The Columbia Journalism Review just published Dean Starkman’s Confidence Game. Read it — it’s a skeptical take on the “future of journalism” crowd and our vision.
I’m skeptical too, the other way around.
Something that’s bothered me for a while is that most proponents of good ol’ journalism defend it by setting up a straw man, not of their opponents’ position but of their own, which they sell thusly: vintage journalism, made from one hundred percent pure investigative reporting. According to Starkman, public-interest reporting is “the point”.
To warm us up to this idea, Dean tells the wonderful story of how Ida Tarbell took on big oil in the early 20th century, leading to the dissolution of the Standard Oil monopoly a few years before the Great War. This is real journalism, this is the good stuff. It’s impossible to disagree, and why would you want to anyway? It’s not like Ida herself can disagree either, and yell something like “damn, this liveblogging stuff is hot.” She can’t because she is dead.
The argument breaks down not because it’s an appeal to emotion, but because it conflates x is good y with y has to be x to be any good. Gypsy jazz is good music, some people think it’s the best kind, but music doesn’t have to be gypsy jazz to be any good.
Investigative reporting is important, but it’s not the only kind of important journalism out there. According to the Knight Foundation’s report on the information needs of communities, we have a need to coordinate, solve problems, establish systems of public accountability and develop a sense of connectedness. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says journalists have to be authenticators, sense-makers, navigators and forum-leaders. On those criteria, criteria that can hardly be said to come from future-of-newsies, enterprise reporting like that of Ida scores 1/4 and 2/4. That’s 37% there, almost half of what we need to put out a solid news product. If we stop there, you get an organization like Amnesty International, whom I actually donate to, but they’re not a media company, I don’t think. So would you mind us searching for the other half?
There’s irony here: Starkman complains that people looking to reinvent journalism always bring up the same five or six success stories, and then proceeds to make a case that goes something like “I mean, wasn’t Watergate kick-ass journalism, though? More of that stuff, is all I’m saying.”
Now, if you’re under the delusion that all journalism is investigative reporting or aspiring to be investigative reporting or reporting that was not allowed a fair chance to develop into an investigation, you’re bound to make a couple of very funny conclusions about how the news industry should work.
For example, when talking about the mantra that readers often know more than journalists, Dean simply counters that for most enterprise stories, like the News of the World scandal, this isn’t the case. And when evaluating the oft-repeated statement that content has become a commodity, his response is predictably that enterprise reporting is unique, expensive and valuable.
To make this counter work, of course, he has to ignore
- academic reports and books that lay out how pervasive imitation and rewrites are and have long been in the news industry, and how even before the internet, newspapers were on a course towards homogenization
- the fact that j-schools train reporters to be generalists that can cover any kind of topic moderately well
- the dozens of reporters that float around important officials at any time of day, begging for a soundbite
- seats at press conferences, all filled with journalists that will report on exactly the same thing in exactly the same way.
All of these are facts that hold even for the golden age of journalism. Calling news a commodity, not because we like it but because it’s unfortunately the way things are, how dare we.
When Jeff Jarvis argues that it’s damn hard to make money from journalism by getting people to pay for it, Dean responds that the collapse of the advertising model doesn’t imply the editorial model was failed, and that’s entirely correct. But does our perennial reliance on advertising not also tell us that readers commonly value content less than what it costs us to make it?
I love long-form journalism and I think every newspaper needs more investigative reporting than they have now. I think Dean is right that small operations and bloggers can’t do everything a big news organization can. I believe paywalls can work sometimes, even though they impede conversation. I think print has a future, and so do a lot of other not very sexy models. Most importantly, I feel very strongly that we’re asking journalists to churn out too much content at too fast a pace, and, what’s more, that the pseudo-journalism a lot of reporters are asked to produce is an insult to their professional honor.
It’s just that I have no idea how any of that implies that journalists should go easy on social media (time better spent reporting, apparently), that good pro/am collaborations are and will always be the Pegasi of news, that personal branding is silly, that free can never be the basis of a business model, that lots of text is always the best way to report on current events, that reporters can only waste time talking to their readers and that news has value even if people won’t pay and won’t read.
The first set of facts has absolutely no relationship to the second. That’s ultimately why I feel Dean Starkman’s exposition holds no water: as much as I appreciate some kickback to opinions perhaps too forcefully held, his arguments don’t say what he wants them to say.