As panic over the fate of journalism in America reaches a fever pitch, I’m dismayed how much of it continues in this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dichotomy that I thought had ended with the ‘who’s a journalist’ wars. I’m still reading criticisms of bloggers who don’t do any original reporting, or reporters whose work doesn’t match their professed standards of objectivity. In my darker moments, I’ll confess to thinking sinister thoughts about cable news personalities who engorge the public with an endless stream of trivia.
As we confront what we’ve lost in the decades-long contraction of the newspaper industry, and as we begin to figure out what we needed but never had, we have to reframe this conversation in purely first-person terms. It’s our society that has to evolve a journalism ecosystem to meet its information needs. It’s a bit of a forehead-slapper to write this, but we’re all in this together, folks.
I thought about this as I read Paul Starr’s excellent report on the decline of the traditional press and Yochai Benkler’s equally excellent rebuttal. Starr’s story is peppered with a panoply of thems; each section invokes the familiar faceless hordes that have long lent authority to news accounts — “some observers,” “many journalists,” “some critics.” That trope has been the downfall of many a news story, given that it’s often used to set up either a straw man or a he-said-she-said moment. The most effective elements of Benkler’s response draw on his tendency to recast those moments with an “I,” “we” or “our.” As in, “I think we do not have good research to know whether this system is also working for local politics and potential corruption as well. This, as Starr shows, is an important area we need to study and understand.” That “we” is universal; it’s any of us. It suggests any citizen might (must!) play a role in understanding this gap.
If a central element of the undoing of the traditional press is unbundling — the diminishing power of jointly packaging advertising and news, the atomization of formerly coherent monopoly news products into info-snippets on blogs and aggregators — a central element of journalism’s renewal will be connection — our ability and responsibility to all play shifting, complementary roles in a potentially vast system of journalism.
Today I’ve seen plenty of variants on a remark about Jon Stewart’s evisceration of Jim Cramer: “Why didn’t a journalist do that?” Answer: Because the role Stewart played is no longer reserved for journalists, if it ever was. Any of us can unleash a devastating act of media criticism, as Stewart did, or re-tweet such an act where and when we find it.
In all the coverage I read about growth and development in Columbia, Mo., the most significant investigative package didn’t come from the Missourian or the Tribune. It was a pair of studies done by citizen activist and university professor Ben Londeree, conducted with all the rigor of an academic. Londeree sought an answer to the question of how much it cost Columbia to hook new developments up to water and sewer connections, roads, and other infrastructure, as compared with the fees the city exacts from developers for their projects. Working with an activist group called the Smart Growth Coalition, he surveyed 40 Midwestern cities (.doc) to get an average of similar costs and fees elsewhere, to see how Columbia stacked up. Then, he compiled a dizzying array of variables specific to Columbia to estimate a figure for the city. And he was transparent about his methodology:
Community websites were studied to obtain as much information as possible about these financing issues. Some websites either didn’t have the information needed for the survey or I was unable to locate it. The most difficult to pin down is the category of exactions for off-site infrastructure because these typically are negotiated at the time of annexation, rezoning, or plan approval.
After the website search, the data were e-mailed to each community’s CEO (mayor or city manager) to verify for accuracy and completeness. A second request was e-mailed to non-responders about four weeks later. Since many still did not reply, telephone calls were made to planning departments and public works departments with excellent cooperation. In several cases, these calls helped to identify additional fees charged by a separate entity such as the county, metropolitan districts, benefit districts, co-ops, and private utilities.
As it happened, Londeree’s studies got quite a bit of local press. The next few years would see the Smart Growth Coalition expand its profile in Columbia city government. Advocates of the coalition’s ideas have now won four out of seven seats on the City Council.
Maybe once upon a time a group of reporters would have beaten Londeree to the punch, or replicated and extended his work to give it that journalistic seal of approval. We’re not in that world anymore. Our society’s welfare will increasingly depend on citizens taking on work that ambitious, as members of non-profits, for-profits, universities, knitting clubs, and every other type of organization out there. And it will depend equally on our ability to evaluate the work not by who did it — not whether it was “us” or “them” — but by how it was done.
Ezra Klein blogged yesterday about what he calls “one of the more frustrating tensions in political journalism,” riffing off this quote from the NYT’s Matt Bai:
Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Klein makes a wonderful point:
Obviously, that doesn’t make much sense. Matt Bai’s conversations with those three Iowans would have gone fairly far towards explaining what those three Iowans thought was driving their vote. But though people don’t tell themselves that they’re tribal creatures who rationalize their attachments and make judgments based on the state of macroeconomic indicators, that explanation fits the data a lot better than anything Bai would have heard over dinner. Indeed, imagine those were Democratic Iowans. In 2004, they would have told Bai that they really believed it important to have a former war hero leading the nation in these times of peril and crisis. In 2008, that wouldn’t have been important to them at all, and instead, they’d have been more interested in a new direction and something called “change.” What people tell you about their vote often tells you a lot more about what they’ve been told about their vote than about why they’re voting the way they are.
But Bai’s piece does lay bare the journalistic tendency to prize “talking to people about stuff” over “learning about stuff.” If I call up Peter Orszag and ask him about the budget outlook, I’m “reporting.” So too if I attend a press conference and listen to other people ask Peter Orszag about the budget outlook. But if I spend a couple hours at my desk reading CBO and OMB documents, I’m not “reporting.” I’m researching. And to get an idea of how the guild distinguishes between the two, note that though a lot of journalists call themselves “reporters,” none call themselves “researchers.”
If this democracy business is going to work out in the long run, all the “us”es of world are going to have to stop sorting people into “them”s and snorting at them. That goes double for journalists.
As this all shakes out, I am confident we will emerge with a corps of individuals who claim journalism as their livelihood. Some small segment will be Sy Hersh-ian muckrakers, rock stars and outliers, stalking through shadowy worlds to singlehandedly expose untold corruptions. But many of them will be Josh Marshalls, for whom investigative journalism could not be done without a thousand engaged citizens each doing a tiny piece of it, and ten thousand more ponying up ten dollars in support of it.
Just as newspapers have lost their monopolies on their audiences, journalists have lost a monopoly on journalism. The responsibility for gathering information and evaluating it has spread throughout the citizenry. We have to figure out how to make that work. All of us. I’m confident we will.
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