…But Facts Are Sacred

A modest entreaty: less talk and more walk in the meta-journalism conversation

In an article on the Boston Phoenix’s Web site last week, Adam Reilly argued that The New York Times Company should retain its money-hemorrhaging property, the Boston Globe, and use it “as a guinea pig—in the best possible sense of the term—for all the bold innovations it might be pondering for the Times, but isn’t quite ready to undertake.” The Times and other newspapers, Reilly noted, have an interest in finding ways to monetize Web content.

So let the Globe lead the way. Tinker with micropayments, if you must; better yet, use the Globe’s new print price increase as a hook to see how much people might pay, per day/week/month, to read the Globe online. As an added plus, this experiment would show how much (allegedly) pay-to-view content would leak out to free sites under this model, and just how much web traffic from aggregators like Google News would drop as a result.

To which: yes. YES! Reilly’s modest proposal, so sensibly rooted in that quintessentially American practice—experimentation—is a far cry from the kind of fling-ideas-about approach that has characterized so much of the future-of-news conversation of late. A conversation whose funding-journalism propositions are often (though by no means always) rooted in cleverness more than evidence, in vagueness more than specificity. One that tosses ideas about without suggesting how they might be, you know, implemented—or in what commercial context. (See the kicker to David Carr’s “iTunes for News” column in The New York Times: “It sounds promising for newspapers and magazines. Now all we need is a business model to go with it.” And Jack Shafer’s response: “Actually, a flawed iTunes for news already exists: It delivers content through Amazon’s Kindle.”)

Reilly’s call-to-experimentation is, in one sense, just another entry in the fanciful meta-journalism conversation. But in another sense, it offers an antidote to the brand of magical thinking that has come to characterize so much of that discourse of late: it’s a call for us to stop articulating journalism’s future in the conditional tense, and to start doing so in the declarative. Not “we should try this,” but “we will try this.”

In our haste to elevate the theoretical, we sometimes forget the obvious: that good ideas are normatively so only insofar as they lead to good results, and that ideas more generally are useful only to the extent that they serve action. Theories are a means, not an end; a clever hypothesis that no one ever bothers to test might as well never bother to exist in the first place. Belief may create the actual fact, as William James had it; but when we fling about fanciful Monetizing Journalism proposals, as if we were characters in a bubbly Broadway musical—micropaymentsendowmentsandsubsidiesfromUncleSam, even though the sound of it won’t make the market give a damn—we serve little save our own egos.

At CJR, we’ve engaged in some of this wishful thinking, too, of course. We’ve done so in part for the same reason that others do: because—and this can’t be stressed enough—ideas are important, and creativity counts, and innovation demands ingenuity, and all that. Of course, of course. And also because crisis has a democratizing effect: no one, neither expert nor amateur, knows for sure what the future holds for journalism. The marketplace of ideas is so crowded right now—and it’s taken on such Walmart-ian proportions—because everyone’s doing the shopping. And because we are ready, at this point, to buy nearly anything that might work, to question our old assumptions about journalism’s business model and replace them with new ones. We just don’t yet know, in any precise way, what those will be. We’re a bunch of potential consumers-of-ideas, hoping for something good to invest in.

The propositional permissiveness that results from the current crisis is, in theory, noble and empowering; in practice, however, it is both frustrating and exhausting. All too often, an anything-goes mentality gives way to uninformed and untethered supposition. And whether such supposition derives from nostalgia, or anger, or utopianism, or some combination thereof, it tends, at any rate, to remain unconnected to research, reality, or any effort at implementation. (Carr: Here’s a crazy idea: iTunes for News! Shafer: Uh, that already exists.)

Experimentation—doing—James’s actual fact—is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. No longer can we afford to fling fanciful funding-model proposals at the wall, hoping (though with little reason to do so) that a few errant strands might stick. Journalism’s future cannot be entrusted to spaghetti ingenuity.

What we need instead, at this point—as another pragmatist thinker had it—is a little less conversation, a little more action. The combination, in journalism’s current meta-conversation, of conditional theory (endowments for journalism!) and evidential paucity (we have no real proof, but they just might work!) fosters a discursive atmosphere in which, finally, there is no such thing as a bad idea. Or, worse, a good one. Rather, our fanciful notions (micropayments! maybe!), condensed into discrete arguments, tend to dissipate into a steam of mutualized mediocrity, warming us for a moment, perhaps, but then vaporizing into the thin air from whence they came.

Which is not only unhelpful to journalism’s meta-analysis; it is actively harmful. The net effect of articles that rely on creative conjecture, and little else, to propose solutions for journalism’s woes is to enforce a kind of preemptive defeatism about the possibility of solving those problems. Our fanciful flings with speculation belie the true gravity of journalism’s current crisis. Each verging-on-glib proposal—stimulus bailouts for newspapers! wheeee!—serves as a subtle sanction to glibness itself. The theoretical tendencies of these propositions suggest, overall, that we can still afford the luxury of ungrounded supposition. When, in fact, we can ill afford it.

