I bow to no one in my love for the good old days of journalism. But everyone trying to take journalism back to the good old days should understand some basic truths:
- You won’t find the future by retreating to the past.
- Whatever comes next in journalism can’t and shouldn’t be built to replace either the best or worst of current or historic journalism. You build the future on the technology and opportunities of the future in the context of the future.
- Watchdog reporting performed by professional journalists is absolutely part of journalism’s future, and I don’t know anyone discussing the future of journalism who doesn’t plan and hope for a successful future for professional watchdog reporting.
- Journalism of the past doesn’t look as strong on closer examination as it does through your nostalgic filter.
I worked at the Des Moines Register in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Time magazine named it one of the 10 best newspapers in the United States. I was there when Jim Risser won his second Pulitzer Prize and when Tom Knudson wrote the series that won his first Pulitzer. I was there when our coverage of the 1980 and 1984 Iowa caucuses made us an important player in national political coverage. If someone had a magic wand to turn back the clock to the early 1980s, I would be sorely tempted to wave that wand and throw over my current career with Digital First Media. It all looks so rosy through the glasses of nostalgia.
But if I waved that wand, I would have to relive the death of the Des Moines Tribune, the afternoon newspaper our company folded in 1982. And I would relive the disappointment and embarrassment that the journalists of that day did not shine the light brightly enough to prevent the savings and loan crisis that rocked the economy and cost the taxpayers more than $100 billion.
Nostalgia is fun and it’s warm, and for journalists today, it’s seductive and dangerous.
I ignore most of the nostalgic rants wishing journalism could somehow wave that wand. They are too plentiful and pitiful to waste time with. But I will respond to the “Confidence Game” rant by Dean Starkman for two reasons:
- He smeared my friends in the piece. The five people Starkman cited as contributing to the “future-of-news (FON) consensus” include John Paton (my boss as CEO of Journal Register Co. and Digital First Media), Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis (members of the JRC and DFM advisory boards) and Dan Gillmor (who was a reporter working for me at the Kansas City Times in the 1980s and remains a friend). I have not met Clay Shirky, the fifth person Starkman cited, but I admire him and have praised him on this blog.
- For reasons that escape me, the Columbia Journalism Review published the Starkman rant. I don’t know many people who still read CJR, but it has a respected name in journalism. I’m sorry to see that CJR published such a
misguided diatribeweak, wandering blast from the past, but I am moved to respond.
Starkman’s premise is essentially that the digital-first vision that “Future of News” advocates are spinning is dangerous and misleading and that if we follow this path, we’ll never have another Ida Tarbell. Seriously, the first nine paragraphs of a piece about journalism’s present and future are about Ida Tarbell, who died in 1944. Does no one edit these things? (I doubt he’d agree with my characterization of his premise, but I will be inviting him to respond, and will publish the response if he does.)
This is what Jay Rosen has described as replacenik nonsense: the notion that the future of journalism must be a replacement for what comes before.
Ida Tarbell was a great journalist and I salute her, along with all the giants of investigative journalism. And I am delighted about how many people are working to secure a healthy future of investigative journalism. Starkman gives no attention at all to the innovative investigative newsrooms that are showing outstanding results and limitless potential, organizations such as Texas Tribune, California Watch and ProPublica (already a Pulitzer winner).
Starkman laments the emphasis that the FON gang places on community engagement, as though it were the complete opposite of watchdog journalism. But Homicide Watch, a community blog by Laura Amico, does a better job of tracking crime in the District of Columbia than any traditional newsroom. And the Fort Myers News-Press demonstrated in its Cape Coral water coverage (and many journalists since have confirmed) the power of crowdsourcing as an investigative tool.
Investigative journalism also is important to the plans of Digital First Media as we seek to lead newspapers to a healthy digital future.
Starkman praises the Guardian’s dogged investigative reporting by Nick Davies on the phone-hacking scandal, but doesn’t mention that the Guardian’s other recent investigative coup was the crowdsourced project on expense accounts of Members of Parliament.
Starkman praises the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation uncovering a widespread cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. But he doesn’t note that the abuse and cover-up went on for decades without being uncovered by journalists (and, we could note, it appears the same could be said, on a smaller scale, about Penn State football).
You can tick off scandal after scandal (Enron, subprime mortgages, weapons of mass destruction) in which journalism failed to sound the warnings that would help us steer our country away from icebergs. In a perfect metaphor for the news industry of our time, the sole voice noting the bogus intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau, just a few years before Knight-Ridder was sold to McClatchy. McClatchy’s stock, trading at $50 before it bought Knight-Ridder, is going for $1.27 today.
Starkman apparently isn’t even paying attention to what’s happening in the news business:
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.
If you think legacy news organizations have stopped panicking, you read different news and data than I do. I suggest that he read Paper Cuts to stay current on layoffs in the newspaper business (not yet at the pace of 2008 and 2009, but already more than last year’s total). Or check the Newspaper Association of America’s print advertising revenue figures, which show declines of 9 percent the first two quarters of this year, continuing 21 quarters of decline. If the news business is not panicking, it’s because of exhaustion, not confidence.
I want to honor Ida Tarbell and the other giants of journalism’s past by helping to find the path to a prosperous future, not simply by lauding their achievements. I’m certain that path leads forward, not back.