economics are going to play out.”


Like it or not, the brave new world awaits. And one of the biggest immediate challenges for newspapers will be feeling their way through this new world.  How will news organizations that evolved in a print-oriented, pay-only world work in a totally free-content environment? For that matter, how will it learn to adjust in a socially networked world — the growing preference of a rising generation of news aficionados?


Good questions.  Speaking as a 46-year-old former newspaper junkie, I will say that old-line newspapers have one thing going for them — a history.  Despite some egregious mistakes within the last few years, newspapers do have a long history of covering and reporting the news reasonably accurately.  There is still some luster to names such as the Times and Wall Street Journal, even if some Jurassic DNA has crept into their genome within the last few years — luster that can serve them well in the new media.  And what is badly needed in this tempestuous sea of blogging, twittering and flickring is ballast — or, to put it another way, adding some focus, balance and context to this welter of Web-based information.  Online newspapers have the potential of providing some of this ballast. 

And there is a lesson here for Cooperative Extension.  We have a long history, a virtually century-old history. And, yes, there is still some luster associated with our name and our mission, though we do have some cob webs to clear.  The good news is that if we manage to clear them, we have the potential of providing our audiences with similar type of ballast provided by old news organizatons — potentially, at least.


Perhaps the most important question is how –  how will Cooperative Extension, an organization nurtured within an early 20th century social, cultural and technological context, strive to remain relevant in the client-driven and increasingly socially networked world of the 21st century?


What is our game plan?  That remains to be seen.


3 responses to “Evolve or Perish: The Cooperative Extension Imperative

  1. By starting this blog, you are taking part in the game plan. Now you know. 🙂

  2. missionextension

    Thanks, James. I certainly will keep that in mind. 🙂 Incidentally, when I get the chance today, I’m going to include your excellent site on my blogroll. Jim (ACES-wikiman)

  3. In ways both subtle and dramatic, the Web alters power relationships and undermines conventional gatekeeping roles (e.g., newspapers as gatekeepers of what people need to know about what’s going on; universities as gatekeepers of credentials needed for access to jobs and social mobility)

    Locally, regionally, and nationally, Extension professionals might profit from brainstorming how new media will affect our understanding of core concepts such as research, outreach, teaching, learning, and expertise.

    We could begin by looking at Extension’s historical role in what Scott Peters calls “educational organizing” (http://www.joe.org/joe/2002june/a1.html), and see how this important thread from our history might extend into Web communities.

    Peters concludes the JOE article referenced above this way:

    “There is a great deal of additional research that still needs to be done to better understand the historical foundations and evolution of the educational organizing tradition in cooperative Extension work. This research is not trivial or irrelevant. It has the potential to transform our understanding not only of the story of what Extension was and what agents did in Extension’s founding period, but also the story of what Extension is and does today.

    “This is especially important if Extension is to be seen as relevant to the calls for ‘engagement,’ for the building of respectful, two-way partnerships between land-grant institutions and communities.”

    The call for engagement is a call to open an exciting new chapter of educational organizing in land-grant education. If Extension does not seem relevant to this call, it will be relegated to the sidelines instead of the frontlines, where it clearly belongs.”

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