The inference-thick and evidence-thin nature of the current Whither Journalism discussion comes down, as so many things do, to money. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. And journalistic Petri dishes, even the small ones, require a hefty injection of resources, financial and otherwise. In-the-field, on-the-ground experimentation with journalistic funding models and practices has become, ironically, and with very few exceptions, the profession’s Platonic form: ideal and, for that, often unattainable.

There are many experiments being undertaken with those models—and such ventures are, it should go without saying, admirable if for no other reason than their emphasis on experimentation itself—but they also tend to be small in scope. Even in those rare instances when journalistic practitioners are able to experiment with funding strategies and new reporting techniques and the like, there remains the problem of transference to larger (and therefore, generally, more impactive) news organizations. Broad, laudable initiatives like the Knight News Challenge—and specific experiments, like GlobalPost and Voice of San Diego and MinnPost and ProPublica and the St. Louis Beacon and (the Knight-funded) Spot.Us and their counterparts, throughout the country and the world—are certainly both useful and admirable. But the twin specters of scalability and replicablity—or, more to the point, their potential absence—hover over each emergent outlet.

GlobalPost, with its carefully balanced revenue equation, may indeed prove able to sustain itself; yet, given the particularities of its business model (its staff, its audience, and certainly the overall quality of the journalism it produces), it doesn’t follow that the particular triptych of the GlobalPost’s funding strategy—advertising, syndication, reader subscription—could hang as successfully upon the altar of another. The Economist and the Journal and their happy-few counterparts in profitability may have successfully monetized content; it doesn’t follow that their funding formulas are travel-ready. Even the most successful ventures may have little net effect when it comes to capturing the great white whale that is a replicable financial model.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t keep trying to capture it; the elegance of the scientific method, after all, rests in its enforcement of duplicative revelation. It is simply to say that we need to recognize the scope of the challenges stacked up before us—and to examine them without, you know, fear or favor—so that we can fully appreciate what will be required to overcome them. Let the struggle fit the trial.

But, then, clarity of vision, as we’ve seen, tends itself to be more easily achievable in theory than in practice. It is no little irony that our thinking about journalism and its future is often compromised by our own esteem for it—by transcendental thinking about journalism itself. By the general presumption that journalistic organizations are endowed, as it were, with certain inalienable rights—enshrined socially, politically, legally—and that Journalism in the Service of a Free Society is not merely a commodity, but rather, in fact, Something More. By the kind of thinking that led Henry Luce to declare, romantically, “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world”; and that led the Baltimore Sun to select as its motto “Light For All”; and that led the Indian journalist Rupashree Nanda to declare, in a speech last year, that “journalism is the most significant human achievement…not man’s landing on the moon, or the splitting of the atom, or the Vietnam War, or communism…, it is the very simple idea of news.”

To an extent, of course, such thinking is entirely valid: journalism—in this context, the kind of civic-minded reporting we’re generally referring to when we talk about the necessity of journalism’s preservation—is both noble and necessary. It does have an aura of More-ness to it. As Tom Rosenstiel rightly pointed out to Paul Starr in the latter’s TNR treatise on watchdog journalism, if we lose our current incarnation of civic-minded journalism, “More of American life will occur in shadows. We won’t know what we won’t know.”

Put another way: we don’t know what might arise to replace what we’re losing. But we do know what we’re losing.

Magical thinking when it comes to journalism’s identity can be, to be sure, at once palliative and inspirational, attracting new and, one hopes, talented members to a profession with notoriously low pay and, increasingly, low public esteem. It can give those members—and this can hardly be underestimated—a sense of purpose. In terms of the day-to-day practice of journalism, a sacred stance is unifying and humbling and compelling. It propels journalists to strive toward a vision of their profession, and themselves within it, that is defined by ideals as much as reality. From an editorial perspective, that is to the good.

But it’s worth remembering that even transcendental thinking has roots in journalism’s terra firma—the professional culturation of the Progressive era, the pop-cultural mythologies of the post-Watergate era, the newspaper monopolization of the ’70s and ’80s, etc.—and thus is itself secular as much as sacred. And in a larger sense—in, specifically, the Venn merger of journalism’s editorial and business identities—an ethics-driven mindset enables as it ennobles. It enforces the chasm between what we rationally know about The Role of News Organizations in a Democratic Society (that they are fallible human institutions) and what we often culturally, and therefore instinctually, understand about them (that they are, somehow, more than the sum of their secular parts). Such thinking discourages us from applying scientific principles to journalism, under the assumption that journalism is not, in the end, a thing of science. It seduces us into applying moral assessments to problems that are, in the end, amoral.

