The Sciences

What Journalists Do

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 16, 2011 6:55 PM

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This CJR story by Dean Starkman is being widely disseminated and discussed in journalism circles. Here's what it's about:

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.

Here's the argument by the author:

Not only does the FON consensus have little to say about public-service journalism, it is in many ways antithetical to it. For one thing, its anti-institutionalism would disempower journalism. Jarvis and Shirky in particular have reveled in the role of intellectual undertakers/grief counselors to the newspaper industry, which, for all its many failings, has traditionally carried the public-service load (see Pulitzer.org for a laundry list of exposés"”on tobacco-industry conspiracies; worker-safety atrocities; Lyndon Johnson's wife's dicey broadcasting empire; group-home abuses in New York; redlining in Atlanta; corruption in the St. Paul, Minnesota, fire department, the Rhode Island courts, the Chicago City Council, the University of Kentucky men's basketball program, and on and on). But their vision for replacing it with a networked alternative, or something else, is hazy at best. Meanwhile, FON's practical prescriptions"”what it calls engagement with readers"”have in practice devolved into another excuse for news managers to ramp up productivity burdens, draining reporters of their most precious resource, the thing that makes them potent: time. The journalism stakes, then, are large. Just as it was an open question a hundred years ago whether a man like Rockefeller was more powerful than the United States president, it was far from clear only a hundred days ago who was more powerful in the United Kingdom, Rupert Murdoch or the British prime minister. Today, it is clear, thanks largely to reporter Nick Davies and his editors at The Guardian and their long, lonely investigation into the crimes and cover-ups of Murdoch's News Corp. While the FON consensus is essentially ahistorical"”we're in a revolution, and this is Year III or so"”we know journalism is a continuum. What Tarbell did, Davies does, and all great reporters do, always in collaboration with the community. Who else?

That's the 10,000 foot view of public journalism, the Pulitzer winning one. We should be reminded of the aforementioned achievements, as we are annually when all the big prizes are handed out. But I think it's just as important to highlight the actual community, ground-level view. For that, let's go to Jonathan Thompson, a terrific editor and writer based in Colorado. Spurred by the CJR article, he reflects:

It makes me think back to the years I spent running a weekly newspaper in Silverton, Colo.. Silverton isn't only a small town -- year-round population approx. 450 -- but it is also isolated by mountain passes on either side, and is the only town in the county and the county seat. That meant that all the business, all the politics, all the decisions, and about 90 percent of the "news" took place in a space that is about one mile long by one-third of a mile wide. And that meant that, long before the Internet was even conceived of, the newspaper in Silverton should have been obsolete under the "Future of News" gurus models. That is, you didn't need a weekly newspaper to tell you what was going on, because there were plenty of "citizen journalists" (read, gossips) to fill you in wherever you went. The streets themselves, the post office, the coffee shop and the Miner's Tavern were the Internet of Silverton, overflowing with information; if a big decision was made at Town Hall, the whole town knew about it, or could know about it, by the next day at noon, which might be a full week before they read about it in the newspaper.

Nonetheless, the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper has continued to be published, and read, every single week without a break since 1875. And during that 136 years, there have been many times when Silverton had two or even more newspapers (this even happened in the post-Internet age). They even kept reading it after big news was broken on Facebook or various Web sites, and after all the town/county/school board meetings were broadcast live on the local radio station, allowing everyone to get the big news delivered to them as it happened.

Why?

Because people naturally need and therefore crave the authority, voice, context and commentary that a news organization can offer by a newspaper, even if it isn't delivered in "real time." They know that while Donna down at the Post Office can tell you about how the vote turned out at last night's school board meeting, and even who voted for what, they also know that she didn't sit through all three miserable hours of the meeting recording not only the vote, but also the argument leading up to it; and not only that, but also the mood of the board members, and the audience, and the rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth. Nor did she go back into the school the next day and pester the superintendent and the principal and get the inside scoop; nor did she dig through databases on the Internet and crunch numbers and make more calls to figure out what they mean. Nor did she dig back in the archives to see what may have led up to that particular vote.

 The reporter did all of that.

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