Confidence Game

But if the FON consensus is right, then the public has a problem. You can call it the Ida Tarbell problem, or you can call it the Nick Davies problem. The problem is that journalism’s true value-creating work, the keystone of American journalism, the principle around which it is organized, is public-interest reporting; the kind that is usually expensive, risky, stressful, and time-consuming. Public-interest reporting isn’t just another tab on the home page. It is a core value, the thing that builds trust, sets agendas, clarifies public understanding, challenges powerful institutions, and generates reform. It is, in the end, the point.

Not only does the FON consensus have little to say about public-service journalism, it is in many ways antithetical to it.

For one thing, its anti-institutionalism would disempower journalism. Jarvis and Shirky in particular have reveled in the role of intellectual undertakers/grief counselors to the newspaper industry, which, for all its many failings, has traditionally carried the public-service load (see for a laundry list of exposés—on tobacco-industry conspiracies; worker-safety atrocities; Lyndon Johnson’s wife’s dicey broadcasting empire; group-home abuses in New York; redlining in Atlanta; corruption in the St. Paul, Minnesota, fire department, the Rhode Island courts, the Chicago City Council, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball program, and on and on). But their vision for replacing it with a networked alternative, or something else, is hazy at best.

Meanwhile, 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.

The journalism stakes, then, are large. Just as it was an open question a hundred years ago whether a man like Rockefeller was more powerful than the United States president, it was far from clear only a hundred days ago who was more powerful in the United Kingdom, Rupert Murdoch or the British prime minister. Today, it is clear, thanks largely to reporter Nick Davies and his editors at The Guardian and their long, lonely investigation into the crimes and cover-ups of Murdoch’s News Corp. While the FON consensus is essentially ahistorical—we’re in a revolution, and this is Year III or so—we know journalism is a continuum. What Tarbell did, Davies does, and all great reporters do, always in collaboration with the community. Who else?

Indeed, the News Corp. case offers some intriguing glimpses of a future of news that is an alternative to the FON consensus, about which a word below.


FON thinkers, who emerged only in the last few years, represent a new kind of public intellectual: journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship. Yet, the fact is they are filling a void left by an intellectually exhausted journalism establishment, and filling it with crisp, readable—and voluminous—prose that offers to connect journalism to the technocratic vanguard.

Jarvis is author of What Would Google Do? (2009), a networking manifesto and paean to the search company, and Public Parts (2011), on the virtues of “publicness.” Rosen, director of a graduate concentration in New York University’s journalism department (correction: a previous version said he is the department’s chairman; he’s a former chairman), blogger (PressThink), and Tweeter, was a leader of the civic journalism movement (sometimes called public journalism), which predates the mainstreaming of the Internet but shares many traits with the networked journalism school. (Rosen, while certainly in the FON consensus, is actually something of a different breed of cat, as we’ll see.) Likewise, Gillmor (We the Media, 2004;Mediactive, 2010) is an advocate of crowd-sourced, community-involved journalism. Paton, head of the Journal Register Company, a newspaper chain, is the FON practitioner, having implemented many of the social media strategies the thinkers advocate, and certainly adopted its vernacular.

And while power in the media may have been dispersed, it remains a rather small world. Jarvis and Rosen (along with Emily Bell of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism) consult for Paton’s JRC. Shirky wrote the forward to Gillmor’s new book. FON thinkers appear on panels together, etc.

What their writings—particularly those of Jarvis and Shirky—share are a belief in the transformative power of networks, both for journalism and indeed for the world; and a related, but not identical, faith in the wisdom of crowds and citizen journalism, in volunteerism over professionalism, in the “journalism as conversation” over traditional models of one-to-many information delivery. The consensus believes that reporters and editors must enter into deep, if not constant, contact with readers via social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. The consensus favors “iterative” journalism—reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way—versus traditional methods of story organization, fact-checking, and copyediting; it favors spontaneity and informality over formal style and narrative forms.

FON thinking has roots in the non-journalism academy, particularly in the notion of so-called peer production, the participation of citizen-amateurs in professionalized activities. Based on ideas promulgated by prominent legal theorist Yochai Benkler, media scholar Henry Jenkins, and Shirky himself, peer-production theory holds that dramatically lowered costs of organizing, communicating, and sharing will upend many sectors of modern life, journalism very much included. Advocates of peer production (also known as social production) often point to such successful open-source collaborations as the Linux operating system and Wikipedia as harbingers of the networked future.

As Shirky writes: “Social production: people you don’t know making your life better, for free.”

Peer production is itself a subset of a larger body of thought about networks and society. It tends to view a wired society as a fundamentally different one—less hierarchical, more democratic, more collaborative, freer, even more authentic—from those that preceded it. Manuel Castells, an important network theorist, contends that technology will transform nothing less than “the process of formation and exercise of power relationships.” Or as Nicholas Negroponte, currently on leave from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it, the Internet is about to “flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people.”

If some aspects of peer-production theory and its FON offshoot sound familiar—anti-institutionalism; communitarianism laced with libertarianism; a millennial, Age-of-Aquarius vibe; a certain militancy—some scholars have traced its roots to 1960s counterculture. Fred Turner, a Stanford communications theorist and a cautionary voice on the potential of peer production, chronicled the development of a network of 1960s idealists surrounding Stewart Brand, the visionary founder of both the Whole Earth Catalog, the iconic communitarian manual, in 1968, and Wired, a New Economy-era magazine that is still the digital bible, in 1993. These “New Communards,” as Turner calls them, drew from California’s defense-centered research culture as well as the counterculture to become the vanguard of the digital revolution, helping transform the very idea of the computer from a symbol of bureaucracy and control to one of personal and social liberation.

There is a culture gap between the peer-production advocates and professional journalism, it seems safe to say. Where a professional journalist might think “Watergate,” peer-production adherents would think “pre-Iraq War coverage.” Where establishment journalism might fondly recall elegant Wall Street Journal narratives and great regional exposés at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald, FON adherents think “pre-financial crisis Wall Street coverage” and “Gannett.” In this, they have a point. What’s more, peer-production advocates have had to face down some predictably defensive and mule-headed responses from segments of the old guard—curmudgeons, J-school handwringers, public-funding types, and the corporate heads who sucked out value from newspaper companies and now complain about strangers running around on their lawn.

What Shirky, a New York University lecturer and consultant, has brought to the newspaper industry, if nothing else, is a salutatory sense of urgency. Essentially: wake the fuck up. In revolutionary times, Shirky reminds us in a widely quoted 2009 essay on newspapers’ predicament, it is the radicals who are rational, while the voices of caution are, in fact, mad:

    • Dean Starkman
    • Dean Starkman is an award-winning journalist and media critic.  An editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and the magazine's Kingsford Capital Fellow, he is the author of "The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: the Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism," a sweeping critique of business news and i...

    • Dean Starkman's full bio »