Confidence Game

First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No.

But wait. Jarvis denigrates news as supremely abundant, storytelling as an affectation or, worse, a form of oppression, and professional journalists as hacks; he consigns news organizations to the humble role of curators for people like Jarvis, if they aren’t swept away all together. Then, he tells us he is the article’s greatest friend.

Don’t believe it.

As it happens, opposition to the “article” and to “storytelling” has a long, not-very-distinguished pedigree on the corporatist side of the journalism debate, from bean counters, news bureaucrats, and hacks. Most consequentially, Rupert Murdoch has long derided long-form (that is, in-depth) journalism as an affectation, journalists-writing-for-other-journalists, or, as his biographer Michael Wolff put it, the very idea of journalism as “a higher calling, of blah blah responsibility, of reverential bullshit.” His acquisition of The Wall Street Journal’s parent resulted in a gutting of the paper’s copydesk and page-one storytelling operation, and a rapid increase in news productivity requirements, a victory for “iterative” journalism, and little else.

But Murdoch knows what he’s doing. As journalists from Tarbell to those at the paper Murdoch now owns have demonstrated, the long-form narrative is journalism at its most subversive. One of the most devastating WSJ page-one “leders” of 2000, for instance, chronicled the unlikely rise from obscurity to position of influence at News Corp. of one Wendi Deng, Murdoch’s wife. As it happens, leders are now an endangered species at News Corp.’s WSJ. It figures.


Certainly, FON thinkers express fealty to public-interest reporting, the apple pie of journalism debates. Shirky more than once cites The Boston Globe’s world-changing work over the years on the sexual predations and cover-ups in the Catholic Church as a reminder of the stakes. He frames the debate as between those who believe resources are best expended shoring up existing institutions versus those who believe, like him, that:

. . . the current shock in the media environment is so inimical to the 20th-century model of news production that time spent trying to replace newspapers is misspent effort because we should really be transferring our concern to the production of lots and lots of smaller, overlapping models of accountability journalism, knowing that we won’t get it right in the beginning and not knowing which experiments are going to pan out.

But while Shirky and other FON thinkers argue that upending current structures and institutions is inevitable, I would note that there’s a point at which predictinginstitutional decline blurs into rooting for it, and then morphs into hastening it along, as the anti-pay wall debate shows. Arguing in favor of experimentation, is, as Shirky might put it, well-meaning, just not very helpful. If this argument is really about public-interest journalism, the only question is, what helps it, and what doesn’t—now, not five hundred years from now.

“We need the new news environment to be chaotic” to facilitate experimentation, Shirky writes. In fact, though, only consultants “need” the news environment to be chaotic. The public, not so much. And who speaks for the public? Jarvis, Shirky & Co., say they do, but as Internet doubter Nicholas Carr and others have noticed, the FON vision of news’s future looks very much like FON thinkers and their acolytes themselves: not just online, but thoroughly plugged-in, following the news with an obsessiveness that would make a wire editor proud, and in jobs that allow, if not encourage, media-centric work lives and even personal lives. This is all to say that no one should kid himself that when old elites fall, new ones won’t take their place.

In that spirit, I’m going to make a bold leap and predict—eenie meenie chili beanie—that for a long time the Future of News is going to look unnervingly like the Present of News: hobbled news organizations, limping along, supplemented by swarms of new media outlets doing their best. It’s not sexy, but that’s journalism for you.

I’ll go further and posit as axiomatic that journalism needs its own institutions for the simple reason that it reports on institutions much larger than itself. It was The New York Times and Gretchen Morgenson, followed quickly by Bloomberg’s late Mark Pittman, who first pried loose the truth about the bailout of American International Group: namely, that it was all about Wall Street, led by Goldman Sachs. Those tooth-and-nail battles were far from fair fights—Goldman’s stock-market capitalization is about fifty (that’s “five-oh”) times that of the Times’s parent. Whether it be called The New York Times or the Digital Beagle, we must have organizations with talent, traditions, culture, bureaucrats, geniuses, monomaniacs, lawyers, health plans, marketing divisions, and ad salespeople—and they must have the clout to take on the likes of Goldman Sachs, the White House, and local political bosses.

The public needs them, and it will have them. As Michael Schudson wisely wrote back in 1995, “Imagine a world, one easily conceivable today, where governments, businesses, lobbyists, candidates, churches, and social movements deliver information directly to citizens on home computers. Journalism is momentarily abolished.” After initial euphoria, confusion and power-shifting, someone credible would have to sort through the news and put it in some understandable form: “Journalism—of some sort—would be reinvented. A professional press corps would reappear. . . .”


It pays to remember that the most triumphalist FON works were written in 2008 and 2009, during journalism’s time of maximum panic. But now, panic time is over. It’s this non-apocalyptic moment that makes Rosen an interesting, non-millennial thinker. There is probably no more fervent believer in the potential of community involvement in journalism than Rosen, a longtime leader of the public journalism movement, which has long envisioned a much more intimate, porous, and, in Rosen’s view, equal relationship between journalism and the public. His What Are Journalists For? (1999) explored well-intentioned, and in many ways successful, mid-1990s public journalism experiments in which newspapers actively participated in trying to solve local problems (e.g., the Dayton Daily News in 1994 led a search for redevelopment solutions after a big defense plant closed).

Similarly, few academics are more withering, and in my view, trenchant, in their critiques of mainstream media and its multiple, florid failings. In writings over the years, he has likened American press culture to a church, and a bureaucratized one, that equates mechanically playing it down the middle with finding truth, and one that takes refuge in platitudes (“if both sides are criticizing us, we must be right”). He has called the press out on its “quest for innocence,” the idea —that it just reports facts and has no stake in them, is not responsible for rendering judgment, and can’t be held responsible, in any way, for outcomes. He has examined how mainstream news cultures tend to marginalize ideas outside certain intellectual boundaries that, when examined, prove not only to be arbitrary, but conveniently allow newsrooms to avoid hard subjects.

While hacks fight geeks over who gets to be called a “journalist,” Rosen has it exactly right when he says the answer is: whoever does the work. “In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. ‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.’ ”

    • 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...

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