Magic and Marvelous Boxes, and the Future of Newsrooms
Having slept on the ideas raised by Cody Brown’s latest thought-provoking essay, I find an enormous amount to like, but one big question that still nags at me: Is there still a role for traditional reporters, backed by traditional newsrooms?
Hold the torches and pitchforks. By asking that, I’m not trying to restore reporters to their status as a priestly caste ordained by j-schools, sustained by newsroom sacraments and beset by infidels. I’m not implying that I think Brown’s idea of a news ecosystem based on the “direct method” of sharing and disseminating news will be the death of democracy or anything like that. I’m not arguing that the traditional, print-first newspaper model can be saved, or particularly needs to be. (To the contrary, in fact.) I’d be sad to see some cherished news institutions go, but that’s nostalgia talking, not a lack of faith in the alternatives. For the most part I agree that alternatives will appear, and that we need to be patient as a wealth of experiments are tried and assessed and retried.
This isn’t a traditionalist’s defense of legacy news methods — or at least I don’t think it is. Rather, I think my questions are a little different: In this new news ecosystem, do we need professional reporters and newsrooms? If so, for what? And where will they come from?
Perhaps my favorite thing in Brown’s essay is the way he traces the evolution of the “trustee method” of creating and organizing news that’s factual, neutral and fair from a 19th-century market strategy of New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs into an article of journalistic faith. Brown rightly notes that the Ochs strategy was so successful that we now get confused between the method and the desired outcome. And he points out that a lot of our Web success stories — the Huffington Post, Gawker and their ilk — can be viewed as just trustee-method organizations without presses and delivery trucks. The zinger is a pair of graphics with a cheekily labeled “Magic Journalism Box” on the left and a public cloud on the right. In the Ochs model the box and the cloud are connected through the agency of reporters and a single red line of reader reaction; in the New Media model the only difference is there are more red lines.
In discussing public discourse online, Brown brings the graphic back, with a twist — the Magic Journalism Box and the reporters are blurred, not part of the equation, and the red lines connect points in the crowd.
OK, but where’s the Box in the direct-method ecosystem? Do we still need it? And what should it be called? (Magic Journalism Box is a nice rhetorical device, but I’m not sure it’s entirely fair.)
Some would say the Box is no longer needed: Professional reporters will be replaced by users creating and sharing their own news and by sources themselves, speaking directly to readers without journalists as intermediaries. (See Dave Winer on the latter point.) For the most part, I agree. Yes, it’s true that a lot of conversation in the blogosphere begins with news stories produced in the traditional manner — but that’s because there’s still a lot of that news, from sources that still have a lot of influence. I’m sure the conversation will be just as robust as new sources of news arise and gain their own influence. (And actually, I’ve always thought the City Council would get covered.)
But does that leave anything out? The part that worries me is what’s sometimes called accountability journalism. Not all sources want to speak to the public — some don’t want the public to see them as sources at all. And some sources are too vulnerable or damaged to tell their own stories in ways that will be heard or believed. The public can’t discuss stories it doesn’t know exist.
Brown does a good job discussing how fluid public leverage (a vigorous retweet campaign on Twitter, for instance) can replace institutional brand leverage. But can fluid public leverage find and hold to account sources that are trying to remain hidden? Can it advocate for the voiceless? Can the direct method ferret out information about and tell the story of, say, the care of veterans at Walter Reed or the LIRR disability scandal? Or is this one aspect of journalism that does require “professional” journalists, backed by a certain amount of institutional clout? Brown references a clever Clay Shirky metaphor about how we’ve forgotten that a few daring “amateur” drivers of the first cars fired their “professional” chauffeurs/mechanics and took the wheel themselves. But it strikes me that the question isn’t about learning to drive, but how you drive to places that are behind locked gates or in areas powerful people don’t want mapped.
One thing I thought the recent Downie/Schudson report zeroed in on effectively was the value of newsrooms — not print newspapers, but newsrooms — in supporting the infrastructure required for accountability journalism. This isn’t a disparagement of the direct method or a defense of the trustee method, but a question: Can the public produce such accountability journalism on a significant scale? Can individual reporters do it? Do you need newsrooms of a certain size to accomplish it? If so, where do they come from? Or do they no longer exist?
As part of that, I wonder if Brown doesn’t conflate news production and news dissemination. I absolutely agree with his conclusion that the public no longer needs to be told what’s news, and can share and disseminate it on its own — like a lot of people, I increasingly create my own “bundle” of news, and the idea of accepting one produced by a single news organization now seems strange. As those bundles fall apart, news will be increasingly decentralized and decoupled from news organizations, replaced by a public that carves out its own beats within which news is shared, iterated, commented on and corrected. All to the good. But I maintain those news organizations may have a valuable role to play in news production.
If so, where do they fit? Brown’s Magic Journalism Box also appeared in his equally evocative dissection of “batch” processing vs. real-time processing. (His essay is here, and here’s my reaction.) Papers have to make that process more open, turning the Magic Journalism Box into an Marvelous Glass Box, with an occasional opaque panel to shield internal disputes, sources that need protecting and off-the-record material. If big news organizations can do that, perhaps they have a place in the new ecosystem, alongside a huge host of new boxes of all shapes and sizes, producing news that a public will organize and share as it sees fit.
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