Confidence Game

“The question that mass amateurization poses to traditional media is ‘What happens when the costs of reproduction and distribution go away? What happens when there is nothing unique about publishing anymore because users can do it for themselves?’ We are now starting to see that question being answered.”Clay Shirky

“The whole notion of ‘long-form journalism’ is writer-centered, not public-centered.”Jeff Jarvis

“As a journalist, I’ve long taken it for granted that, for example, my readers know more than I do—and it’s liberating.”Dan Gillmor

“As career journalists and managers we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace, and that value is about zero.”John Paton 

“The story is the thing.”S. S. McClure


Ida M. Tarbell, a writer for McClure’s Magazine, a general-interest monthly, was chatting with her good friend and editor, John S. Phillips, in the magazine’s offices near New York’s Madison Square Park, trying to decide what she should take on next.

Tarbell, then forty-three years old, was already one of the most prominent journalists in America, having written popular multipart historical sketches of Napoleon, Lincoln, and a French revolutionary figure known as Madame Roland, a moderate republican guillotined during the Terror. Thanks in part to her work, McClure’scirculation had jumped to about 400,000, making it one of the most popular, and profitable, publications in the country.

Phillips, a founder of the magazine, was its backbone. Presiding over an office of bohemians and intellectuals, this father of five was as calm and deliberative as the magazine’s namesake, S. S. McClure, was manic and extravagant. Considered by many to be a genius, McClure was also just an impossible boss—forever steaming in from Europe, throwing the office into turmoil with new schemes, ideas, and editorial changes. “I can’t sit still,” he once told Lincoln Steffens. “That’s your job and I don’t see how you can do it!”

At McClure’s, there was always, as Tarbell would later put it, much “fingering” of a subject before the magazine decided to launch on a story, and in this case there was more than usual. The subject being kicked around was nothing less than the great industrial monopolies, known as “trusts,” that had come to dominate the American economy and political life. It was the summer of 1901.

The natural choice, in the end, was oil. Tarbell had grown up in Pennsylvania’s oil country; her father had run a business making oil barrels and a small refinery; her brother worked for one of the few remaining competitors in an industry 90 percent dominated by the greatest of all monopolies, the “mother of trusts,” John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. She drew up an outline, and Phillips approved. But McClure, recovering from exhaustion, was on a doctor-ordered yearlong rest in Switzerland. “Go over,” Phillips said, “and show the outline to Sam.”

“I want to think it over,” McClure said after Tarbell pitched the idea in a Lausanne hospital. He then announced that they would mull over the story while traveling to Greece, where McClure’s family would spend the winter. “We can discuss Standard Oil in Greece as well as here,” he said. So they headed south, stopping along the way for tours of Italy’s Lake District and Milan—then to rest at the famous Salsomaggiore spa, where they took lengthy mud baths and “steam soaks” and contemplated just who and what they were about to take on.

Finally, eager to get started, Tarbell cut the trip short. Approval in hand, she returned to New York to begin reporting on what stands, to this day, as the greatest business story ever written.

Ah, old media. Good times. Savin’ the worl’. Remember when a single investigative reporter with the temerity to demand a decent living (McClure’s paid more than $1 million for the stories in today’s dollars) could pull the curtain back on one of the most powerful and secretive organizations on the face of the earth, a great lawbreaker as well as a value-creator? Tarbell is credited with triggering the great antitrust case that finally broke up the “octopus” in 1911. But her true greatness lies in how, using a mountain of facts carefully gathered and presented, she could explain to a bewildered and anxious middle class the great economic question of her age.

McClure’s had planned a three-part series, but, as copies flew off the newsstands, it soon became seven parts, then twelve, then a national sensation. New installments became news events in themselves, covered by other papers, including the fledglingWall Street Journal. “The History of the Standard Oil Company” ended up as a nineteen-part series, quickly turned into a two-volume book. A cartoon in Puck would depict a pantheon of muckrakers with Tarbell as a Joan of Arc figure on horseback. Another contemporary magazine pronounced her “the most popular woman in America.”

No one reading this magazine needs to be told that we have crossed over into a new era. Industrial-age journalism has failed, we are told, and even if it hasn’t failed, it is over. Newspaper company stocks are trading for less than $1 a share. Great newsrooms have been cut down like so many sheaves of wheat. Where quasi-monopolies once reigned over whole metropolitan areas, we have conversation and communities, but also chaos and confusion.

A vanguard of journalism thinkers steps forward to explain things, and we should be grateful that they are here. If they weren’t, we’d have to invent them. Someone has to help us figure this out. Most prominent are Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen, whose ideas we’ll focus on here, along with Dan Gillmor, John Paton, and others. Together their ideas form what I will call the future-of-news (FON) consensus.

According to this consensus, the future points toward a network-driven system of journalism in which news organizations will play a decreasingly important role. News won’t be collected and delivered in the traditional sense. It will be assembled, shared, and to an increasing degree, even gathered, by a sophisticated readership, one that is so active that the word “readership” will no longer apply. Let’s call it a user-ship or, better, a community. This is an interconnected world in which boundaries between storyteller and audience dissolve into a conversation between equal parties, the implication being that the conversation between reporter and reader was a hierarchical relationship, as opposed to, say, a simple division of labor.

At its heart, the FON consensus is anti-institutional. It believes that old institutions must wither to make way for the networked future. “The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society,” Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, his 2008 popularization of network theory. “As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed.” If this vision of the future does not square with your particular news preferences, well, as they might say on Twitter, #youmaybeSOL.

And let’s face it, in the debate over journalism’s future, the FON crowd has had the upper hand. The establishment is gloomy and old; the FON consensus is hopeful and young (or purports to represent youth). The establishment has no plan. The FON consensus says no plan is the plan. The establishment drones on about rules and standards; the FON thinkers talk about freedom and informality. FON says “cheap” and “free”; the establishment asks for your credit card number. FON talks about “networks,” “communities,” and “love”; the establishment mutters about “institutions,” like The New York Times or mental hospitals.

The blossoming of new voices, the explosion of conversation, has in fact been breathtaking, a modern marvel. News outlets have been forced to step down from their pedestals, and that’s mostly a good thing. The idea of communities reporting on themselves, pooling knowledge in service of journalism, is indeed attractive.

    • 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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