The limitations of the ‘news ecosystem’ metaphor

Metaphors are useful, until they’re not. A few years ago, I taught basic ecology to preschool students, using a tarp as a teaching tool. I would help a group of small children gather on the blue piece of plastic, explaining that each child represented an animal and that the confines of the blue plastic square represented their home. Over time, I would fold the tarp in halves as the “ecosystem” deteriorated, narrating a series of imagined environmental factors. Students would shuffle, contort, or be forced to step off the tarp. Animals in changing environments, I told them, must likewise move, adapt, or die. 

A similar “ecosystem” metaphor is regularly applied to the shrinking news business, but its application has a meaningful distinction: unlike the folding tarp to the students or the shrinking forest to the animals, the circumstances of the surrounding crisis are not beyond our control.

Anthony Nadler, a media communications scholar and Tow Fellow, thinks media critics have been limited by the confines of the “news ecosystem” metaphor for too long. In 2018, he wrote in Journalism Studies that the metaphor’s conventional use suggests “spontaneous, self-ordering principles” in the news market, obscuring all the social, political, and economic decisions that undergird the status quo. He tracked common usage of the term through databases, going back through the late 1990s, finding that its use had become “a guiding figure” in media reporting over the years.

I spoke with Nadler about news markets, popular imagination about ecosystems, and the blinders that metaphors can introduce. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR: What led you to first scrutinize the “news ecosystem” metaphor? 

Anthony Nadler: In 2009, amid the journalism recession that came in on the coattails of the Great Recession, [author and media theorist] Stephen Berlin Johnson gave a speech at South by Southwest all about the tech news desert that we had in the late nineties, how the internet had created such a blossoming tech news environment, and how that was going to happen to news in general. There’s going to be pain, there’s going to be closures, but eventually the internet marketplace is going to be this ecosystem where everything becomes fertile and abundant. I thought the ecosystem metaphor seemed kind of Panglossian, so I started following how people were using the term. Until at least the mid-2010s, it really was being used to promote the idea that there was going to be this decentralized spontaneous growth, that things were going to flourish; our old models and old habits—barriers to the new growth—just had to crumble. 

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At the same time, I was reading people like Victor Pickard, Robert McChesney, and others who are saying Wait, we’re actually facing a pretty deep structural financial crisis

CJR: The idea that the death of old things always leads to new growth and flourishing ecologically strikes me as fairly oversimplified, too. 

AN: Oh, yeah, the natural instinct for growth and flourishing is not necessarily a fundamental principle of the most scientific versions of ecology, but it’s certainly part of the popular imagination when it comes to how ecosystems work.

CJR: In your essay, you write that metaphors can be generative, but they can also create “conceptual grooves or blinders.” What blinders are introduced when comparing the news market to an ecosystem? 

AN: The biggest blinder is that the metaphor really invites us to think of the system as a bunch of individual actors competing against each other: competing in a “survival of the fittest” Darwinian struggle. Individualized competition, struggling with innovative business models and audience engagement: that’s going to lead to flourishing, or so the use of the metaphor suggests.

Modes of thinking that are more about centralized planning or collective effort—what kind of policies or ground rules we need to set, or what we need to have a public conversation about healthy communities—that kind of thinking just doesn’t jibe as well with the ecosystem metaphor. 

CJR: At the same time, it seems like the idea of an ecosystem projects something natural and something real. Markets—as a story—feel inherently cold and sterile. Whereas ecosystems—as a story—feel inherently warm and healthy. When you’re talking about the system as a whole, it seems like calling the news market an “ecosystem” is telling a story—to use your hypothesis—that letting everybody fight for themselves is the natural, healthy way.

AN: I am with you there. It’s much more enticing. I think the ecosystem metaphor could nudge us towards thinking about cooperation, but the cooperation is always from the level of individual advantage, within the system, at best in a symbiotic relationship. Each agent that cooperates with another is motivated solely by their own interests. As a participant, I’m not trying to change the ground rules of the system, per se, or the ways things are working as a whole. What I’m trying to do is to survive under these conditions.

What’s good about the ecosystem metaphor is that it does bring to the foreground the interconnection between all sorts of news outlets and formats. It helps us get away from thinking of everything as kind of atomized. But it doesn’t help us think about the ways in which the very ground rules serve relationships among these parts. There’s actually an element of design and collective decision-making that’s not binding—incentives and pressures that influence the very shape of our digital economy—and we’re totally in control of that!

CJR: Have you seen use of the metaphor changing over time? 

AN: For a long time, the center of gravity in “future of news” conversations was about news organizations and journalists doing something innovative, thinking of ways to adapt. Then cutbacks continued, even in the digital natives, like BuzzFeed. You had the disappearance of Gawker. Cuts just continued and continued, even among many organizations that had put a good bit of effort into the digital innovations. People started to realize that ad revenue is really just flowing to Facebook and to Google. That optimism really started to dim, from the early 2000s, when that was really a dominant ideology. There were always critical voices, skeptics. But those voices have gotten a lot more mainstream.

CJR: But the term “news ecosystem” has really stuck around, right? Has it taken on new meaning? 

AN: I still don’t think the metaphor helps us. But it may be that the suggestion of a spontaneous self-optimizing system kind of receded into the background and is just being ignored. Perhaps people are still using the metaphor to refer to the intricate interdependencies of different news organizations and news across different formats. 

