I love the immediacy of online interaction. Someone says something brilliant and people react and retweet right away. Someone says something stupid and the mockery starts instantly.
But sometimes reflection is the better path.
In the November-December issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Dean Starkman launched a lengthy, rambling rant about what he derided as the “future-of-news (FON) consensus.” Essentially (and I overstate only slightly), Starkman proposes a future of returning somehow to the days of Ida Tarbell.
Only mildly miffed that he didn’t include me along with the five people he named as most prominent in leading the quest for a digital future for news, I replied immediately with what I thought was a strong response. I concentrated mostly on making the dual points that investigative journalism most certainly is part of the future the FON gang is working to build and that nostalgists such as Starkman always make the past seem rosier than it was. (Yeah, Ida Tarbell was a great muckraker, but the old business model also supported a lot of bad and mediocre journalism, too.) I dropped what I was doing and cranked out my response Nov. 8, the same day Starkman’s piece was posted online (or at least the day I learned of it).
Looking back on the piece I wrote, I’m still pleased with it, and I made some good points. But Emily Bell (who definitely should have been on Starkman’s FON list) took a day to respond and her piece was more thoughtful and reflective than mine. I encourage you to read it at the link above, but a few highlights:
When faced with the decline of print sales (inexorable) and the disruption of your industry, you cannot always stand back and wait to see who wins an intellectual argument. You have to make decisions, organize newsrooms, and build technology. Having external voices and intellects that point you to rethink what you do, even if you don’t agree on every point, is important. This is particularly true in a world where the change to the delivery platforms is so profound not enough institutional expertise exists internally to make sense of it. …
The suggestion that the Internet has “disempowered” journalists is just not true. In a global context it is willfully wrong. But even in the narrow context of journalism in the US, to say that individual journalists are disempowered by a medium that allows for so much more individual reporting and publishing freedom is baffling. …
The prejudice at the heart of the piece is best summed up in one line about how FON ideas have undermined reporters in their work by requiring them to perform a series of tasks, including to “keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.” There it is: “instead of reporting and writing.” The opening of electronic ears and eyes is not a replacement for reporting. It should be at the heart of it. And if it is not, then the institutions that Starkman laments might be to blame.
Clay Shirky, one of the five FON voices Starkman cited, was initially silent on the matter except for this tweet three days after the CJR piece posted:
But Shirky was reflecting on the issues Starkman had raised and yesterday afternoon posted his response: Institutions, Confidence and the News Crisis. It is one of the most insightful pieces I have read about what is happening in journalism and where we are headed. It underscores the value and necessity of reflection even in a culture that values immediacy. This was worth waiting three weeks — or even three months — for.
Again, please read the full post, but here are some highlights (not including the personal highlight that he did include me in his expanded list of FON “fellow travelers; thanks for that):
[Starkman] is talking about somehow saving the familiar institutions, not inventing new ones, a strategy that has long passed for Plan A in the conversation about what the internet changes about the news business. He’s not even wild about the familiar institutions altering themselves too radically to accomodate those changes.
Institutions reduce the choices available to their members. (This is Ronald Coase’s famous argument about transaction costs.) This reduction allows better focus on the remaining choices they face.
An editorial board meets every afternoon to discuss the front page. They have to decide whether to put the Mayor’s gaffe there or in Metro, whether to run the picture of the accused murderer or the kids running in the fountain, whether to put the Biker Grandma story above or below the fold. Here are some choices they don’t have to make at that meeting: Whether to have headlines. Whether to be a tabloid or a broadsheet. Whether to replace the entire front page with a single ad. Whether to drop the whole news-coverage thing and start selling ice cream.
Every such meeting, in other words, involves a thousand choices, but not a billion, because most of the big choices have already been made. These frozen choices are what gives institutions their vitality — they are in fact what make them institutions. Freed of the twin dangers of navel-gazing and random walks, an institution can concentrate its efforts on some persistent, medium-sized, and tractable problem, working at a scale and longevity unavailable to its individual participants.
Institutions also reduce the choices a society has to make. In the second half of the 20th century, “the news” was whatever was in the newspaper on the morning, or network TV at night. Advertisers knew where to reach shoppers. Politicians knew who to they had to talk to to get their message out (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.) Readers understood an Letters page as the obvious way of getting wider circulation for their views. …
The ability of institutions to adapt slowly while preserving continuity of mission and process is exactly what lets them last longer than a single leader or lifespan. When change in the outside world outstrips an institution’s adaptive capabilities, though, the ability to defend the internal organization from outside pressures can become a liability. Stability can tun into rigidity and even institutional blindness.
