Category Archives: The Passing Scene

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The Coming Digital Tipping Point

The Coming Digital Tipping Point

Newsweek and other print media are not the only entities rapidly approaching the digital tipping point – the point at which the demand for digital sources of information trump traditional sources.
(Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

A few months ago, I was gung ho about the prospects of developing a sleekly designed publication featuring compelling stories about Extension that could be placed in doctor’s and dentist’s offices and other locations around my state to better ensure that people who had never heard of Cooperative Extension would.

After reading David Carr’s New York Times piece exploring the headlong decline of Newsweek’s fortunes, I’m not as sure about my idea’s prospects for success. But this only scratches the surface of the insights I gained reading this article. Many of the issues Carr raises are relevant not only to Newsweek and to print media in general but to the future of Cooperative Extension and, for that matter, higher education in general.

In exploring the future of print media, Carr touches on one of the central themes of this weblog: Nothing in this new information order is sacrosanct, not even those institutions, such as Newsweek, that seemed sacrosanct in the last century.

Consider what’s happened within the last generation: Magazine editors once imposed rather brutal discipline on staffs numbering in the hundreds to do what technology is now equipped to do in real time — to aggregate information.

Faced with this sea change, Newsweek and other print media have undertaken valiant and, in many cases, highly imaginative efforts to reinvent themselves. Even so, as Carr observes, Newsweek Editors’ Tina Brown’s recent decision to run a cover depicting two supple female lips primed for an asparagus stem, while clever, reflects — arguably, at least — a desperate struggle by Newsweek and other printed media for relevancy.

Despite all these efforts, though, Carr perceives that Newsweek and other print media may be lurching ever closer to “the edge of the cliff,” ominously reflected in a recent report by the Audit Bureau of Circulations that news circulations are down 10 percent.

Many of print media’s brightest minds perceive something fundamental at work in the marketplace: the tipping point, the final shift from print to digital delivery.

Carr even speculates that Newsweek and other magazines may be on a downward spiral that not even its digital iterations may reverse, bringing them ever closer to what Carr, with a bit of Gibbonian flair, describes as “the imminent end of the print artifact.”

In the midst of this decline, as in all periods of decline, a handful of optimists express hope that this downward spiral will be reversed at some point.

Yet, this tipping point appears to be occurring in the places where news magazines like Newsweek once held pride of place: doctors and dental offices, until recently oases of magazine consumption.

Carr recalls a recent doctor’s visit in which he noticed that every waiting patient, without exception, was glued to a smartphone screen.

There are some ominous lessons here for Cooperative Extension, and not only because of our century-long investment in printed publications. Aren’t we rapidly approaching our own tipping point — the point at which people will opt for digital sources rather than the traditional forms of outreach delivery that have defined Extension work for the last century?

Among many memorable quotes, Carr serves up one that should give all of us pause: “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you put on the cover of your magazine if no one will look at it.”

Likewise, couldn’t someone argue just as legitimately that it doesn’t matter how Extension educators conceive and present their programs if growing numbers of information seekers are opting instead for digital sources?

Carr raised another point that has stuck with me: the insistence of one Newsweek financial analyst on the enduring value of the Newsweek’s brand.

“Every bit of this research tells us that it is a solid, global brand,” contends Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/Interactive Corporation, which remains the sole corporate underwriter of Newsweek.

Haven’t we heard similar arguments in our ranks? Haven’t we been reminded time and again that despite all our challenges that we still possess a brand name that remains viable?

Granted, I still place tremendous stock in our brand. But Newsweek’s dilemma nonetheless should serve as an invitation for a long reflective pause within our ranks.

Look at it is this way: If we, like Newsweek, are fast approaching a tipping point with no strategy for addressing what lies beyond how valuable is our brand name — really?

Our World and Welcome to It

The Jesup Wagon, developed by Tuskegee educator and Extension visionary Booker T. Washington, was an early example of curating.

Recently a long-tenured and highly distinguished Extension educator related to me that he vowed early in his Extension career never to write a refereed journal article, focusing all of his efforts instead on cultivating close working relationships with his clients.  As he saw it, cultivating these relationships and serving his clients as a trusted, valuable resource was more important than building a curriculum vitae.

He’s remained true to his promise for decades.  Over the course of his career he has conducted all types of applied research on behalf of his growers, all of which have provided immediate benefit to his clients.

I couldn’t help thinking of him today rereading Brit founder Britanny Morin’s spot-on article about the curated Web.

For those of you in Extension who think we’ve reached the end of our tether, take heart. If Morin is right — and I believe that she is — we are nearing our second life.

Why? Because we’ve have taken the first steps on a knowledge landscape that conforms remarkably closely to the values of Cooperative Extension work.

If you think about it, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington not only articulated the core values of Cooperative Extension work but also those that define life in the 21st century.

Morin’s piece reminded me of that.  As she relates in her article, the Web, despite its vast strides in organizing and prioritizing knowledge, is still a daunting, if not threatening presence, to millions of Web surfers.

All those algorithmically generated pages lead some surfers to wonder: Is this really what I’m looking for? What if these results are not specific enough?

Not surprisingly, the late Steve Jobs anticipated this, Morin observes.

“I think we need editorial now more than ever right now,” he said at last year’s D8 conference.

For her part, Morin agrees, so long as one distinguishes between editors and curators.

“These days, anyone on the Web can be an editor, but not everyone can be both an editor and a curator,” she says.

Yes, we need editors.  They serve an indispensable role improving the content provided by others.

However, it takes a special person indeed to be both an editor and curator, Morin contends.

Curators choose among different difference sources of information to provide the best ones available, often adding new ideas and perspectives.

Simply put, editors refine, while curators define.

Ever since curating was employed within a Web context, I’ve been struck by how closely this concept resembles the Extension educator’s role.  As Morin so aptly describes it, curators “find the best pieces of this content and evolve it into a bigger picture or idea.”

Curators sure sound like Extension educators to me.

This brings me back to those visionaries Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington.  What were Knapp’s crop demonstrations and Washington’s Jesup wagons other than early forms of curating?

As she sees it, though, curators provide something even more significant: a trusted source, someone to whom people can “relate to and trust, and who have expertise, real-life experiences, and the ability to filter and share bold perspectives.”

Are you beginning to get the picture?

By now, I hope you’re seeing why I remain such an unrepentant optimist about the future of Extension work.

I have seen the future, and it is Cooperative Extension.  I have seen the men and women of this brave new world, and they are Extension educators.