Confidence Game

The value of Rosen’s critique is that it engages news organizations, prods them to be better, rather than dismisses them or sheds crocodile tears about their inevitable-but-oh-so-regrettable demise.

Rosen, to his credit, has also asked hard questions about his own movement. In a post before a blogger conference in 2006, he wrote that it was a “put up or shut up” moment for what he called the users-know-more-than-we-do school. As he wrote, it’s not that the idea isn’t desirable (all agree, it is) or even possible (or, why, he writes “did god give us the Internet”): “But how? I mean exactly how?” He was probably wrong about 2006 being a put-up-or-shut-up moment (after all, peer-production advocates tend to think in five-hundred-year chunks). But it is fair to point out that five years later, the “how” is far from clear. Indeed, in reading FON literature, it is telling that the same anecdotal FON success stories— Talking Points Memo’s US Attorney coverage, “macacca,” “bittergate”— keep reappearing. While Shirky says “nothing will work,” the fact is that it’s peer production that isn’t really working for news, while institutions still do.

This is not to say that the FON debate hasn’t sparked important discussion about what kinds of environments best foster journalism. News pros argue, correctly, that institutions not only provide reporters resources and backup, the best ones create valuable news cultures by aggregating people of a certain mindset. Put it this way: a lot of people are smart and skeptical, but not everyone wants to devote his or her life to uncovering graft at the public buildings authority. On the other hand, peer-production advocates have a point when they wonder whether there is something about news bureaucracies that strangles as much journalism as it nurtures. The question then becomes, though, what replaces them?

Alas, like other FON thinkers, Rosen is quicker to see the upside of disruptive technology than the problems it brings to journalism. In an interview in August with TwistImage, a blog run by a digital marketing executive, Mitch Joel (“digital marketing and media hacking insights and provocations from his always on/always connected world”), Rosen makes a true, if oft-repeated point, that old journalism was captive to its production requirements, the press run, the trucks, etc.

. . . because the thing about journalists is that they have to produce every day and have to reproduce the world every twenty-four hours. And so, the production routine becomes their god, and what journalists before the web actually specialized in was fitting the world, and what they learned that day into the very narrow slots that their production routine made available.

The irony, though, is that in the second decade of the twenty-first century—thanks in no small part to FON thinkers, including, sad to say, Rosen—journalism is now enslaved to a new system of production. Publishing is now possible all the time and in limitless amounts, forever and ever, amen. And, given the market system, and the way the world is, that which is possible has quickly become imperative. Suddenly, the “god” of the old twenty-four-hour news cycle looks like lovely Aphrodite compared to the remorseless Ares that is the web “production routine.” And this new enslavement—trust me here—hurts readers far more even than it does the reporters who must do the blogging, tweeting, podcasting, commenting, and word-cloud formation until all hours of the day and night. This is why, IMHO, journalism is great these days at incremental news, not so good at stepping back and grabbing hold of the narrative. In some circles, this is frowned upon.

The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things than under the previous monopolistic regime. Indeed, if one were looking for ways to undermine reporters in their work, FON ideas would be a good place to start:

  • Remind them, as often as possible, that what they do is nothing special and is basically a commodity.
  • Require them to spend a portion of their workday marketing and branding themselves and figuring out their business model.
  • Require that they keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.
  • Prematurely bury/trash institutional news organizations.
  • Promote a vague faith in volunteerism.
  • Describe long-form writing as an affectation or even a form of oppression; that way no one will ever have time to lay out evidence gathered during extensive reporting. Great for crooks, too.

In “The Hamster Wheel” (CJR, September/October 2010) I wrote that in the late 1990s, the 300-odd members of The Wall Street Journal’s unionized editorial staff produced about 22,000 stories a year, while doing epic work and two full-length narratives a day. By 2008, a smaller staff was cranking out nearly twice that amount. Peer-production thinkers, whatever else they have accomplished, have not been able to crack journalism’s law of physics: to do their jobs properly, reporters need time and to think.

Now that we’re done panicking, it’s time for journalism thinkers to turn to the real task: how to re-empower reporters, the backbone of journalism, whoever they are, wherever they may work, in whatever medium, within institutions that can move the needle.

My model would take lessons from The Guardian/News Corp. case and would be institution-centered, network-powered. In that case, traditional investigative reporting broke the story, while social media propelled it to the stratosphere—heights the paper never could have achieved on its own. More than 150,000 people used social media, for instance, to register opposition to News Corp.’s takeover of bSkyb, which was soon scuttled. I don’t know how to secure The Guardian, which is on an ominous track financially, but we should agree, at least, that it must be secured. (Maybe it should take a page from the Times’s playbook, instead of going, as it has announced, “digital first.”) Since buzzwords are the coin of the FON realm, I’ll call it the Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke Model.

A fundamental tenet of my Neo-Institutional school is that it doesn’t care about the institution for its own sake, only for the kind of reporting it produces. I can’t say the same for peer-production theorists and their networks.

Rebuilding or shoring up institutions is going to take some new, new thinking, but it can be done. In the words of that original media guru, Marshall McLuhan: “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”

    • 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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