I’d better stop before I end up cutting and pasting the whole piece in here. It truly is a brilliant analysis of how institutions operate and how the existing institutions are incapable of restoring the past, much as Starkman and his ilk might wish they could. This line sums up the futility of the Starkman argument:
Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.
If you’re trying to understand what’s happening in the media and why such radical change is both necessary and inevitable, read Shirky’s piece and be glad he took the time to reflect on Starkman’s criticism rather than reacting immediately.
Shirky linked to another important, reflective piece on journalism and where we’re headed, Jonathan Stray’s What should the digital public sphere do? A tweet had called my attention to Stray’s piece the day he posted it, this past Tuesday. I took a quick look, saw that it required more time and attention than I had at the moment and vowed to come back. But a day slipped past and then another, and I might have missed Stray’s piece, if not reminded of it by Shirky. I’m glad I didn’t miss it and you shouldn’t.
Stray starts out trying to come up with a term, as though we were somehow short of jargon:
I wanted a word or phrase that includes journalism, social media, search engines, libraries, Wikipedia, and parts of academia, the idea of all these things as a system for knowledge and communication.
OK, I’m not big on buzzwords and jargon and I don’t yet love what he came up with, “digital public sphere,” though I will probably use it a few times and try to like it. Because the truth is that language needs to grow. The challenges and opportunities that journalism is facing are bigger than journalism and the solutions need to be bigger than journalism. That’s why I used “Complete Community Connection” to describe my model for something that was bigger than a newspaper (and I do like “digital public sphere” better).
The insight of Stray’s piece comes not in his choice of jargon, but in his call for what the digital public sphere should do in three areas:
1. Information. It should be possible for people to find things out, whatever they want to know. Our institutions should help people organize to produce valuable new knowledge. And important information should automatically reach each person at just the right moment.
2. Empathy. The vast majority of people in the world, we will only know through media. We must strive to represent the “other” to each-other with compassion and reality. We can’t forget that there are people on the other end of the wire.
3. Collective action. What good is public deliberation if we can’t eventually come to a decision and act? B: ut truly enabling the formation of broad agreement also requires that our information systems support conflict resolution. In this age of complex overlapping communities, this role spans everything from the local to the global.
He elaborates at length on all three points. I heartily encourage reading it. I’m not only sharing this piece with journalists here on my blog, I’m emailing the link to my peace-activist brother. I regard this as essential reading for journalists, but just as essential for a wide array of people that far outnumber journalists. It’s another reflective piece that I’m sure Stray worked a long time on.
The Shirky and Stray pieces that I loved (and, yeah, the Starkman piece I ripped) underscore something I’ve always thought: Good writing can make length irrelevant. Most people would tell you all three of these pieces are too long for good web writing (about 2,000 words for Shirky, 3,000 for Stray and 6,000 for Starkman, who was writing for a magazine, though the piece was also published online; Bell was a brisk 1,500). I whined at the time and in this piece about the length of Starkman’s CJR piece, but it drew 35 comments (many of them appreciative), plus blog responses from Bell, Shirky, Mathew Ingram and me (perhaps more), so despite its length, it sparked conversation. And, well, you already know how much I liked the long Shirky and Stray pieces.
Speaking of long, this is already too long, so I’ll wrap up my dual points here:
- Yeah, immediacy has value, but, damn, reflection is important. Sometimes just a day of reflection is helpful, as Bell took in responding to Starkman, sometimes a few weeks, as Shirky did, sometimes longer. I worked on my C3 blueprint for a year and a half before publishing it. I have been working and thinking a while on a reflective blog post (or series of posts) that may come to fruition soon. Having read these pieces this week, I am more convinced than ever that we need more thoughtful reflection about the future of news (and the digital public sphere).
- Reflective writing has more lasting value. Lots of the links I saw on Twitter Tuesday — those I read and many I didn’t — were timely pieces whose value diminished with time. I needed to read them Tuesday or move on. But it was really better to read Jonathan’s piece a few days later, on the quiet of a Saturday morning, when I could better appreciate it.