CJR: Do you think we need better metaphors? Fewer metaphors? More metaphors?

AN: Hmm, let me go with more metaphors. In the piece, I suggest the metaphor of a “built environment.” It helps us think even more that the very ground rules we’re working with actually can be changed. We have policies and collective decision-making constructs that shape what these constraints look like. Because the landscape that we’re operating in is built—and not by any one individual. 

Innovation just doesn’t hold promise when there’s no way to finance a public good that people benefit from even if they don’t pay for consumption.

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past ten months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • IN AUSTRALIA, TECH PLATFORMS AND PUBLISHERS COLLIDE: In anticipation of Australia’s proposed law to require tech companies to pay publishers for their content, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp announced a multiyear deal with Google through which its outlets will receive compensation for publishing, while Facebook announced that it would block all users and news organizations from sharing news on its platform in Australia. For CJR, Mathew Ingram lines up some of the possible implications, calling Australia a “test case” for the future of the relationship between platforms and news outlets. 
  • TRIBUNE ANNOUNCES IT WILL SELL TO ALDEN: Yesterday, Tribune Publishing—owner of the New York Daily News and Chicago Tribune, among other publications—announced its intention to sell remaining shares of the company to hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the Chicago Tribune reported. “Alden has become notorious—and widely reviled—for its tactic of ruthlessly slashing costs at its existing media properties,” Jon Allsop wrote for CJR’s Media Today newsletter. The deal also includes plans to turn the Baltimore Sun over to nonprofit ownership. “The massive cloud here does have a silver lining,” Allsop writes. “Still, the massive cloud is impossible to ignore.” And for Poynter, Rick Edmonds wrote about the outsize influence—and veto power—that Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong has over the deal. 
  • “CORRUPTION IS FLOURISHING AS NEWSPAPERS FOLD”: Charleston’s Post and Courier reported the closure of seven South Carolina newspapers over the past year, in the wake of the pandemic, lamenting the loss of accountability journalism. “The losses hit hardest in the vast rural stretches of the Palmetto State, in places such as Allendale County, which has struggled for years with soaring poverty, failing schools and government mismanagement,” Glenn Smith and Tony Bartelme write. 
  • MAPPING NEWS DESERTS IDENTIFIES NEEDS: Sara Stonbely, research director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, recently published a study in conjunction with the Tow Center, advocating for mapping the local news crisis by coverage area rather than newsroom location. In her research, Stonbely found that the lowest-income communities were twice as likely to be news deserts as affluent communities. “You can’t really count on communities that don’t have excess wealth to be able to put money into news outlets, right?” Stonbley told Sara Sheridan in a Q&A for CJR. “So the importance of promoting different policies—like giving consumers credits if they want to become subscribers, which will then be reimbursed by the government, local or otherwise—is clear.” 
  • NEW ZEALAND SETS ASIDE MONEY FOR NEWS ORGS: The New Zealand government has pledged $55 million to a fund in support of public interest journalism that would “otherwise be at risk,” Radio New Zealand’s MediaWatch reported. NZ on Air, an autonomous broadcasting commission, will decide how to administer funding over the next three years, with consideration given to a variety of media organizations and forms. 
  • GANNETT FAILS TO COVER UNION DRIVE AT ITS OWN NEW JERSEY PAPERS: Though three Gannett-owned New Jersey newspapers made a union bid last week, no Gannett outlets had reported the union efforts as of the weekend, the New Jersey Globe reported on February 11. “Gannett readers and subscribers are not receiving news about their local newspapers, even though executives promised strong coverage of news in their communities despite layoffs, furloughs and massive staff reductions,” David Wildstein writes. 
  • GANNETT AND MCCLATCHY TEAM UP ON ADS: Gannett and McClatchy have collaborated to sell national advertisements to reach their combined audience, Axios reported. “There aren’t many great options for Fortune 500 companies to buy ads at the local level without having to transact with hundreds of different outlets individually,” Sara Fischer writes. “This partnership aims to address that problem.” 
  • GOOGLE LAUNCHES NEWS SHOWCASE IN SEVEN COUNTRIES: Thanks to a new deal, Google will pay 120 UK publishers—from Reuters to the Financial Times—to produce their work in its News Showcase feature, CNBC reported. (This should not be confused with paying for work that appears in Google search, as Thomas Baekdal recently pointed out.) News Showcase, which debuted in Australia, has also launched in Canada, Germany, Brazil, France, Japan, and Argentina. Engadget has more. 
  • SCOTTISH AID FOR MEDIA BUSINESS SOON TO EXPIRE: In Scotland, economic relief measures for newspapers will come to an end within the next month, PressGazette reported, so some MSPs are calling for extensions to government aid amid the ongoing pandemic. Those who are reluctant to renew the rate relief argue that the measure is not targeted to local newsrooms that need support the most. 
  • LAYOFFS AT BLOOMBERG: Bloomberg News laid off about ninety staffers, including some longtime editors, Variety reported last week. “The layoffs have more to do with newsroom process than they do with corporate performance, according to one of the people familiar with the matter,” Brian Steinberg writes.

  • MORE CLOSURES: The Arizona Jewish Post will close after seventy-five years, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. And the Gannett-owned Sarasota Herald-Tribune will close its printing press.

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites