How evolution works, and why that matters to journalists

Many of us have talked about the evolution of the news industry in the Internet era. But what do we mean by that?

I can’t speak for others in the field, but when I talk about news industry evolution, I’m talking about a version of the same evolutionary process that occurs in nature. And the best description of that process I’ve found is in Carl Sagan’s delightful book, “Cosmos.” Sagan writes about the Heike Crab from the Japanese Inland Sea, crabs with patterns on their carapace that look very much like a samurai warrior.

“Suppose that, by chance, among the distant relatives of this crab, one arose with a pattern that resembled, even slightly, a human face. …Fishermen may have been reluctant to eat such a crab. In throwing it back, they set in motion an evolutionary process: if you are a crab and your carapace is ordinary, humans will eat you. Your line will leave fewer descendants. If your carapace looks a little like a human face, they will throw you back. You will leave more descendants. …As the generations passed, of crabs and fishermen alike, the crabs with patterns that most resembled a samurai face survived preferentially until eventually there was produced not just a human face, not just a Japanese face, but the visage of a fierce and scowling samurai. All this has nothing to do with what the crabs want. Selection is imposed from the outside. The more you look like a samurai, the better your chances for survival. Eventually, there come to be a great many samurai crabs.” [“Cosmos,” p. 26]

Sagan described a process of artificial selection, one guided by the decisions of mankind. Natural selection happens without human input and can take millions of years to change a species. But artificial selection can change a species within relatively few generations. (Sagan cites the domestication of animals as examples.)

Still, even that is a long process when compared with a single human lifetime. Contrary to Republican belief, evolution doesn’t mean that creatures instantly mutate from one species into another. This takes time.

Talking about evolution in business raises troubling issues. The evolution of markets is always a process of artificial selection, as it is based upon human input. Libertarians who cite “survival of the fittest” evolution as justification for keeping government out of the market ignore the obvious fact that human input already is deciding which businesses live and die in that market. If individuals are making decisions as consumers, why shouldn’t they be allowed to make decisions collectively through representative government, as well?

If a community wants to impose a minimum wage to protect a basic standard of living, or demand that a business abide by certain practices to protect the environment, those desires should be part of the mix influencing the survival of those businesses. If a community decides that it wants to ensure that there are professional news reporters covering that community, it can decide to use its tax dollars to fund or subsidize that, too, through efforts such as public broadcasting or hiring news reporters (as some elected officials have done here in Southern California).

One other difference between market evolution and natural evolution that’s often overlooked is the lifespan of businesses, especially corporations. Unlike people, or Heike crabs, corporations can live forever. They can amass market power that gives them an immense evolutionary advantage over rivals, even rivals that a plurality of consumers otherwise might prefer.

The persistence of these powerful, established brands retards the process of evolution. People can’t make choices they don’t have. And if a powerful store, service provider, or even a newspaper, “corners the market,” it’s hard for a start-up to get in and provide those choices.

That’s the way it was for many years in the news business, until the Internet reduced the cost of entry into news publishing to near zero and allowed anyone who wanted to start a publication to reach communities around the world. Now, that disruption is changing the news industry, forcing an evolution that local newspaper monopolies had managed to avoid for a generation or more.

Unfortunately, years of operating essentially as monopolies in most markets affected the evolutionary process within many news organizations. Newsrooms lost the ability to identify, cultivate and promote innovators who could reach out to and communicate with readers and advertisers in new and more efficient ways. They didn’t need those people when there was next to no competition in their marketplace.

That loss is putting many established news organizations at a disadvantage now. Corner me at an industry conference, and I can list, or even just point out in the room, many online innovators who once worked in the newspaper industry, but left it because they wanted to do things differently than their bosses did.

For evolution to function as an efficient agent of change, improving the health of an industry, businesses that consistently make bad decisions have to be allowed to die so that businesses that do deliver what the marketplace needs and wants have the space to survive. Evolution happens when new things with better abilities to survive replace old ones without those abilities.

People concerned with protecting journalism need to understand this. Protecting journalism isn’t the same thing as protecting established news companies. In many cases, protecting journalism actually requires attacking established news organizations.

As Sagan wrote, “evolution is a fact, not a theory.” Some of us might want audiences to pay more for content, for advertisers to go back to paying exorbitant rates for ads, and for people to choose to get their information from established brands instead of social networks. But just as the crabs didn’t get to choose which ones lived and which ones died, news businesses need to recognize that “selection is imposed from the outside.” If you want to help save journalism, quit pining for the business environment you want, and start figuring out how to survive in the environment we have.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at