Why does the future of news have to be us versus them?

Question mark

The future of news, and of journalism as a whole, isn’t something anyone has a really firm grasp on — as traditional players continue to be disrupted by the web and social tools like Twitter, and new entrants like The Huffington Post. Huge reports on the state of the industry written by journalistic institutions are filled with questions, but very few answers. Now a writer at the Columbia Journalism Review has taken aim at what he sees as the real culprit: “future of news” visionaries like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis, who he says are hurting the industry more than they are helping. But is that really where the problem lies? I don’t think so.

The Columbia Journalism Review is published by the same institution that came out with that massive report on the future of the journalism business earlier this year, so writer Dean Starkman is well aware of the problems in the industry, and the lack of any simple (or even obvious) answers. And yet he criticizes Shirky and Jarvis — as well as Dan Gillmor and journalism professor Jay Rosen — for not only failing to provide any compelling solutions, but for making things worse by arguing that journalists should engage with their readers and make journalism more of a two-way street than a dead-end road. As he puts it:

FON’s practical prescriptions — what it calls engagement with readers — have in practice devolved into another excuse for news managers to ramp up productivity burdens, draining reporters of their most precious resource, the thing that makes them potent: time.

This criticism — that all of the blogging, responding to comments, posting to Twitter and other activities that modern journalists are expected to engage in as part of their jobs gets in the way of “real” journalism — is a common one, particularly with what Jay Rosen calls the curmudgeons of the craft. And in fact the Columbia Journalism Review had a long piece about the dangers of this approach last year, written by none other than Dean Starkman, which argued that this “hamster wheel” approach was killing journalism (this idea was picked up by the Federal Communications Commission in a report on the news industry, which referred to the “hamsterization” of the business).

For Starkman, institutions are all that matters

But Starkman’s real point is made obvious by the anecdote he uses to open his piece, a long tale of investigative reporter Ida Tarbell and her ground-breaking expose of the oil trusts and robber barons around the turn of the century, which she wrote for McClure’s magazine. It took months, he says, and involved trips to Switzerland to talk to the magazine’s publisher before it even got off the ground, not to mention months of research. Who is going to do this kind of public-interest journalism in the always-on, engaged and connected, hamsterized future of news, Starkman asks:

Remember when a single investigative reporter with the temerity to demand a decent living… could pull the curtain back on one of the most powerful and secretive organizations on the face of the earth?

For Starkman, the real problem with the new vision of journalism proposed by the “future of news” crowd — a world in which the news is “assembled, shared, and to an increasing degree, even gathered, by a sophisticated readership” — is that it is anti-institutional at heart. And the problem with that approach, he says, is that only large media institutions such as The Guardian or the New York Times can take on behemoths like News Corp. and have a hope of winning, just as Ida Tarbell needed McClure’s magazine to back her in her quest for the truth about robber barons like Nelson John D. Rockefeller.

I think Starkman’s piece has a number of flaws, including the fact that many of the things he criticizes the “future of news” gang for saying about journalism — that it is often stale and duplicative, that it is a commodity with less and less value all the time, and so on — are points that Jarvis and Shirky have made about daily news, not the kind of investigative public-service stories that Starkman sees as “real” journalism. And for what it’s worth, Starkman has no real solutions for how to save or support these other aspects of the journalism business either, as far as I can tell from his piece.

It doesn’t have to be a binary question

But the other problem with his criticism is that it sets up a false dichotomy, in which only large institutions do anything worthwhile about the issues that matter, and the kind of distributed or “crowd-powered” or engaged journalism that Jarvis and others are in favor of is pretty much just a giant waste of everyone’s time. Why does it have to be either/or? Why do institutions have to win, and control the journalistic enterprise from beginning to end, or be crushed by the anti-institutional fervor of the revolutionaries that Starkman seems to despise? Is there no middle ground?

I think there is. Smart institutions like The Guardian are making use of digital tools to open up their journalism, in an attempt to create what editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger calls a “mutualised newspaper.” They are thinking of themselves as a platform for others to build on, not an institution that delivers the news ready-made to a willing audience. And new institutions like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are showing other ways of delivering hard-hitting and worthwhile public journalism. Where do they fit in Starkman’s binary model? The CJR writer has some nice things to say about what the Guardian has done, but he still seems to see these kinds of moves as an afterthought.

The bottom line is that no one knows what the future of news looks like in a connected world driven by the “democracy of distribution” that social tools allow, and the fact that anyone can become a journalist with the click of a button on a smartphone or by posting to Twitter as a helicopter targets Osama bin Laden’s compound. Shirky and Jarvis and Rosen may not have any answers either, but at least they are thinking about potential solutions — Starkman seems to just want to return to some mythical golden age when institutions ruled the industry and readers knew their place.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and Petteri Sulonen

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