Much of the talk focused on the forces reshaping contemporary journalism such as new technology, particularly mobile platforms, the impact of social networks, and new software that is enabling the aggregation, mining and visualization of vast pools of data.

Unlike those who are still trying to maintain journalism as it has been in print or broadcasting during the 20th century, most of my peers in attendance seem to accept and embrace changes now disrupting mainstream media companies. While at times they may lament the economic hardships imposed by creative destruction, they seem excited about the prospects of re-creating a media landscape that still makes good on journalism’s promise to underpin a free, democratic society.

As always, it helps to understand the true nature of the forces disrupting journalism today, and for that, the conference turned to Paul Saffo, a futurist and Stanford professor who is also a Visiting Scholar in the Stanford Media X research network.

Saffo began by informing the audience that the Information Revolution has ended and the rest of the world has caught up to mainstream media and that we are now entering an era of “personal media” where “ the central economic actor is someone who both produces and consumes in the same act. I like the term “creator,” as this new kind of actor is doing something more fundamental than the mere sum of their simultaneous production and consumption. Creators are ordinary people whose everyday actions create value.”

If that wasn’t enough to absorb, Saffo also explained in detail the forces of creative destruction that are a natural part of the capitalist system, something first detailed by Joseph Schumpeter, a leading economist of the 20th century. “When forces of creative destruction arise, the system moves toward instability and new technology kills off any advantage of the incumbents,” Saffo said.

Acknowledging that these are “wildly uncertain times for media,” Saffo was also encouraging. He said opportunity beckons, particularly for journalists who “embrace the uncertainty and look for lessons everywhere you go.”

Paul Saffo’s Rules for Understanding Change

  • When changes clusters at the extremes, it is the doppler whistle of something really big coming down the track.
  • The first thing that happens in periods of massive changes is that quality goes down for awhile before a new economy emerges that again places a premium on quality.
  • Uncertainty is good in that it signals opportunity.
  • One must flee into the future, while looking backward as far as one can to find “rhyming patterns” that might be presaging the present.
  • Become attuned to things that don’t fit, people can’t classify or will even reject.
  • The future constantly arrives in unexpected ways.
  • Change is never linear, but always follows an S curve shape.
  • Cherish failure (particularly if it is someone else’s).
  • Look for the significance in failures other people are not understanding.

He concluded by saying, “You are standing on a whale (in terms of the changing media landscape and the new opportunities) – don’t fish for minnows.”

That kind of encouragement was most welcome as a message, particularly for those now underemployed or unemployed. It confirmed the hope of many there. Online journalism will matter and eventually offer the same opportunities to practitioners as those that were offered to print and broadcast journalists in earlier eras. Further, the new technologies and social networks transforming communication patterns now may ultimately yield much richer journalism in the future.

Chris Anderson also addressed this in a slightly different way in a recent issue of Wired magazine:

As venture capitalist Paul Graham put it, “It runs out the rule ‘large and disciplined organizations win’ needs to have a qualification appended: ’at games that change slowly. No one knew till change reached a sufficient speed.”

The result is the next new economy, the one rising from the ashes of this latest meltdown, will favor the small.

To all the usual reasons why small companies have an advantage, from nimbleness too risk-taking, add these new ones: The rise of cloud computing means that young firms no longer need to buy their own IT equipment, which helps them avoid having to raise money or take on debt. Likewise the webification of the supply chain in many industries, from electronics to apparel, means that even the tiniest companies can now order globally, just like the giants. In the same way a musician with a laptop and some gumption, can accomplish most of what a record label does, an ambitious engineer can invent and produce a gadget with little more than the same laptop.

Obviously, that same rule now applies to journalists. We are not at the bottom of a trough, according to Saffo and others I have engaged in recent conversations. We are at the end of an era of human history that has shaped our economy previously and individual economic choices. We are now marching toward the future that will undoubtedly be very different. To change journalism for the better, we will need to adapt and reinvent ourselves.