Dean Starkman and the Future of News
For reasons personal and professional (not to mention existential), I’ve largely taken a hiatus from discussing the future of news — more on that soon. But I can’t let Dean Starkman’s CJR examination of news today and the FON (that’s Future of News) crowd go by without a few comments.
For the most part, I thought Starkman’s critique was clear-eyed, smart and even-handed. (Disclosure: We were colleagues at different arms of the Wall Street Journal an age ago, and I know him and admire his work.)
I agree with all of his main points:
Like Dean, I’m worried that we’re in danger of losing a critical mass of accountability journalism, particularly given the difficulties smaller news outfits will face in trying to replace it — my take on this is here.
Like Dean, I worry about how local reporting will get done. There’s no shortage of people happy to cover the Red Sox out of love, but good luck getting the same folks to cover Pawtucket City Hall. (As Starkman notes in a good laugh line, he’s covered that august institution, and you had to pay him.) I sure as hell don’t want to see coverage of local government agencies left to the agencies themselves and local eccentrics armed with tin-foil hats and WordPress accounts.
Like Dean, I’m suspicious of many critiques of storytelling and the supposed hierarchy of authority implicit in it. A principle of reporting, nicely articulated by Jay Rosen and cited by Starkman, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” At least in terms of journalism, that’s where storytelling’s authority comes from. To this, add the reality that the vast majority of people want to consume content and have no interest in creating it — a point digerati often miss, dismiss, or see as a problem that needs solving. And we haven’t even touched questions about skills needed to tell a story responsibly and/or entertainingly.
Like Dean, I think many paywall criticisms have been myopic. (Disclosure: I’ve worked for WSJ.com and Press+.) I do think it’s critical to understand how newsrooms have been historically funded: For example, Clay Shirky’s explanation of how advertisers subsidized overseas war reporting by accident should be required reading. With this understanding, news organizations’ efforts to get readers to pay for this work have a better chance of succeeding; without it, those organizations often retreat into the comfortable trap of thinking of their reporting as a pillar of civil society, which might be true but carries no guarantee that anyone will pay for it. That said, however, I don’t get how journalism thinkers can wax rhapsodic about new digital tools and their earthshaking effect on society in one post, then tell us in another that readers’ habits about paying for things are fixed and immutable.
Like Dean, I think hamster-wheel journalism has led to a tragic lack of focus by overburdened reporters too tired or cowed to protest — my take on this is here, with a caveat down below.
And finally, like Dean, I hope that workable 21st-century journalism emerges from some combination of institutional efforts and the powers of networked readers.
I disagree with Dean, though, on a few points.
First off, I think his treatment of whether or not news is a commodity demanded more nuance. The fact is that not all news is created equal. Is an investigative story that took months to come together commodity news? Obviously not. Neither is a clear-eyed analysis of local budgetary policy, a lyrical feature, or a good column. (And this is why I think all of these forms are currently undervalued, and will return to prominence.) But with most papers, many articles remain much the same (if not identical) to ones you can find lots of other places. A generation ago this didn’t matter, as geography protected papers from competition. But with those geographical protections gone, every paper now competes with every other paper for readers, and a lot of me-too coverage has been revealed for what it is. (This is just one reason the AP is in trouble.) This state of affairs is forcing papers to ask hard questions — or rather, it should be. The classic example of such a question is how many movie critics we really need, but there are others. How many sportswriters do we need at the World Series? How many stories about spring gardening in the Northeast? How many Washington reporters? This is where Jeff Jarvis’s coinage “do what you do best and link to the rest” makes sense as a blueprint for news organizations in a networked system.
Speaking of that networked system of news, hasn’t it progressed pretty far? The idea that the New York Times would collaborate with a non-profit organization to publish a lengthy article under its own banner would have seemed the stuff of science fiction a decade ago; Sheri Fink’s epochal 2009 Katrina story won a Pulitzer, with no particular fuss over the arrangement. Rather than act as if rivals don’t exist, writers retweet competitors’ stories and curate them in roundups. Topic-specific Twitter feeds even put rival papers’ headlines on section fronts. We’re not at “do what you do best and link to the rest” yet, largely because of the conservatism of established, print-centric players, but we sure seem to be moving toward it. And these changes pale compared to what will be ushered in by the atomization of brands — rather than visit news organizations’ sites as destinations, I now get a huge amount of my news an article at a time, retrieved from a river of information created by my friends and peers. Forget arguing about paywalls — we better figure out how to pay for news as bits and pieces that travel, rather than as treasures locked away in destination-site vaults.
* Finally, there’s the hamster wheel. Dean thinks the years of panic are behind the news industry, but I’m not so sure about that — for panic is what keeps the hamster wheel spinning. Yes, too many journalists are stuck with a long multimedia checklist for each assignment — filing for multiple entities, chatting, commenting, promoting stories, gathering data, shooting video, doing podcasts, and so forth. All this frenetic generation of content arguably robs them of the chance to dig more deeply into stories and offer better analysis — the very things, ironically, that might make their articles signals amid the me-too noise. But I think this is less a blueprint for the future than it is a snapshot of current bad management. All of the skills on that checklist are useful, and today’s journalists should be conversant with all of them, or at least not hostile to learning. But, again, not all stories are created equal. A few stories are excellent candidates to serve as the centerpieces of packages including audio, video, data and robust debate, but most are just fine as simple articles — or short videos with minimal text, or what have you. Journalists — at least those not led by craven, unimaginative bosses — will learn to pick and choose, and regain some of their focus.
Or at least I sure hope they will.
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Since we’re talking the future of news, I’ve collected 19 of my best National Sports Journalism Center columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from Amazon, BN.com, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!