Take the rather Bealeian intimations Associated Press CEO Dean Singleton expressed last week (we’re mad as hell, we’re not going to take this anymore, et cetera)—in a speech (and, later, an interview) whose discussion of paid content pulsed with moralistic undertones. Take, also, Vanity Fair’s recent profile of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., in which the tension between mythology and reality formed a running conceit through Mark Bowden’s narrative—one manifested most obviously in the person of Sulzberger himself:

Arthur is motivated, as he himself says, not by wealth but by value. He believes, to be sure, that wealth follows from value, but you can see, even as he says it, that the wealth part is not what drives him. Journalism drives him. The Times’s reputation and influence drive him. He is not just a newspaper publisher and a chairman of the board. He is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and the pride he feels in that name doesn’t have anything to do with how much is in his bank account.

Sulzberger—whose person and pedigree represent, with an almost Dickensian clarity, journalism’s past, present, and future—is in many ways an appropriate ambassador for the clash between the sacred and the secular in our thinking about journalism’s future. Indeed, one reason, Clay Shirky argues, that the Times, and newspapers in general, reacted slowly to the financial plight befalling them—besides the most obvious: that they are large institutions, and tend as such to be hindered by the weight of their own lumbering bureaucracy—was that the plight in question was, quite literally, unimaginable to them. Unimaginable in the same fuzzy-vague way that, regardless of your personal beliefs, a world without religion is unimaginable. (Living for today…ooh, ooh…) Conceiving of a world without newspapers—a world whose creative evolution would involve, essentially, the sky falling down from beneath one’s feet—would require, as Shirky had it, “thinking the unthinkable.”

Indeed. If nobody really expected that, you know, copies of the Plain Dealer would be there at the End of Days among all the cockroaches and Styrofoam packing peanuts, many of us—including, surely, newspaper executives themselves—assumed that the institution of newspaper journalism would survive the extinction of both its platform and its business model. If we’d taken it for granted that US Weekly and its ilk would survive unto the breach, ad infinitum if ad nauseam (“Cockroaches: They’re Just Like Us!”), we had also largely assumed that the civically important journalism we’ve come to rely on—in ways large and small, direct and indirect, and so myriad that we tend, as Paul Starr pointed out, to take them entirely for granted—would survive, as well. Such journalism is the good guy, after all; and the good guy can’t just die.

It can’t, at any rate, per a conception of journalism itself as something essential to civic life. “If we take seriously the notion of newspapers as a fourth estate or a fourth branch of government,” Starr noted, then “the end of the age of newspapers implies a change in our political system itself.” In this way, the public service journalism that newspapers represent, like public education, adopts the aegis of moral entitlement. Such journalism isn’t merely a commodity, the rhetoric goes; it is a public trust that, while it need not be sheltered entirely from the market’s invisible hand, should be protected, at the very least, from its middle finger.

Would that it could be. But, then, thinking that articulates itself in the subjunctive, not to mention the subjective, is rarely of much use when applied to vernacular realities. (“Since when is a business plan built on ‘should?’” Jeff Jarvis asked, quite reasonably, last week.) A moralistic mindset—when it comes to journalism’s business end, at least—hurts the discussion more than it helps it. Journalism is, after all, an industry; even at their most high-minded, newspapers are still Of The People, and all that. “You’ll miss us when we’re gone,” Clay Shirky wrote, may not be much of a business model; but neither, I’d add, is inarticulate indignation.

We need, above all, to shed our lingering romanticism when it comes to what newspapers actually mean—and what newspapers actually do. Even at their best, they aren’t transcendent. But at their best, they are something else altogether: vital. And their More-ness, such as it is, stems from their very entrenchment in our civic culture. The business models that we build to sustain the best journalism—and build them we will, I’m confident, because build them we must—have, in turn, to be divorced from our Platonic conceptions of that journalism. And from the moralistic assumptions they foster. As Robert Niles wrote in an Online Journalism Review post last week, reacting to Singleton’s intellectual-property throwdown, “News companies’ sense of entitlement regarding the news that they report is preventing them from developing the new business practices that they need to profit in an increasingly competitive information market.”

It’s fine—and laudable, and necessary—to hope for inspiration when we think about journalism’s future. But: we can’t rely on inspiration, or allow ourselves to believe that salvation, as it were, will come by faith alone. It will come, in this case, by good works: ideas borne out by action. Conceptual tenets must be a point of departure, rather than arrival. We must follow them up—test them, toy with them, tweak them, prove them, learn from them—through experimentation. Adam Reilly’s experiment-with-the-Globe proposal is a start, but we need to absorb its ethos into the news-innovation mindset itself.

It is often said that the roots of contemporary journalism lie in the Progressive era, the time in the early twentieth century when reporters shed their partisan past and adopted the professional standards that drive us, and bind us, today. But what characterized the Progressive period more than anything else—indeed, what enabled the explosion of innovation that gave it its name—was an ethos of exploit. Teddy Roosevelt, the consummate man of action, put it this way: The credit, he said,

belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.

We would do well, at this point, to put that idea, once again, to the test.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.